From the Dean: A Reflection on the Election

December 6, 2016

Now that the election is over, lots of people are trying to interpret one of the biggest political upsets in modern American history. Although I hope this particularly noxious election cycle can force us as a nation to find new ground in our debates about the common good, it seems the world is awash in anxiety. Many of America’s international friends fear that America’s carefully crafted international relations, which have evolved since World War II on shared values and a common vision of a liberal democracy, is about to unravel.

Germany’s magazine der Speigel had a cover of Donald Trump’s face as a comet getting ready to crash into the earth, with the caption – “the end of the world.” The French magazine, Libération, announced the coming of the Trumpocalypse, and the Spanish newspaper, el Periodico, emblazoned the post-election headline: “God forgive America.” Similar journalistic headlines have appeared throughout the world. Marwan Bishara, a political analyst and author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolutions, summarizes global anxieties this way: it seems this American election has been a battle over whether America will try to make itself great alone, or will labor to make the United States great in a common effort with other nations.

On the other hand, many people of faith are trying to discern the hope and possibility of this new political moment, terrifying as it may seem for many of us. For example, Episcopalian mystic, Cynthia Bourgeault, has used the outcome of the election as an opportunity to critically evaluate the blind side of her liberalism. She is choosing to cling to Teilhard de Chardin’s assertion that true evolutionary change happens in deep time, not the impatient immediacy of our historical moment. Additionally, crediting C.S. Lewis’s reflections on the sacred and profane, Michael Wear suggests that the deep funk many Christian Americans are now feeling has less to do with the election and more to do with the bad habit they have picked up of going to politics to get their spiritual needs met. Finally, with a bit of tongue in cheek, Nicholas Kristof has suggested a 12-step Program for anyone trying to learn and grow from this election cycle.

Meanwhile, in cultural conversation, as usual, the results of Election 2016 are getting interpreted as yet another data point on how divided we are as a nation. There is a new level of ideological division in the United States, researchers on the site maintain, and more than ever Americans see themselves as liberal Democrats or conservative Republicans.

According to tiresome outline of this thesis, the election demonstrates we are a nation divided in two mutually exclusive understandings of the United States. One understanding is committed to the pre-1960s values of home, hearth and nation. This populace is clustered in middle America, particularly rural areas. This group is interested primarily on a return of the manufacturing base and a resurrection of importance and dignity of blue collar employment. It is a conservative America unafraid of straight-talk, insistent on a politics of results-oriented problem solving, as well as distasteful of the political correctness of “elites” in politics, media, education, and entertainment. The other America is more urban in orientation, more interested in protecting the environment than trying to bring back blue collar occupations that have been replaced by machines or moved elsewhere due to the unavoidable forces of a flattened and globally connected world. This “liberal” America recognizes the nation’s need to work at its own redemption by assuring the incremental advancement of fundamental rights, freedoms and opportunities for populations that have been long denied a place at the table of the American dream, and the critical need to build the infrastructure for an inclusive culture ready to embrace the reality of globalization.

While there are some truths in this narrative of polarization, this election has given us an opportunity to see that these store lines, which have been getting recycled ever more frequently since the 1980s, are at the very least inadequate. Leaders in our culture have an opportunity to begin to deconstruct these narratives and replace them with something more sophisticated and reflective of the reality.

One of the more dramatic revelations of this political cycle is that the carefully developed methodologies of political science and sociology missed entirely the shifting patterns and distributions in political attitudes and choices that put Donald J. Trump in the White House. The outcome of this election has surprised almost everyone, probably even President-elect Trump. For the social scientist, the world makes less sense, but this is not necessarily all bad. In graduate-level research classes, it is customary to spend time talking about the embedded values that are involved in every research project. There is no such thing as purely objective research and the tale of America as two completely divided groups of sheep and goats has been so thoroughly ingrained in the nation’s self-understanding that the inaccurate and unquestioned research findings of this election offer both political science and sociology a chance for thoughtful reflection on the way they shape their surveys and focus groups.

