I want to preface this post in the same way I prefaced my recent podcast "Transcending Political Polarization with Steve McIntosh" by saying that I know that its content is provocative and controversial, and that I invite your respectful and thoughtful feedback in the comments section.
I'm struck by the way that the media, political and business "elites" keep on being surprised or shocked by the people voting in ways they can't understand. They were surprised by the rise of Donald Trump as the presumed Republican presidential candidate and they were surprised at the choice in the United Kingdom's people to leave the European Union (Brexit). It seems that they can't believe what's happening and they definitely have struggled to predict all that is unfolding. Josh Barro of the radio show Left, Right and Center said it well when he asked, if there is a "pattern of things that elites didn't want to happen and therefore convinced themselves that they wouldn't happen?" ("Brexit, What Does it Mean for the United States..." 24 June 2016.)
I think that this blind spot is due to a mis-focus of attention. The symbolism of Trump or Brexit is rich and compelling and but it is a distraction. In my opinion, in both of these cases, the thing to be paying attention to is not the person (Trump) nor the issue (Brexit). The thing to notice is that there is a huge population of people who do not feel represented by the current political status quo. It seems that they are so underrepresented that the media and political elites can barely conceptualize their existence, or how they think the way they do. Furthermore, this part of the population is trying to say that they won't put up with not being heard any more. The fear that the elites are not listening to the plight of the American working class families seems to be true.
(Yes, there is also a serious problem of various minority voices not being heard, and there is problem of progressive voices not being heard. In this post, however, I'm moving those to an endnote.*)
In the recent Brexit referendum the vote was generally split along various demographic lines. Younger, more educated, higher class and more urban populations tended to vote to stay in the EU, while the older, less educated, poor, working class and rural populations tended to vote to leave the EU. A similar demographic split seems to be playing out in U.S. politics as well with the support for Trump. Before the finger pointing takes over, I think that it's important to recognize that we all have a role to play in this story. Sure, our politics are divided, but we've also allowed this division to pour into our interpersonal relationships. We're letting ourselves get divided within our families and communities. In many cases we're affirming and enforcing the divisions in an effort to feel safe. (See: my recent blog post about this.) I've heard too often people express fear about discussing the state of the world with their parents, colleagues and friends, the ones they are actually connected with. There are not enough open lines of communication between the various perspectives in our society. We're drifting apart and we're not listening to each other. Or as my friend Jesse summarizes conflict, everyone wants to be heard so much that we've stopped listening to one another.
I'm going to take this topic on in three parts. First, I want to validate the fear that the political, business and media elites are out of touch with the average citizens of their countries. Second, I want to acknowledge the sense that people are getting left behind in this process. Finally, I want to apply my three rules of conflict as a tool for understanding what's happening and what concerned people might do in response to this situation.
I'm Not Represented
I think that it is important to acknowledge the fact that there are a lot of voices that are underrepresented in our current mainstream political and business culture. This lack of representation is a concern for people across the political spectrum. There is the fear that "Main Street" is overshadowed by Wall Street. The working class and the average American is underrepresented in a globally focused political system. (Minority and progressive voices too. See endnote) The political representatives that have claimed to care for the interests of "average Americans" have not followed through, or have only succeeded in playing an obstructionist role to policies they don't agree with. The politicians and business leaders and media all seem to out of touch with what the day-to-day lives of people is about. (This On the Media story about the historical oppression of and pandering to poor white communities captures this idea well.)
In his book Rebooting Democracy Manual Arriaga begins by laying out "Ten Reasons why Politicians Fail to Represent Us (and Always Will)." It's a great list and you can find it here. For now I want to highlight reason #9: The political class is not demographically representative of the general population. He goes on to say, "As one might expect, this huge gap between the life conditions of our rulers and the reality inhabited by large parts of the population means that it is very difficult for politicians to even grasp the consequences of many of their decisions on the lives of citizens. And if merely grasping those consequences is already that hard, then it is virtually hopeless that politicians would be able to experience the empathy required to fully gauge the consequences of their decisions." (p. 21)
When one is surprised at the rise of Donald Trump, the thing we need to understand is that the people finally see someone calling "bullshit" on the government. He likely can't deliver on his promises and he definitely doesn't represent any average American, but at least he's speaking in a way that seems to reflect their feelings.
