The Musings of a Sheltered Liberal

By Reed Shafer-Ray (Harvard College Undergraduate)

I woke up the day after the election and felt paralyzed. I barely summoned the energy to attend my classes, and in between I spent my time napping or crying, unable to face the reality of the news or the bewildered depression of my Facebook feed. How could the humdrum of daily life continue when the unthinkable had occurred?

In the days that followed, the surreal feeling of shock that enveloped Harvard’s campus did not merely subside but instead slowly began to transform into desperate outbursts of fear and despair. My Facebook feed became littered with posts about the existential threat a President Trump posed to them. Friends in the LGBTQ+ community, international friends, undocumented friends, Muslim friends, women friends, and friends of color shared their anguish over the country that had voted for Donald Trump, a country they believed had turned its back on them, refused to acknowledge their very humanity. Those other friends who posted pleas calling for national unity were immediately shot down by those who refused to accommodate the legacy of a man who had personally attacked the very dignity of so many.

Who is right? Must we, as Hillary Clinton said in her concession speech, “owe [Donald Trump] an open mind and the chance to lead?” Or rather, has Donald Trump already crossed a line of no return, in which his racist, sexist, and xenophobic comments and policies must lead us to disavow his leadership and protest his presidency unendingly? I do not have the answer, although I must say, as a white and privileged male, I cannot even pretend to fully understand the amount of hurt Trump has already contributed to communities of people that do not look like himself. From my perspective, I only know one thing: Trump is not an individual, but rather 60 million individuals.

And that is not to say that these 60 million people are racist or sexist or by and large bad people. They are not even, as most pundits will tell you, only white cis-gender males. These are people who saw in Donald Trump a greater candidate than Hillary Clinton for a multitude of reasons. While policy preferences probably drove a large portion of votes toward Trump, Trump also represented a change in direction for a country that more and more people felt had abandoned them. According to Robert Putnam’s book Our Kids, the American upper and lower classes have become increasingly segregated and unequal, and those born on the wrong side of the tracks no longer stand much of a chance of having a prosperous life, while those born to affluence are pointed down a yellow brick road to success. Most Americans no longer believe that the American Dream – that if you work hard, you will succeed – still holds true today. These findings reveal a sad truth; America is becoming less and less a land of opportunity.

When people are stuck in a dead-end job, or working 80 hours a week just to make ends meet, or living in a broken home, or stuck in a vicious cycle of debt from student loans and housing bills, hope is not inspired by calls for reforms and small fixes. Hillary’s pledge to continue the Obama legacy appealed to some Americans (including me, who spent many weekends knocking doors for her), but millions of others felt alienated and ignored by just one more politician working within the same system of government that they viewed as having always failed them. When you have nothing to lose, why choose a safe bet when you can go all in on a wild card?

The fact is, between the undeniable barriers to success and recognition for non-white non-cis-gender males along with the economic barriers to success and recognition that exist for lower-income and less-educated people (many but not most of which are white cis-gender males), almost all Americans have legitimate grievances that must be addressed comprehensively if we are to truly have a government that cares for its citizens. We must attempt to root out all institutional evils that serve injustice, just as we must find ways to give value and worth to the lives of those forgotten Americans who are too poor to have a realistic opportunity to have a stable life.

The problem is that the American people, instead of recognizing the seriousness of both these problems, have become further and further divided along conservative and liberal fault lines. “Liberal” Americans have essentially claimed for themselves the issues of social justice, while “conservative” Americans have appropriated the issues of economic freedom from the government and individualism. While streaks of racism, sexism, xenophobia, libertarianism, business interests, political rhetoric, and money in politics all run through and overlap within these two movements, I believe the basic tenets of liberal and conservative politics themselves, that of social justice and individual freedoms, are not only the core principles of this nation, but also extremely compatible. Most Americans want social equality and opportunity mixed with individualism, but these shared beliefs are obscured by the increasing separation and segregation of our society.

We as Americans exist in two bubbles that are growing increasingly impenetrable. On one had, the liberal bubble, which emphasizes social justice and seeks to uplift the historically oppressed. On the other hand, the conservative bubble, which emphasizes economic and individual freedoms from the government. The rise of new forms of media and the increasing segregation of people based on socioeconomic fault lines has moved these two bubbles farther apart. My friends at Harvard, who mostly belong to the liberal bubble, tell me that they tend to unfriend people on Facebook if they see that their posts support Trump or hold other beliefs that they consider personally offensive. In Cambridge (where I live), I rarely meet people who are not self-described liberals. As I have read, the same insulation is occurring within the conservative bubble as people become more and more unwilling or unable to interact with people in the liberal bubble. Echo chambers are created, and divisions between these two bubbles have effectively created two separate Americas, running independently and autonomously from one another.

What can be done to bridge this gap within our country? Firstly, as obvious as it sounds, both sides must recognize one another’s humanity. Those who live in the conservative bubble must listen to and try to understand the viewpoints of liberals, especially those who feel personally dehumanized by structures of white cis-gender male domination. Just as importantly, those who live in the liberal bubble must acknowledge and attempt to comprehend the perspectives of conservatives, especially those conservatives that have struggled the most to survive in a changing economy and globalizing world. These groups of people will not agree with one another, but if put in the same room these two sides will surely begin to see that they have more in common with each other than they thought, and the visceral hatred that has divided us will lose fuel.

Racism and sexism must not be accepted, but those who espouse racist and sexist thoughts cannot simply be ignored by liberals, nor can they be demonized for their beliefs (although in the case of a hate crime being committed, of course they should be adequately punished). To fight the intolerant currents of thought within society, the answer is not to ignore or deride but rather to engage with directly, firmly, and as respectfully as possible, never letting hateful rhetoric pass by unchallenged. (I acknowledge that as a white male I have great privilege in arguing this, yet I still firmly believe that direct engagement remains the only way to change minds.) 

Again, I must emphasize that I do not think conservatism has ever been equivalent to racism and sexism, and this is a blatant over-generalization that too many liberals make when they choose to avoid dialogue or interaction with those living outside their bubble (although of course some people who espouse racist and sexist beliefs do self-identify within the conservative umbrella). Likewise, conservatives who have regarded liberals as PC-culture socialists who are disrespectful and arrogant pigeonhole a group of people who mostly share their core beliefs about individual freedoms and justice. Stereotyping entire groups of people in such ways only re-enforces these misconceptions, as liberals and conservatives dig their heels in deeper to make a point, moving them further and further away from meaningful dialogue across ideological lines. 

Popping the ironclad walls of our bubbles will not be easy. But it is a project that must be approached with resolve and determination, as without greater integration of our society, our democracy will only continue to violently divide and eventually wither. We need to remember that we as Americans are all on the same team. We all want a good life for ourselves, for our family, and for our neighbors. We want to succeed. We want our human dignity to be recognized. And most of all, we each hope for an America that represents our shared values of equality of opportunity and the American Dream. We have been divided by artificial walls, and the only way to tear them down is to point out their superficiality.