Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in the 2016 United States Presidential Election. There is a substantial portion of the U.S. population—including supporters of both candidates—who did not think this outcome was even remotely possible. For many who supported Trump, his victory is a glorious surprise. Many of those who opposed him, though, are grappling not just with the loss, but with feelings of alienation and fear.
There are so many topics here, each with various aspects to focus on, different perspectives to consider, challenges to address, and lessons to learn. To help start productive discussions on some of these, I’ve invited several philosophers to contribute brief remarks about the election in this installment of “Philosophers On.” (Some of these philosophers participated in an earlier election edition published in March.)
As with previous “Philosophers On” posts, these remarks are not comprehensive statements or final words, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion, here and elsewhere.
- Elisabeth Anker (George Washington University) — Desiring the Pussy Grabber
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) — Democratic Theory for Realists
- David Estlund (Brown University) — One Election, One Trump
- Saba Fatima (Southern Illinois University Edwardsville) — The Fragmented Muslim
- Michael Fuerstein (St. Olaf College) — A Failure of Democracy?
- Alex Guerrero (Rutgers University) — Dividing the U.S.
- Adam Hosein (University of Colorado, Boulder) — Promises and Vulnerabilities
- Suzy Killmister (University of Connecticut) — Betrayal and Progress
- Christopher Lebron (Yale University) — Decency and Democracy
- Jacob Levy (McGill University) — They Make Choices, Too
- Luke Maring (Northern Arizona University) — Looking Ahead: What does Injustice Mean for Our Teaching?
- Simon May (Florida State University) — Beyond Contempt
- Lionel McPherson (Tufts University) — The End of Illusions
- José Jorge Mendoza (University of Massachusetts, Lowell) — American Whiteness and Democracy
- Regina Rini (New York University) — The Emotional Labor of Loss
- Gina Schouten (Harvard University) — Too Many In The Water
- Matthew Smith (University of Leeds) — What Now?
I am grateful to them for participating in this post on such short notice.
The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers and philosophically-minded academics in neighboring fields can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.
Please share the post with others, and feel free to provide links in the comments to relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere.
Desiring the Pussy Grabber
by Elisabeth Anker
What made Trump so appealing that he catapulted from B-list reality TV businessman to President of the United States? Trump ran a campaign driven not by policy platforms but by provocations. They included racist invective, such as calling Mexicans “rapists” and referring to “the hell” of living in black communities; incredible wealth combined with a staunch refusal to pay taxes—“It makes me smart”; anti-immigration fervor—“I will build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me”; a promise to bolster the military to superhuman proportions—“it will be so big and so strong and so great, nobody’s gonna mess with us”; sexual assault—“Grab ’em by the Pussy”, and past performances of CEO sovereignty— “You’re fired”. Many of these provocations seemed horrific and fantastical. Yet what if their horror was precisely what made Trump appealing? For the one thing these provocations all have in common is that they advocate domination over vulnerable and marginalized others.
Trump is the cruelest candidate in decades, but I would argue that for some of his supporters, this is precisely his appeal. They may not necessarily want to have a beer with Trump. Instead they want to be Trump. Trump’s cruelty reveals a desire to reign sovereign over others and force them to bend to his will, and this is a power that supporters likely want for themselves. They do not want to capitulate to political correctness (i.e. non-racist and non-sexist forms of speech) but to maintain traditional hierarchies of power that place them on top. Demographics are revealing: Trump supporters are overwhelmingly white, older, male (though white women also gave him a majority of their votes, aligning more along racial than gender categories), wealthier, and less educated; indeed they are like Trump himself. The pre-election presumption was that Trump’s white supporters were lower-income voters, but post-election demographics paint a more complex picture of supporters who are economically stable, and likely have certain expectations about their power and role in the world. Far from being a deep revolt against globalization, as some have suggested, their support of Trump is more likely a desire to maintain their benefits. Like many citizens, these voters too know how little power they have over our political and economic systems. But their overwhelming whiteness, economic stability, and age also speak to something different. As racial and religious minorities have become more visible in positions of power during these older voters’ lifetimes, and as their financial security diminishes by comparison to global elites, they feel their expected but unacknowledged privileges slipping away. These are racial and economic privileges that Trump claims for himself, including the ability to dominate the less fortunate, and to humiliate and subordinate those who defy him.
