Cultural Dissonance and the American Voter

The other day I was having a conversation with a couple of economists about why people voted for Donald Trump. They both agreed it was about identity. But which identity?

Much of the post-election analysis initially claimed it was middle America’s poor white Americans – the “forgotten men and women” as Trump called them – that catapulted him to victory.

Given media coverage of Trump rallies and the inauguration turnout, the notion that poor white Americans elected him was believable enough. However, more and more research shows that the Trump voter went beyond poor white Americans – it was also the wealthy, women, and Muslims. After the election, someone told me in a hushed-tone, “I even know Muslims who voted for him.”

Trump supporters on Inauguration Day; photograph by Shamila N. Chaudhary

So who didn’t vote Trump? Most polls said more educated people voted for Hillary Clinton. This analysis strengthened Democrat Jon Ossoff’s prospects against Republican Karen Handel in this week’s special election in Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, where 60 percent of voters graduated from college, “compared with 29 percent of Georgia voters.”

But Ossoff lost the race, throwing the education argument out the window.

The cultural dissonance of American politics makes my head hurt. As a student of international relations, I thought Samuel Huntington’s theory of a clash of civilizations applied to other countries – not to my fellow Americans.

Protestors block Trump supporters from entering National Mall on Inauguration Day; photograph by Shamila N. Chaudhary

But there is something about the Handel victory that brought me some peace of mind. It confirmed for me that successful politics must be local. Ossoff was perceived as too much of an outsider, even though he grew up in the 6th district.

This new Washington Post poll, which ascribes Trump’s victory more to culture and values than economic changes, also puts the 2016 election and the Ossoff-Handel race into context. No one – especially Americans – wants to be told how to live their life, especially by an outsider.

I can relate to that. As a card-carrying Democrat, student of social justice, and a minority multiple times over, I refuse to abandon my commitment to progressive values. No government or leader is going to make me do that – nor will any promise of electoral victory. I suppose the conservatives on the other side of my views are thinking exactly the same thing.

Is there somewhere we can meet in the middle?

Translating values into a concrete political narrative is hard. For now, most agree that the Republicans are better at capturing the narrative associated with the cultural dissonance that now pervades America. Sure, the Democrats need to get their act together, but it’s always easier to punch someone when they’re already down for the count.

Still, it’s worth asking ourselves, what’s not resonating about the Democratic narrative? It seems a natural foil to the unpopular Trump presidency.

Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH) has some ideas: “Sometimes we do push a national agenda that doesn’t necessarily reflect the interests of the local community and the local congressional district.” The National Interest’s Rich Lowry agrees, pointing to orthodoxies on social issues as a major reason for democratic electoral losses.

Ryan plugs Democrat Archie Parnell, a tax attorney who lost a Kansas House race by a very close margin. Steering clear of hyper-partisan rhetoric, he didn’t jump on the Washington bandwagon or seek the limelight. Instead, he focused on what people cared about in South Carolina.

Parnell didn’t win either, but his and Ossoff’s experience points us to the growing divide between the national and the local – a dynamic that is playing out as a result of the great migration between suburban and urban centers, the lifestyle changes between baby boomers and millennials, and the political instability emanating from Washington.

How will we translate the values of the United States into practice when Americans themselves are changing so much? How do we do so with equal consideration to all Americans? There are not just questions for the Democratic party, but also for all who govern and for every American committed to civic engagement.

Lots of questions and uncertainty means lots of worrying and anxiety – something all Americans, regardless of party, can add to their list of shared experiences. But rest assured, none of this is some great change in the American way or a new cultural phenomenon – in fact, it is as American as apple pie.

In the photograph below, alleged anarchists, “reds,” and radicals await deportation proceedings at Ellis Island.

Radicals Awaiting Deportation

They were the targets of the Palmer Raids of 1919-1920, a series of mass arrests and deportations led by Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, who hoped the raids would bolster his chances of becoming president.

At the time, the United States experienced great social unrest, such as race riots and suspicions of divided loyalties among ethnic groups and immigrants.

Oh yeah, and Americans thought the Russians were out to get them.

Sound familiar?

Read More

UnPresidented: The Inauguration of Donald J. Trump and the People’s Response

Prozac Nation is now the United States of Xanax

Death of Suburbia

A Democratic Blind Spot on Culture

Culture Wars



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