Mind the Gap

by Helen Griffiths; illustration by Anna Gilbertson

I hang up after the 50th call of the day and mark a check by the running column we have under “Protest the appointment of Steve Bannon.” The phone rings again.

“You’ve reached Senator Michael Bennet’s office. How may I help you today?” I answer in a voice almost as automated as a machine’s.

“If Bannon is in the White House, then no Democrat should work with any Republicans!” announces the caller. “Do to them what they did to Obama for eight years! The Senator should quit or boycott, but there is no way my representative is signing on to any bill a Republican proposes if Republicans don’t stand up and demand that Bannon stay out.” The caller hangs up.

I record another check in our column and take a break. Walking outside, I find myself in the midst of a group of protestors. They wear red baseball caps and hold signs: “Get government out of my Medicare!”

The irony is painful.

That protest confirms what I have felt ever since reading Thomas Frank’s book, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” Frank argues that Republicans vote against their own economic and political interests. Republicans, he says, employ hot-button social issues to redirect anger towards liberal elites and away from economic issues that would support the working class. By mobilizing voters on social issues, Republicans can proceed to undermine unions, cut welfare, slash Social Security, abandon labor law protections, deregulate industry and gut taxation on the wealthy. 

Sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild concurs with Frank in her book, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Hochschild examines why those with limited education and failing roads support politicians who cut federal spending. Similarly, she examines why those who live in polluted environments oppose the EPA. Hochschild interviewed Harold Areno, who lives on land where toxic waste had been improperly disposed. Though both Areno and his wife have been diagnosed with cancer, they support politicians opposed to regulation because, as they say, “We vote for candidates that put the Bible where it belongs.” Both Frank and Hochschild argue that when the working-class votes based on social issues, they are voting for politicians who will hurt them economically. One of my Colorado College classmates summarized the situation as: “Republicans are just stupid.”

Consider, however, that perhaps these Republicans do note vote against their self-interest. Perhaps they genuinely do care more about social issues than economic ones. In Hochschild’s research on emotion in politics, she theorizes that the Tea Party movement serves the “emotional self-interest” of supporters by providing “a giddy release” from years of frustration. To some individuals, it might not matter that a candidate will hurt their economic interests so long as the candidate respects the values that are important to them. In a recent Washington Post interview, political scientist Katherine Kramer posited, “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.” We risk dismissing the important role of identity in mobilizing voters by concluding that Republicans voted against their own interest. This may be because progressives do not particularly understand, or like, that identity.

In her book, “The Politics of Resentment,” Kramer argues that rural voters feel disrespected by the elites who dismiss them as “rednecked hillbillies.” I wonder if the way CC students sometimes scoff at a Southern accent or an Air Force cadet with cowboy boots and a Texas ranch belt buckle hints at this very problem. The Republican and Democratic Parties are becoming increasingly similar in their economic policies. Both Republicans and many Democrats show broad acceptance for free market capitalism. This is an ideological shift for many Democrats, as industries are increasingly deregulated, tax rates on the rich remain low, and there is diminished support for government provision of transfers. The Democratic and Republican Parties’ economic policies tend toward what used to be right of center. After all, the Democratic Party now advocates traditional Republican positions ranging from expanded free trade to stricter control of the government budget to time limits on welfare for the poor. If the choice is between two parties that feel relatively similar in terms of the potential economic impacts on your life, why wouldn’t you vote based on identity and beliefs? As Kramer puts it, “To understand Trump’s success, we must understand how he tapped into people’s sense of self.”

We rarely acknowledge that Republicans aren’t the only ones voting on the basis of identity politics. Some CC students were loud and proud supporters of Bernie Sanders, but how many students were conversant in his economic policies? They knew he promised free public college tuition (which wouldn’t apply to CC), but the Economist predicted, “Under President Sanders, taxes, particularly on high earners, would soar.” That’s a bit contradictory, as most CC students come from affluent backgrounds. And armed with a degree from a prestigious university, we too are poised to join the professional classes that would be most affected by Sanders’ plan. The New York Times recently rated CC as the second most economically elite student body in the country, with 24 percent of students coming from the top 1 percent and only 10 percent from the bottom 60 percent. But the issues that seem to mobilize CC students to vote are cultural rather than economic: decriminalization of drug possession, environmental protection, gender equality, the rights of criminal defendants and rights associated with the sexual revolution (including transgender rights, the right to contraception, abortion and same-sex marriage). In contrast, students on campus felt that Clinton, because of her emphasis on economics, pragmatism and moderation, wasn’t as socially in sync with the issues CC cares about. “She embodies white feminism,” began one of my Colorado College friend’s Facebook posts. “What has she done for trans people of color?” The critiques levied against her were focused on her stance on social issues. In a sense, many CC students eschewed economics for social issues when voting—just like Republicans. More specifically, many of us were driven to vote based on post-materialist values: personal fulfillment, openness to new ideas and support for previously marginalized populations.