Am I Special?
The working class populations have been disproportionately hurt by the arc of politics and globalization over the last decades. Industry in the United States, United Kingdom (and other "developed" countries) has taken a serious hit (see: Detroit), and there is an drive towards global and cultural diversity that is ready to forget rodeos, apple pie and the pride of being a soldier or responsible gun owner. It's perplexing why working class people would support the republican party when its elites tend to care much more about business interests than the plight of the working poor. One reason they have been so successful, however, is that republicans are the last voices to say that the average American is special. That the United States is special. That national values are still important.
Recently, I was talking about how, when observed from abroad, the United States is no longer appearing exceptional. Instead it looks like a country that is ineffective and divided. It also is becoming clear that the era where white and European culture rules the world is coming to an end. The 1900s saw the rise of US. American dominance. This century, however, will see the United States become simply a player in the international community. The future will continue to be more diverse and pluralistic.
The person I was talking too, asked me in a panic, "Is it okay for me to want to feel special?" She fretted that Obama and the progressive left have been super focused on showing our national flaws and how we are just one among many nations. She longed for someone to affirm that it is okay to be proud of being an American. She longed for someone to affirm that she was special. Indeed, I'd say that everyone longs to be able to be proud of who they are. I do.
So when we look at what we see unfolding in politics right now. It's worth looking past Trump's fact-bereft politics and the economic dangers of Brexit and pay attention to the voice that has been marginalized that is starting to scream, "What about me? No one seems to care about my fears! Can't I just be proud of my country again?" This nationalistic and conservative voice is asking us to not forget the history and heritage that got us to where we are. The current manifestations of this may be rooted in fear, reactivity and outright racism at times, but there is part of the voice that does need to be heard. To be able heal and progress we do need to care about all the voices. We can't go boldly marching forward into a pluralistic globalized society and leave half of our nation behind. We will need to carry forward the parts of our history and ourselves that we're proud of if we hope to build a sustainable future with reliable foundations.
Lessons from The Three (Four) Rules of Conflict.
These last years I developed what I call the three rules of conflict. I want to apply them here to see if they help us understand what's happening in politics today.
1. The conflict is never about what the conflict is about.
As I laid out above, this is not about Donald Trump or Brexit, it's about a chunk of the population that is afraid of losing their identity. There is a fear that foundational values and traditions are under threat. There is a universal and ever-present tension between the desire to change and the desire to stay the same. It's at the core of all political debate and conflict that I can think of. For many reasons conservative people fear that progressive voices don't care about them, and that is an existential threat. The heart of this conflict then asks us how we achieve a truly inclusive culture that both looks forward and holds onto traditions.
2. Whoever is not involved in the resolution of a conflict will find a way to involve themselves on their own terms.
There seems to be a desire to ignore or discount the voices that are angry about immigration, gun rights and national identity. Many of the voices are so offensive and triggering that it's hard to hear them at all. I've even heard people argue that these voices should be excluded that they are uneducated and racist. Nonetheless, it is not possible to get rid of voices that we don't want to hear. The 2nd rule of conflict reminds us that if they are excluded from the conversation they will get involved on their own terms. That's exactly what's happening. These voices have leveraged the political system to get a candidate that finally seems to give them a voice (in the U.S.) and to claim independence from that E.U. government in Brussels (in the U.K.). The republican establishment has now lost control of its platform, and after watching the U.K. population vote to leave the European Union we must open to the possibility that the wave of voices could carry Trump all the way to the presidency. The anger about Clinton's apparent incapacity to represent average Americans and high capacity to represent business interests is palpable across the political spectrum.
So, the choice seems to be between ignoring voices and losing control, on one hand, and striving to hear and incorporate the wisdom of the voices, on the other. This brings us to the third rule of conflict.
