Liberals, it’s time to stop gazing at our navels

In a few short weeks, the election will be over and, win or lose, we will have to pick up the pieces and move on. How is that possible with all the bad blood and name-calling between the left and the right? In a word, we must have empathy for the other side.

What I am going to say, I’ve felt for a long time, alluded to in my pieces, but now have the courage to say it flat-out, buttressing my case with a recent podcast and a book.

The podcast is an interview with Arlie Hochschild about her recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right.1 In it, she accuses mainstream Democrats of living in a bubble: “There’s a rigid sort of inward-turning.” I agree: Rather than reaching out to the other side to look for common ground, we often resort to attacking our own side or debating minutia, like how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

According to Hochschild, to understand the other side, we must have empathy for their story. She says, the left and the right each have a deep story—very different from each other—for which we hold a strong emotional attachment; the stories are dream-like and told through metaphor. Because they feel right, we build our politics around them.

The deep-story for a Trump supporter “is that you’re waiting in line for the American dream that you feel you very much deserve. You’ve been waiting a long time, but the line has stopped moving. Then you see somebody cutting ahead of you.” Why are they getting special treatment?

In her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton validated this working-class, deep story by appearing to spend much of her time advocating for minorities while ignoring white working Americans. She sealed her fate when she claimed: “half of Donald Trump’s supporters belong in a ‘basket of deplorables.’”2

That quote struck a very raw nerve.

Continuing with Hochschild’s metaphor about the Trump supporters’ deep story: they felt betrayed and shamed by “someone highly educated, someone from that so-called elite…really close to the prize, or they have the prize. But they turn around and look at the others who are waiting in line and say, “Oh, you backward, Southern, ill-educated, racist, sexist, homophobic redneck…And then they felt like strangers in their own land.”

My other reference is Touré Reed’s book, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism,3 which extends sympathy to white working-class Americans from a different perspective. Reed is a third-generation African-American humanities professor and a committed progressive in the FDR/Bernie Sanders mold. Along with other black intellectuals like Dr. Cornel West, Reed believes it is a polarizing dead-end to fixate solely on our nation’s history of racism and white supremacy.

While they absolutely accept the terrible reality of America’s racial history, they argue that the problems we face today—wealth inequality, police brutality, and mass incarceration—affect white Americans as well.

As one of today’s best economists, Peter Temin has written: we are a divided country with 20 percent at the top, while, on the other side “huddled together in increasing poverty in the low wage sector, burdened with debt, struggling to pay their home mortgage… For the majority, there is no future.”4

For Reed and other black scholars in his camp, it is crystal clear that inequality has at least as much to do with class as it does with race. The way forward is to promote a broad working-class coalition that includes all workers. When such interracial solidarity is achieved, he says, as it was during the New Deal era, blacks make the most progress toward equality.

For that to happen, Reed says, we must institute a new New Deal, modeled after what President Roosevelt proposed during his final State of the Union speech in 1944, “which would establish the right to a job, a living wage, a decent home, and healthcare.5 This sounds like Bernie Sander’s platform, who, by the way, was popular with white voters who ended up voting for Trump.

We each have our deep stories, the right and the left. Perhaps, if we can muster empathy and understanding for those on the other side, we can form that interracial working-class solidarity essential to racial equality and, in the process, resurrect the American Dream.




3 Reed, Touré, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, Verso Books. Kindle Edition.


5 Reed, Touré, Toward Freedom: The Case Against Race Reductionism, (p. 3) Verso Books. Kindle Edition.

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