Some people argue that voting in this way is against the CC student’s self-interest. In an article to be published in the political science journal Perspectives on Politics, authors Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris argue that post-materialism is digging the grave of progressive politics: “As the Democratic Party in the United States and social democratic parties in Europe shifted their interest away from economic policies, hard-pressed members of the working and middle classes—suffering from stagnant or declining wages and lost jobs—led a backlash against the cultural changes linked with the rise of post-materialist and self-expression values.” Inglehart and Norris assert that Democrats abandoned their working-class base by pushing contentious social issuesinstead of focusing on unions or propelling inclusive economic growth.  This is not a new critique. Many political scientists have explained how the Democratic Party’s focus on social issues has undermined its appeal. On the one hand, you have a party talking about climate change, advocating for the planet in abstract terms. On the other hand, there is a party that promises to bring back jobs. This party positions itself as an advocate for the little guy while simultaneously promoting coal mining­—an extremely dangerous job based on an increasingly uncompetitive product—as a solution to economic hardship. Democrats might have had more success in achieving the same end by advocating for jobs in the burgeoning renewable energy sector. Still, how many students at CC would be satisfied with this approach? Sometimes we want our view affirmed (e.g. “climate change is real”) more than we want actual public policies. Would we vote for the candidate whose policy produces our desired outcome or for the candidate who doesn’t have concrete policy goals but vocally reiterates the importance of our values? By voting based on our values, we are failing to focus on politicians’ concrete policies and how those policies may impact our economic futures. 

Bernie Sanders was a populist candidate as much as Trump was. Both blamed the elites for the problems of the nation and both stood apart from their parties’ traditional establishments. They may have represented very different sides of the political spectrum, but they tapped into the same drive in voters. In fact, Inglehart and Norris write, “Economic factors such as income and unemployment rates are surprisingly weak predictors of the populist vote.” Instead, it comes down to social values and fiery rhetoric. Sanders, for all his economic talk, gave voice to a discontent broader than economics. He spoke not so much of policies as a “political revolution” and attacking the “billionaire class.” Trump, meanwhile, attacked immigrants and Muslims to hit on other equally deep fears. In the primary, the centrist candidate struggled despite her overwhelming financial and network advantage. In the general election, she lost.

In very different ways, Sanders and Trump were both protesting inequalities and the corruption of political life in America. “Every major ‘populist’ insurgency is a warning about serious problems festering in our politics,” writes Georgetown University Professor Michael Kazin. “To simply blame the messenger is an exercise in denial.” I would take this argument a step further: Blaming the people who voted for this messenger is equally futile. Our anger risks overshadowing the real problems that propelled our fellow citizens to vote for such an outlier. There is a serious need for space where we can listen to the problems of other Americans. What exactly is the nature of their fears of job loss and social dislocation? In turn, they might also listen to our concerns—that refugees be given shelter and walls not be erected to keep people out.

Thinking back to the calls I fielded, I wonder about the increasing absolutism in our society. Should we demand that our representatives “lean out” if they cannot advance policies? Should we stand by our values so firmly that compromise is no longer an option? When Democratic Congresswoman Diane DeGette passed the 21st Century Cures Act, there was outrage among certain advocacy groups. Considering that this bipartisan bill allotted $4.8 billion in new funding for the National Institutes of Health to find cures for cancer, Alzheimers and other critical diseases, the fervent opposition surprised me. Even more surprising is that the outcry did not come from “stingy” Republicans. Liberal constituents were enraged that “Big Pharma” would benefit. They point to the fact that pharmaceutical companies and biotech companies lobbied for the bill to be passed. However, 60 universities, 36 hospitals and several dozen groups representing physician organizations also lobbied for the bill. In fact, advocates for mental health and substance abuse treatment, as well as over a dozen patient advocacy groups, pushed for this bill for over three years. After all, Cures is a push to reform federal policies around mental health care. Over $1 billion will be invested in opioid addiction and recovery .

