Shouting Across the Divide: Issues for the Democrats with Building Bridges to Voters

praying-for-trump
The Democratic Party, if it is to regain political standing and to be an authentic party of the people, must go further left. If exit polls from the 2016 election are any indication, though, they’ll need the help of those on the right as well. What’s the issue with that? Some of those more conservative voters may not be willing to listen, too consumed by adherence to ideological positions and visions of “taking back” their country. (Photo Credit: Reuters)

As I feel it must be reiterated, mostly because the Democratic Party doesn’t seem to be able to allow it to fully sink in, the Democrats have had their electoral asses handed to them of late. Despite Hillary Clinton winning the popular vote by close to 3 million votes, they lost the 2016 presidential election at large to Donald Trump. In the Senate, they enjoyed a net gain this November of only two seats, and thus still trail Republicans 52 to 46 (two U.S. Senators identify as independents: Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Angus King of Maine). In the House of Representatives, they gained six whole seats, which sounds good until you realize there are 435 congressional districts and the GOP also has a lead here, 247 to 188. It gets worse. In terms of governorships, Democrats preside over only 16 states, with Bill Walker of Alaska being considered an independent. Roughly speaking, the Republican Party has a two-to-one advantage in this regard. And Lord knows what the situation is like at the county and local levels, but chances are the larger overall trend doesn’t bode well for the Democratic Party as the scope of provinciality narrows.

In light of this all-around political beatdown, how do the Democrats begin to try to regain a foothold at the various levels of government? Do they try to argue that their party is one of inclusiveness and moral rectitude, and hope that distinguishing themselves from the GOP in these regards will allow them to carry the day, especially as President Trump and his administration implodes (no guarantee, but they already show signs of cracking)? Tempting as it sounds, this doesn’t seem to be enough, and certainly wasn’t sufficient for them to garner the W in the general election. A critical part of the solution, as many see it, is for the Democratic Party to become bolder and to allow itself to be touched by an authentic progressive spirit. The popularity of the likes of the aforementioned Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth “She Persisted” Warren from Massachusetts, in particular, among young liberals and independents would seem to indicate the party needs to attract talent that not only reflects the identity of the electorate in terms of ethnic, gender and religious diversity, but a willingness to combat the entrenchment of moneyed interests in state and national politics and to level the playing field for voters and candidates across demographic groups. Other progressive stances which are seen as vital to this effort and thus necessary for the Dems to embrace include a stronger commitment to combatting climate change, a unified front on protecting and respecting the values of minority groups, including those of Native American Indian tribes, and a more pronounced shift toward principles of democratic socialism, namely that of a Medicare-for-all/single-payer health care system.

In short, a partial answer to the question of, “Where do the Democrats go from here?” seems to be, “Left.” That is, further left then Hillary Clinton and other establishment politics might have otherwise been willing to go, especially prior to the presidential election. This begs a follow-up question to the answer, assuming it is, in fact, a correct partial answer: “Is moving purely left of center enough?” If exit polls from November are any indication, perhaps not. Where Hillary Clinton fared well, according to CNN polls, perhaps is no surprise. A 54% majority of female votes were “with her,” as were people under the age of 45 by similar percentages. Clinton also fared significantly better than Donald Trump with non-whites, people with annual incomes under $50,000, unmarried respondents, and those who reported their identity as Jewish, Muslim, or belonging to some other religion. By contrast, Hillary did not fare as well among voters 45 and over, among whites, among less educated voters, among married people, especially men, among veterans, and among Christians—Protestants, Catholics, Mormons, other branches of Christianity, you name it. While Clinton’s gender may be a bit of a confounding factor here, especially with respect to the sex of the poll respondents, on other dimensions, the other disadvantages she faced likely speak to challenges Democrats face as a whole and will continue to have to address in coming elections.