Another opportunity in this election cycle is to force the media to reevaluate the biases involved in their limited line of sight of what constitutes news and how they report it. The field of journalism once served as the public service to society by careful fact gathering, critical reflection, and analysis in the hurly-burly spin doctoring of political races and political decision-making. But, it seems this year the media has completed its journey from the nation’s Fourth Estate to becoming a profit center for entertainment corporations. During the 2016 election cycle, the media used Trump as a populist phenomenon that boosted readership, viewership, listenership and advertising revenue. As a reality television celebrity, he knew, of course, exactly how to play his part.

One of the big stories about this election cycle is the way the media covered the election, what they concentrated on and when, why they made these decisions, and how they portrayed both candidates, beginning in the primary season. For the health of the nation and the profession, I pray those making editorial judgments in all the media have some dark nights of the soul. I hope they analyze thoroughly how they aided, abetted, and fueled one of American history’s most toxic presidential elections, and played a role in turning a reality television star into the president of the United States. In one of the first serious attempts at such media self-reflection, Thomas Frank reports on a research study for Harper’s Magazine about the Ivy League “liberal” media bias that took down Bernie Sanders. Frank tracked the anything but objective media coverage in the Washington Post, where negative articles about the Vermont Senator ran five to one, compared to opinion pieces about Hilary Clinton that came closer to fifty-fifty.

When I think about the divided groups I am reminded of Star Wars. I am tempted by the George Lucas “space opera” version of this election, with one side playing the part of the Empire or the First Order, and the other side serving as the Resistance. (During the Obama Administration, the marginalized Trump voters were the Resistance, and now the marginalized Clinton voters are slipping into that role.) This binary presentation of two incompatible worldviews with no points of convergence makes more compelling news copy than figuring out the underlying frustrations, disappointments, disillusionment, and fears that have driven this entire election cycle. But, let’s look at some important statistics that deconstruct this narrative.

There are 231,556,622 registered voters in the U.S., and it is estimated that 46.9% or 108,600,056 did not show up at the polls. Only seven states had more eligible voters show up than stay home. A lot of us would like to chalk it up to laziness and apathy, but this let’s not let ourselves off the hook so easily. Those of us who are politically employed and civically involved do not spend, and have not spent, anywhere near enough time asking ourselves (and the absent voters) why they don’t show up. Many of them are convinced the system is so flawed and compromised that it doesn’t really make any difference which party occupies elected positions. I suspect their experience of life confirms this interpretation. In my mind, for the first time in my life the motivation of the people absent from the polls might prove a more revealing part of the story of this election than the motivation of those of us who showed up.

A recent Pew Research study shows that the President-elect only received 8% of the black vote, 42% of the support from women, 43% of the votes made by college graduates, and a mere 29% of the Latino vote. That he received any votes in some of these demographics, in light of things he said, should signal to us that there is a more complex narrative underlying this election than the Lucas space opera. More telling, is that about 37% of the young adult vote (18-29) showed up for Trump, a generational cohort with many patterns of belief at odds with many of Trump’s positions, and certainly the positions of some of the people he has gathered around him. However, The Atlantic magazine has warned all political leaders that these younger citizens might seem like they are aligned with traditional political parties, but they are actually far more heterogeneous in their political values. They share a greater passion for their causes than the personalities running for office. If a Trump Administration moves forward on their issues, these young adults are likely to stay on board. If it doesn’t, they will transfer loyalty to someone else, or become part of the nation’s nonparticipants.

The more one looks into the data, the more the Stars Wars narrative proves insufficient. But, the simple bi-furcated, polarized America thesis has been a cultural dogma for so long that it is no longer questioned. So, while we wait to see whether this narrative begins to erode into something more sophisticated and accurate, we are left with responding to a new Administration. Personally, I’m troubled by his careless speech, his ignorance of basic facts about the world, his lack of curiosity, the company he keeps, and some of the fans he seems to draw. Although he has done well in the industry of construction and land development, I also question his leadership abilities for the political arena. As the president in a democratic republic, Trump will have to figure out ways to get people to work together, to build together a common vision, to establish enough trust to forge compromises on difficult issues with conflicting values. That’s what you need to do in a democracy, and it is quite different than what you can get away with on a construction site. Trump will have to become a leader, not just someone who tells other people what to do.