The reactions of two prominent Democrats to this bill are worth considering. Senator Elizabeth Warren delivered a passionate protest, demanding reforms before giving her vote. She argued against provisions designed to speed up approval for stem cell therapies because a Republican mega-donor would likely benefit. She also rebutted the funding for NIH, saying it was not enough. She proposed $8.75 billion, which is twice as much as the bill planned to allot. Republicans threatened to remove all funding if the allocation was increased. Warren voted against the bill. Conversely, as President Obama signed the bill into law, he said, “The bipartisan passage of the 21st Century Cures Act is an example of the progress we can make when people from both parties work together to improve the health of our families, friends and neighbors.” Whereas Warren viewed “compromise as extortion,” Obama saw compromise as sign of a healthy and functioning democracy. We have complained for years that Republicans have not compromised. Now we risk doing the same. When considering whether a bill or policy is precisely what we want and stands for our exact social values, it is worth asking if it would really be better to have nothing done at all.

Post-materialist values are obviously important to many students at this college. I myself am a vegetarian, pro-choice, ecofeminist who advocates for criminal justice reforms, gun control and LGBTQ equality. I think people should go the bathroom wherever they feel most comfortable and would absolutely love a free college education. I often vote on the basis of these values. And I’ll admit that when I envision a voter who is driven by the exact opposing values, I am worried. That voter produced Trump—with all his walls and his bans. Still, it is worth considering that post-materialist values are strongest in urban centers, especially affluent ones. These are the exact places where many Colorado College students aspire to live. Many of us can worry about the environment and the livelihood of people abroad only because we do not have to worry about our day-to-day economic situation. Many CC students can vote on post-materialist values because they do not have to worry about the very material problem of staying afloat. The Center for American Progress recently found a direct correlation between the percentage of people whose homes are “underwater” (meaning that they owe more on their mortgages than their houses are actually worth) and voting for Trump. Even more striking is that the percentage of underwater homes was highest in counties that switched from voting for Obama in 2012 to voting for Trump in 2016. To return to Harold Areno, when the economic policy of neither party helps you, why not vote for the Bible? 

As certain groups move more and more toward political positions rooted in ideology, morality and social values, it will become even harder for government to function effectively. No matter which political affiliation you subscribe to, it is clear that last year’s election was full of divisive rhetoric that pitted one group against another. This is the problem with political choices based on social stances. It is hard for most people to despise someone with a differing economic agenda, but it is all too easy to demonize someone with an opposing moral agenda. The ring of “you don’t want higher taxes” doesn’t have quite the same sting as calling someone racist or xenophobic. 

I am angered and dismayed by the elections, but I’ve recently found some empathy for Americans that voted differently. The Economist found that health-related issues including “lower life expectancy, higher rates of obesity, diabetes, heavy drinking and lower levels of regular physical activity” were a key variable in voting for Trump. Professor Shannon Monnat reported that, “Trump performed better in counties with higher drug, alcohol and suicide mortality rates.” During a political science conference at the Air Force Academy, a friend leaned in and whispered, “The cadets are literally the embodiment of everything I don’t like about a Trump supporter.” 

They said this after watching a cadet spit some chewing tobacco into a cup after responding to our question about women in the military by stating that he didn’t really trust the idea of a woman serving beside him on the front lines. Now I wonder if we aren’t the embodiment of what he hates about liberals. We preached, with our Birkenstocked feet on the table, that he did not know the slightest thing about patriarchal systems of oppression, toxic masculinity or the importance of using an intersectional lens in approaching gender dynamics. Later, in a private conversation with the cadet, I learned that he was a victim of domestic violence as a child, was the only one in his family to finish high-school, and came from a town broken by the opioid epidemic. I understood how our priorities may not align at all. Considering the wave of empathy I have seen from CC students when considering issues of gender and race, surely that empathy can expand to those marginalized by class, lack of education and poverty. Before assuming everything the moment we learn that he is a cis-gendered, straight, white male, let’s consider listening to his story. Then let’s see if he can empathize with a Syrian Muslim fleeing bombs and devastation. In this particular case, at the end of our long conversation, he agreed that women can and do play a crucial role in our military, both behind the scenes and on the front lines. Sharing stories can forge more connections than refusing to speak to each other ever will. 

Critical perceptions of Republicans will persist on campus, but there is a greater story to be told than the one in which all Trump supporters are categorized as deplorables who voted against their own interest. I hope that Trump’s election does not cause us to double down in our ideological bubble and erect our social norms as armor around us. It seems unfair to close our hearts to Republicans while we call for them to open theirs to refugees. Hating each other gets us nowhere. I still believe that we are stronger together.


Part of the Red Issue