Concerning the concept of going further left, for the Democratic Party, seeing as progressivism is related to liberalism, and in the present-day context, is somewhat of a more extreme version of it, or perhaps liberalism carried to its logical next point, as exemplified by the jump from ObamaCare to a single-payer health care and insurance system, adopting positions that appeal to independents would seem like a relatively easy task. Through collaboration with Bernie Sanders’s surrogates and supporters, Hillary Clinton and her team crafted a party platform in advance of the election that both sides could champion as the most progressive in the modern history of the party, although lacking in several respects, notably failing to support a $15 minimum wage, not coming out strongly in opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade deals, proving silent on the issue of deportation, rejecting the Medicare-for-all paradigm, not going far enough on legalization of marijuana, and doing little to address the bloated U.S. military budget. Then again, this shift away from center may be easier said than done, especially in light of the influence of money and lobbying from industries and business leaders in establishment politics. For instance, someone like Cory Booker, Democratic Party darling from my home state and someone I generally support, is principled enough, but when it comes to, say, a bill or amendment which would allow Americans to buy prescription drugs from Canada at a cheaper rate, his vote against the measure makes sense when you consider he has accepted the most money from the pharmaceutical industry of any Senate Democrat in the past six years. It is oft said that money talks, and in the sphere of politics, this is time and again achingly apparent.

Reaching across the aisle, meanwhile, presents its own challenges. Going back to the 2016 presidential race, even if Hillary Clinton were to try to extend a proverbial olive branch to those on the right, if she didn’t in the same breath negate her sincerity with her infamous “basket of deplorables” comment, she likely would have had many die-hard Republicans firing up chainsaws at the sight of that olive branch. Even after the election, the non-politicians among us, too, are wont to struggle with “bridging the cultural divide,” as much as detractors on both sides of the aisle accuse their counterparts opposite them of divisiveness. Susan Shaw, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University, recently penned a very considerate piece expressing her frustrations in trying to understand and communicate with white Christian Trump supporters, as we know, a pivotal source of strength for Donald Trump in the election. Shaw, a self-identifying progressive, expresses her alienation from the religious right as someone who grew up within this environment:

My white, conservative Christian upbringing had told me that was the American Dream—to work hard and succeed. I did, and I feel you’re holding it against me now that I no longer share your views. I think you must imagine the liberal elite as East Coast, Ivy League-educated, trust fund babies completely out of touch with how most people live. Sure, some faculty members grew up with money. Some went to Ivy League schools. But a lot of us professors were you—working class kids who did whatever it took to get a college education. Along the way, a lot of us developed progressive ideas, not out of our privilege, but out of our own experiences of discrimination, struggle and oppression.

Shaw’s description of the source of her progressivism within the context of “discrimination, struggle and oppression” admittedly makes more sense coming from her than someone like me, a white male in a suburban middle-class household. In this regard, I suppose the extent of hardships we face is always relative—someone, somewhere has it worse. Regardless of who has the more “legitimate” claim to progressive ideals, if there is such a thing, Prof. Shaw appears to indicate that such a political orientation is buoyed by experience with the kinds of disparities, injustices and problems progressivism seeks to address. In other words, while their social critics—professional and amateur alike—demean liberals as delusional, soft and unable to cope with the “real world,” Susan Shaw speaks to the notion that individuals on the left and far left are rather resilient, strong, capable people, and what’s more, they may be better in tune with reality than those who preach the very virtue of cold realism.

In defending so-called “out of touch” liberal elites like herself, Shaw also takes her target audience—at least in name—to task for their apparent tone-deafness. As she remarks in cutting fashion, “We really do know a lot about what we’re talking about, and we have something to offer in a real conversation across our differences (including the East Coast Ivy Leaguers who aren’t as out of touch as you may think). But I don’t think you want to hear us or me.” Thinking along these lines, much of the rest of Shaw’s open letter to white Christian Trump supporters reads like a list of grievances. The reasons why she feels this distance from them, despite her upbringing, include the following:

1. You call people “sore losers” and tell them to “get over” Trump winning, but this is because you don’t have as much to lose as other Americans.

