Revisiting a Central Puzzle of Democracy and of Current U.S. Politics

One of the enduring enigmas of Donald Trump’s presidency is the strong support he continues to receive from white working-class voters who live in rural areas that have suffered catastrophic economic decline in recent decades as globalization has proceeded and the character of the United States economy has changed. Trump has enjoyed that following even as he has embraced policy positions and taken regulatory steps antithetical to the interests and welfare of those offering it. In any case, the evidence suggests that the nation’s thoroughly globalized knowledge-driven economy will continue to be based in its largest cities and that those urban centers are no longer tied tightly to the hinterland, as once they were, to produce the goods and services they create.[1] Meanwhile, a disproportionate share of Trump devotees resides in just such rural and non-urban areas. Today’s growing cities are connected to similar cities around the globe, and while the wealth they are creating is staggeringly large, those developing the innovations resulting in that income are not sharing it via co-production with Appalachia’s unemployed miners, or the struggling fishing-dependent families of Maine or the often-unemployed timber workers of the Northwest. Nor, are they providing it to many other hard-hit communities in the Midwest that have lost their traditional manufacturing economic base. As a result, a share of the citizens of those jurisdictions who have suffered swift negative economic change have all but lost hope and have become willing to resent the “elites” in the nation’s wealthy large cities and see those urban residents as depriving them of their livelihoods and viewing their declining way of life with condescension. Here is how an Associated Press reporter, Claire Galofaro, visiting Sandy Hook, a small (population 678) once thriving, but now economically reeling coal mining community in Eastern Kentucky, made this point and suggested its political implications recently:

Despite the President’s [Trump’s] dismal approval ratings and lethargic legislative achievements, he remains popular here in this small isolated county located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. … Trump doesn’t shoulder the blame [for their community’s continuing travails] because the allegiance to him is as emotional as it is economic. It means God, guns, patriotism. It means tearing down the political system that neglected them in favor of cities that feel a world away.[2]

This perspective suggests that Washington politicians and the denizens of large cities allowed devastating economic change to happen to this population and then sneered at those mired in its terrible effects. More, these rural citizens are willing to accept Donald Trump’s claims that elected officials and urban Americans adopted those shifts to reap profit for themselves and to help “others” (foreign powers, immigrants and people of color). Those individuals who buy into Trump’s assertions also believe that there are simple answers to the economic situation they find themselves confronting that Trump may realize by sheer force of will. Scapegoating cities as “cesspools,” as Trump and these followers have done, is not new to American politics; nor is the President’s xenophobia novel in United States history, nor, sadly, is his racism new. Each of these forms of appeal has nevertheless plainly struck a chord with many residents of these hard-hit communities.

These individuals continue vigorously to support a President embracing these ugly and false claims even as he has proposed eliminating the health care insurance support on which many of them depend, and has continued to work to undermine it when his effort to eliminate it failed. In addition, they follow a man who has proposed shuttering the national programs that have been crucial to such efforts as have occurred to generate alternative economies in their communities. More, many in this population support a chief executive who has lied to them consistently on matters large and small and who recently cheered his Party’s effort to enact a massive tax reduction that will disproportionately favor corporations and the nation’s most wealthy (the imagined evil doers Trump is supposedly otherwise combating) while adding more than $1 trillion to the country’s deficit during the next decade. And they cheer a leader whose party representatives have suggested that a large tax cut was important principally because GOP donors wanted it and had threatened not to continue to give to election campaigns if it did not occur. Finally, neither Trump nor his party have explained what they could actually do to “bring the old jobs back” in Appalachia and elsewhere, other than to scapegoat others for their loss, even as they propose depriving those affected of public support. Given these confounding facts, it is more than puzzling why anyone residing in these areas would believe Trump’s claims, let alone cleave to him emotionally as a beacon of hope.

Yet, according to recent national Gallup polling, roughly 37 percent of Americans support Trump.[3] It is clear that a solid share of those individuals believe his assertions and they see his narcissism and finger-pointing nativism and racism as bracing and confirmation that he is “fighting” for them, even as all empirical evidence suggests he is not. The puzzle, as Galofaro learned when visiting Kentucky, is discerning how this can be so. While I am sure some affected Americans desire simple explanations for what is occurring in their towns and/or are content to embrace xenophobia and racism as palliatives, I am equally certain that a share of Trump’s supporters are not simply racists or white nationalists. Rather, the President’s followers in places like Sandy Hook appear to be separating Trump from his expressed ideas and, indeed, from the GOP even as, ironically, he has embraced that Party’s ideological disposition to redistribute income upward and to reduce government support for their communities at a time they most require such assistance. Perhaps, as Galofaro found, the attachment for many is emotional and they want desperately to believe someone who promises magically to control global change and recreate the ways of life they once knew.

I suspect all of these “explanations” contain some truth. And I do not doubt that other rationales and rationalizations (a very different, but relevant point) may also be helpful as ways to understand these voters’ behavior. Lately, I have been reflecting on the power and character of political communication as a significant shaping factor in Trump’s support among the white working class in depressed communities. I do not mean to reference the by now well-known phenomenon of “narrow casting” or “echo chamber” communication, in which individuals may select such information outlets as they find accord with their ideological or other predispositions due to the explosion of sources of information and the availability of what are, in many cases, essentially propaganda outlets for specific groups and causes, including for Trump. This shift in the structure of mass communications is vitally important, but I want here instead to point to the critical role of an assumption or disposition that underpins all of human communication that British theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has highlighted.