But, I also believe in the possibility of true intellectual, emotional, moral and spiritual conversion. Evolutionary jumps in our inner world are possible, and even among the most unlikely people. In the Jewish and Christian traditions there have been big time scoundrels, like King David, Saul of Tarsus (St. Paul), and St. Augustine, all of whom underwent profound personality transformations. As Trump’s opponent, Hilary Clinton said, the President-elect deserves an opportunity to lead, and many of us need to try to keep an open mind.

First, we need to avoid the mistake of thinking that everyone who voted for Trump thinks and acts like him. There is no denying that his rhetoric has emboldened some of the nation’s most reprehensible groups to come out of the woodwork. But, not every voter for Trump is aligned with the Ku Klux Klan, white nationalist groups or sketchy media organizations. I’m not even so sure many of the people voting for Trump are even aligned with Trump. The one thing I’m pretty certain about is that many of his supporters are in deep existential pain, and have been for a long time.

As people of faith, one of the things we have to do going forward is to learn to understand this pain, and one way to do so is to learn a new kind of encounter and dialogue with people who think differently than we do. Roman Catholic nuns have much to teach us in this regard. Since they were investigated by the Vatican, they have been using “contemplative dialogue” as a structure for many of their meetings. In this form of dialogue, people in a conversation with someone very different tries to set aside their own “biases” as they listen to others, and learn to take careful note of the “their own” emotions that are elicited by the thoughts and words of others. This inward look at the emotional triggers caused by the words, actions, and even looks of someone else, is designed to help me (not them) learn how to react. It is designed to help me loosen my grip on what I believe is true, and the emotional investment I have in being right. If I can do it, it opens up new space in my mind and heart to make room for someone very different than me. I can begin a relationship, and allow that relationship to create new possibilities for everyone. 

As noted in the election survival plans by Kristof above, I think many of us are going to need to also guard our hearts and minds against the anger that is floating ever more strongly through the culture. I am reminded of Dylan Thomas’s famous poem, Do Not Go Quiet into that Good Night, which speaks of our human capacity to fight against the limitations of our finitude. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” Dylan’s poem tells us. We have many who are doing this right now, since they interpret the election results as the death knell of social sensitivities and public policies that have tried to make us a more inclusive, just, and environmentally responsible nation.

However, as a person of faith, if you are driven by a set of spiritual values you don’t rage against the night – you embrace anything leading us to the rising of the dawn. John Henry Newman once described this process in a poignant way with his poem, “Pillar of Cloud.” After a particularly trying time in his life, when Newman’s life felt completely out of control and at the mercy of fate, he wrote:

Lead, Kindly Light, amid the encircling gloom
Lead Thou me on!
The night is dark, and I am far from home –
Lead Thou me on!
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene – one step enough for me.

Newman’s poem was set to music for a popular church hymn, “Lead Kindly Light,” that has been used in many situations when the circumstances of life seem out of our control. According to Corrie Ten Boom, in her book, The Hiding Place, her sister Betsie sang “Lead Kindly Light” with other women as Nazi S.S. guards led them into the concentration camp at Ravensbruck during the Holocaust. Her sister died in the camp, but had she lived, she didn’t want to rage against the Nazi ideology. In fact, she wanted to create a different kind of camp – one that taught Germans warped by the ideology of the Third Reich to learn how to love again. 

We have to give Trump an opportunity to lead, but if he doesn’t, or he tries to lead us in the wrong direction, he will see how quickly people of faith will galvanize against his policies. Over the past few decades people of diverse faith have discovered each other. We have found ways to dialogue and work together on issues we agree are important for the common good, and a presidential administration that tries to work against that common good will find that we will take our place on the barricades as Christians, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Seekers, and the secular humanists who collaborate with us. But, in the meantime, if we are people of faith cannot ignore the painful experience underlying many of those who voted for Trump. Their pain has to be important and meaningful to us. That’s the first step to finding our way home and breaking this endless cycle of playing out a Star Wars space opera.