As Susan Shaw explains, for all the talk of who’s “winning” and “losing,” the policies enacted by the new administration aren’t a game to many Americans. President Trump has made his intention clear to support “religious freedom,” and in doing so, has put protections for the LGBT community in the crosshairs. With the White House pushing for the Muslim ban despite its unconstitutionality, and ICE agents rounding up undocumented immigrants regardless of whether or not they violate criminal laws, gloating over an electoral victory belies the sense of fear people are feeling in response to Trump’s agenda. It’s at best insensitive, and at worst, unnecessarily hateful and cruel.

2. You’re blaming the wrong people for your own grievances.

Shaw identifies an attitude of discontentment among Trump supporters that they don’t get what they deserve or that someone who doesn’t deserve what they have has taken what is theirs. The cited cause often is illegal immigration. You know the refrains. “They’re taking our jobs.” “They’re stealing our benefits.” No, they’re not. The real problem is an economic system that pits workers against one another and, as Shaw terms it, “limits their work and financial security.” For all the bluster about “illegals” committing violent crimes, it is white-collar crime and conditions which lend themselves to widening income and wealth inequality which truly depress the upward mobility of the “other 99%.”

3. You keep promoting “fake news.”

And no, not the CNN kind. Susan Shaw is talking about, as much of an oxymoron it may sound, real “fake news.” Here’s Ms. Shaw again in her own words:

You say you want progressives to listen to you. Then prioritize truth. This election was filled with “fake news,” shared widely on Facebook, and this administration already has begun to create a language of “alternative facts” to misinform and mislead. If you want to talk, offer evidence, real evidence based on verifiable data and reliable sources, not wishful imaginings or fabricated Breitbart stories. An internet meme is not an informed and legitimate point of argument that facilitates dialogue. We’ve reached a point where you’d rather believe an overt lie if it supports a belief you already hold than pursue the truth if it might challenge your currently held belief.

Shaw goes on in the same thought to point out the apparent hypocrisy in upholding the Bible as a book of truths and, at the same time, believing in or, at the very least, sanctioning a lie such as the White’s House version of the comparative sizes of Donald Trump’s Inauguration crowd and those of Barack Obama for both of his presidential victories, when simple visual evidence tells the true story. The principal conflict herein, then, would seem to exist between personal beliefs and gut feelings, and logic and verifiable evidence, an ideological struggle that has manifested in the interplay of faith and science for centuries. And maybe Susan Shaw and people like myself are again betraying a liberal, elitist bias, but seriously—people need to learn how to choose and cite their f**king sources. It’s one thing if you didn’t get in the habit of doing so if you never went to college, but be that as it may, it’s still important to ascertain the reliability of vital information.

4. You celebrate a man whose commitment to Christian values is, ahem, highly questionable.

Donald Trump is clearly no saint and no Jesus. Not even close. Even the most devoted Trump supporters are liable to agree on this point, which makes it that much more mystifying how Christian Trump supporters try to reconcile his actions and beliefs with that of the teachings of the Bible. Dude has either condoned within his base and staff, or participated himself in, acts/speech of anti-Semitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny, racism, and sexism. Old “Two Corinthians” Trump even made fun of a disabled reporter. That’s f**ked up.

Aside from this, Shaw also takes issue with the idea that the religious right insists on “religious freedom,” except if you happen to be anything other than a heterosexual Christian, which would make our nation only more religiously constrained as a result. Not to mention it was never our Founding Fathers to make this a purely Christian nation. America is meant to be a melting pot and a land which respects tolerance for all faiths. As Henry Drummond quips in Inherit the Wind, “The Bible is a book. It’s a good book, but it is not the only book.” Amen, brother.