Williams has suggested that freedom ultimately depends on the fact that another person gives you an opportunity to respond by listening to you, even when that individual is prepared only to disagree with you.[4] In plain terms, the fact that he or she is listening provides an opportunity for you to speak. Were they not offering you such consideration, your language literally could have no effect and no meaning. In this way, language creates space for democratic possibility through the antecedent condition of listening required for dialogic exchange. But this freedom is not absolute, as one’s speech must be recognizable and intelligible to the other if they are to listen meaningfully. That is, mutual human interdependence presupposes and demands a prior condition of intelligibility for all of its exchange. As theologian and political thinker John Courtney Murray remarked nearly 60 years ago,

… Barbarism likewise threatens when men cease to talk together according to reasonable laws. There are laws of argument, the observance of which is imperative if discourse is to be civilized. Argument ceases to be civil when it is dominated by passion and prejudice; when its vocabulary becomes solipsist, premised on the theory that my insight is mine alone and cannot be shared; when dialogue gives way to a series of monologues; when the parties to the conversation cease to listen to one another, or hear only what they want to hear, or see the other’s argument only through the screen of their own categories… When things like this happen, men cannot be locked together in argument. Conversation becomes merely quarrelsome or querulous. Civility dies with the death of dialog.[5]

That is, if the “other” in this metaphoric conversation does not or cannot countenance your communication on the basis of a prior acknowledgement of your right to offer it, the very possibility of freedom may enervate and turn, at its extremes, either into a hardened state of sullen silence or a cacophony of competing claimants shouting into an abyss. Either of these situations ends the possibility for human freedom, as it imagines that construct to be the result of an atomistic act, which it cannot be, as there must always be others with whom one must interact in society in order to be fully alive and fully human. Indeed, freedom may not exist without an acknowledgement that its realization depends on others. Even to imagine other possibilities is to depart from reality into fantasy and to mar the prospect for both freedom and democracy in so doing.

In short, as a share of Trump’s supporters adopt his arguments that “others” have willingly and knowingly placed them in their difficult economic straits, and forswear at the same time an inclination to acknowledge more complex or alternative explanations for the challenges they are experiencing, they relinquish the possibility of democracy itself. Even as today’s canalized news feeds this propensity among citizens, it is this step to refuse to recognize alternate lenses and views that imperils freedom. It is this disposition, too, that provides Trump leeway and capacity to attack freedom of speech and of the press and to lie repeatedly to his supporters concerning the purport of his and his party’s actions for their communities and daily lives.

Trump has argued that this proclivity among his followers cannot be changed, and that he could shoot someone on a central New York City street and his supporters would countenance his behavior. Perhaps, but if so, we are witnessing the death knell of the possibility of freedom itself among this segment of our nation’s population. To say this possibility is perversely ironic and paradoxical is to understate reality, as, for the most part, no portion of America’s citizenry is more beleaguered, more innocent of the conditions that created their predicament or more desirous of serving the larger cause of their nation.

This analysis points up the central significance of the fact that, as Aristotle long ago argued, humans are innately social animals. It also underscores how misleading and problematic for freedom the modern capitalist and liberal idea that they are automatons can be. And it suggests the importance of leader intentionality for the health of democratic institutions. Given humanity’s propensity to desire simple narrative explanations for all that befalls it, elected leaders can seek to exploit that tendency and tap into the fear and emotion that crave such simplicities and provide succor to hate and to “othering.” Alternatively, they may seek to help those citizens understand their situations for what they are and address them as best they can as a people united in their shared desire for freedom. While intentionality is a necessary, but not sufficient condition to secure democratic freedom, attacking that social construct’s fundaments, as Trump continues to do, can only harm those moved by such arguments and impair our regime’s capacity to ensure it for all of our citizens. The sad and self-damaging predicament of Trump’s “base,” as his most ardent adherents are so often labeled, illustrates both the profundity of this democratic imperative and the difficulty of achieving it when elected leaders pursue power or self-aggrandizement or any other aim in lieu of a sincere search for the public weal.

 

Notes

[1] Badger, Emily. “What Happens when the Richest U.S. Cities Turn to the World?” The New York Times, December 22, 2017, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/12/22/upshot/the-great-disconnect-megacities-go-global-but-lose-local-links.html?_r=0 Accessed December 22, 2017.

[2] Galofaro, Claire, “Base Maintains Connection with Trump,” The Roanoke Times, December 27, 2017, p. A-5, Accessed December 27, 2017.

[3] Gallup Organization, “Presidential Approval Ratings—Donald Trump,” http://news.gallup.com/poll/203198/presidential-approval-ratings-donald-trump.aspx Accessed December 30, 2017.

[4] Williams, Rowan. Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction, Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2011, pp.1-14.

[5] Murray, John Courtney, “We Hold these Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, John Courtney Murray, 1960.” Harvard University: The Pluralism Project, http://pluralism.org/document/we-hold-these-truths-catholic-reflections-on-the-american-proposition-john-courtney-murray-1960/ Accessed December 30, 2017.