3. The process of managing a conflict and the outcome are the same.
The liberal and progressive project is rooted in the idea of inclusion. It urges us to look beyond our own race, culture, nationality, gender and species, and it invites us to see ourselves as a part of a greater tapestry of life and humanity. It asks us to see the fact that our way of life is not the only one, and all ways are important or have a place. There is a catch, however, the true umbrella of inclusivity must extend to include everyone, including those who don't want to be inclusive. As John Paul Lederach says in The Moral Imagination, it requires "the capacity to imagine ourselves in a web of relationships, one that includes even our enemies."
The point that I want to make here is that if we want to build a strong and inclusive society, we need to have a strong and inclusive process to do so. The future of the United States will need to include the people who are passionate about their country and American identity. We absolutely need to acknowledge and make amends for some of the horrors that the U.S. has inflicted on the world (eg: slavery and colonialism), and we need to address the horrible things we are doing right now (eg: environmental destruction and economic imperialism), but we can't do that at the expense of national pride and patriotism. Furthermore those who are focused on celebrating U.S. American leadership in the world, will similarly need to recognize that true leadership requires change, inclusion and humility. These are profound paradoxes that we need to learn to navigate.
In today's political climate it is almost impossible to imagine how there can be any dialogue across the polarized political field, but that is what we are being invited to do. If we don't want our respective countries to rip apart, then this process of raising our voices must also be a process where we learn to listen to one another. There simply isn't much of a choice.
And just to keep it real I'm adding a fourth rule of conflict:
4. There will never be a final outcome.
As much as we'd like to settle these questions once and for all (perhaps in an election or referendum), the truth is that this isn't a question that we can resolve, it is a system to be managed. The dynamic tension between left and right, conservative and progressive, nationalism and globalism will always be with us. Neither will ever win over the other, so we need to start thinking about being intentional in this process. We can choose to make this process generative, ensuring that the best of both sides is carried forward and the shadows of each side are minimized. Or we can choose a degenerative path where each side continues to escalate their voice (shadows and all) while trying to shout down the other. We just can't afford to continue ignoring those we don't agree with. We can't change others perspectives either. We can, however, change how we relate to each other.
In my opinion, it all comes back to healthy individuals, families and communities. What would it take for us to accept folk as they are? How can we better listen to and affirm the hopes, fears and dreams of one another? How can we strengthen ourselves to be able to open to others in all of their difference?
(In case you still have hope that one side will prevail, I want to direct your attention to research by John Hibbing that shows that liberal and conservative views might be a biological predisposition. We might not be able to change the way we think. Here's an interview about that, and here's a test you can take to determine your political predisposition.)
*It is super important to point out that there are many marginalized voices that are not central in our national discourse. There are important minority communities whose voices are being ignored. They range from immigrants, people of color and religious minorities to LGBTQ folk, women and children. Oppression is real. Institutional racism is real. Prejudice, homophobia, xenophobia and sexim are real. There are a lot of voices that we don't hear. (As an example of a voice that is marginalized, I was touched by this piece where a gay muslim discusses his reaction the Orlando shooting.)
Progressive voices are also ignored by mainstream politics, business and media in very important ways. The surprise of the success of Bernie Sanders' campaign highlights the fact that there is a large piece of the population that feels like it's progressive voice is not represented in mainstream politics and is actively ignored, and for the most part, that perception is true. There are people who are fighting very hard for us to pay attention to the dangers of climate change, our addiction to oil and runaway capitalist growth.
I'll also say, that privileged white male U.S. American voices have historically taken up disproportionately more space than any voices. There is important work that we all need to do to make sure that representation is equitable across all races, classes, genders and creeds. It is imperative that we all create that space, but we can't do that at the expense of anyone. We are all in this together.
Whether one comes from the Tea Party movement, the Libertarian movement, the Occupy movement or the Black Lives Matter movement, everyone seems to agree that the government is failing to represent the interests of large swaths of the population. Across the board there is a growing disdain for mainstream, moneyed interests. As long as these voices don't feel heard they will continue to raise a ruckus and we should stop being surprised by that.