5. You claim to be “pro-life,” but you’re really just “anti-choice.”

The most plausible reason I can see that Christians, especially evangelicals, would be willing to support Trump over Hillary Clinton despite the former failing to confirm with Christian values on the whole, is that they support the man for his position on one or more particular issues with a religious tint. Perhaps it is his rejection of Muslims. Perhaps it is because he chose Mike Pence for his running mate. Or maybe, just maybe, it is his pro-life stance, a more recent “evolution” of his political and social ideologies. Susan Shaw, undoubtedly concerned with matters of abortion and birth control as a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, takes specific umbrage to this holier-than-thou mentality from conservative religious types. She puts forth her arguments pretty tidily as such:

To cling to overturning Roe v. Wade as the only way to end abortions is a fantasy based on ideology rather than medical science and social science, and it flies in the face of the evidence for what is successful. So the real question is are you more interested in actual effectiveness in lowering abortion rates or ideological purity? We can lower abortion rates together but not by denying women choices over their own bodies. We can be effective together by listening to the data and working together to ensure all women have access to contraception, education, and social and economic resources. Are you willing to have that conversation?

Denying women access to abortions and reproductive health services, as Shaw argues, is not going to stop them from having abortions, or trying to take matters into their own hands. Not only does this obviously still put the baby at risk, though, but it endangers the pregnant woman as well. Conservative Christians seem to want their cake and eat it too, i.e., they want to prevent abortions but they also want to prevent women from having access to birth control and contraceptives. Right—we get it—there’s abstinence. But this is unrealistic for many, not to mention it assumes real romantic feelings can’t exist for teenagers and young adults who lack the income to pay for contraception out of pocket. Either way, it’s governance based on religious conservatism and a strict morality thrust upon Americans within a sphere that should be reserved for secular applications. Besides, for those “pro-lifers” who would seek the unalienable rights of the fetus upheld only to turn around and demand the state-sponsored killing of someone convicted of a heinous crime, it kind of throws a wrench in the whole idea of the sanctity of human existence, ya know?


In closing, Susan Shaw communicates two critical points. The first is that on the subject of simply “agreeing to disagree,” much like Trump supporters reproaching his critics for being sore losers, it is not as if the areas affected by the President’s policy decisions are some sort of game or part of some abstract theoretical exercise. Real lives are affected by what President Trump says and does, and thus agreeing to disagree is unacceptable for those with a conscience or stake in what is decided. The second isn’t so much a point as much as a series of questions to the religious right, once more expressed in a spirit of desperation:

We need to talk, and I don’t know how to talk to you anymore. I need to know, is it more important to you to win than to do good? Or can we build coalitions? Listen to science? Rely on real evidence? Be effective? Put the needs and rights of all others above ideologies? Can we live the love of God we claim? You want me to hear and understand you. I get that. I also want you to hear and understand the rest of the world that is not you or your kind. Because they too are God’s people and therefore are in the circle of those whom we must love. You taught me that when I was a child. If we can agree on that now, we have a place to start.

The Bible teaches, “Love thy neighbor.” The Declaration of Independence asserts, “All men are created equal.” And yet, the mood and tone struck by the Trump administration tell us to fear our neighbor, and to reject those who are not like us as inferior. If these words which are supposed to mean so much to conservatives and/or Christians are not observed, how are we supposed to have a honest conversation between individuals on both sides of the political aisle? How are we on the “godless” left supposed to understand those holy rollers who don’t quite practice what they preach? Shaw rightly believes that if those on both sides can’t agree that all the world’s people are God’s people and must be loved as such, we as a nation can’t even begin to bridge the divide. In doing so, she provides no answers, and only searches for them—because realistically she can’t provide them. Those of us searching for answers in our own right are met with the same difficulties.

Of course, this doesn’t imply that the Democratic Party shouldn’t try to expand both left and right of center if it is to grow stronger and to make a dent in its minority political status across the American landscape. Nonetheless, little progress will be made on this front unless authentic receptivity is felt on both sides to listen to what the other is saying. It has also been said that “everyone is forgiven by God, but not everyone is saved.” From a political standpoint, the fear exists that this may be true of some members of the general electorate as well.

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