These “privileges”, in America, are inseparable from white supremacy. I am not speaking merely of the radical extremism of the resurging KKK, which some of his supporters overtly renounce (even as the KKK endorsed Trump), but of everyday relations of power in the US saturated with hierarchies of racial, gendered, and economic privilege that so often go unnoticed among those who enjoy them as expected entitlements. As Charles Mills argues of the racial contract, part of the power of whiteness is the refusal to acknowledge the racial hierarchies upon which unmarked universal freedom is premised, to experience one’s prestige and power as an unbiased and neutral truth claim. When an increasingly diverse society begins to force that acknowledgement of unjust power, Trump promises his middle-class white supporters that he will retain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. This is the underlying claim of Make America Great Again. Trump offers his supporters that they can, in fact, grab women by the pussy whenever they want. They can fire subordinates at will. They can avoid paying taxes and enjoy the freedom to gloat about it. They can wall-off, detain, deport, and discriminate against people who seem to threaten their relative power and prestige.
In making this argument, however, I am emphatically not claiming that democracy should be rejected because ignorant voters choose bad leaders, or because those of us who “know better” should be making decisions for all people. In their denigration of popular sovereignty, these claims actually mirror the authoritarianism they claim to challenge. To be against democracy and for technocratic elitism bespeaks an implicit desire to dominate citizens in a way that is emblematic of white supremacy. As polls show, many more people were against Trump than for him; he lost the popular vote. Trump’s win, therefore, is not just an abstract problem of democracy, but the outcome of real and concrete forms of voter suppression that are both entrenched in our institutional system and dramatically increasing ever since the Supreme Court decimated the Voting Rights Act in 2013. The problem is not democracy, but anti-democratic forms of voter suppression against groups already targeted for discrimination. Over 800 early voting places were recently closed in states that used to practice segregation. 14 new state voter ID laws worked, as intended, to suppress poor and minority votes. We saw this in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Virginia, and other states where voters had been reliably supporting Clinton. In Wisconsin alone, 300,000 people lacked the proper voter registration material, but Trump won there by only 27,000 votes. Millions of other citizens have been disenfranchised because they pleaded guilty to felony charges; they are disproportionately poor and minority citizens, and experience yet another form of voter suppression. Indeed, the Electoral College itself is a method of voter suppression that buffers against direct democracy, as it gives more mathematical weight to white voters in rural states than minority city dwellers. If the US practiced direct democracy, Trump would not be president.
What we need is not less democracy, but more: more ways of protecting the votes of the very groups targeted by Trump’s campaign, more ways of enabling voter participation among wage workers such as an election day work holiday, more media platforms that inform rather than entertain citizenries about core issues, and abolition of the anti-democratic Electoral College. But in the end democracy is not only about voting. It is about giving all people, collectively and equally, the power to determine the governing conditions of their lives. This happens in many ways beyond the electoral process. For those of us targeted by Trump supporters’ unleashed invective, as well as those who stand in solidarity, it will likely involve acts of civil disobedience, protest, direct action, and mass movements outside institutional structures. It will also involve work inside institutional channels to challenge the worst effects of Trump’s promised policies. A truly active and radical democracy—which includes all people, and harnesses all possible forms of political action—can fight back against those who aim to grab us by the pussy.
Democratic Theory for Realists
by Jason Brennan
Perhaps recent events should make us rethink how philosophers write about democracy. There’s a disconnection between how democracy actually works and what philosophers say, between what researchers say in empirical political science and the implicit empirical models philosophers work with in democratic theory.
I don’t think this just shows us that democracy falls short of an ideal. It may be that our ways of theorizing are largely irrelevant. We’re talking about how awesome hammers would be if only they worked like screwdrivers.
Imagine philosophers spend their time discussing, at great length, the best ways for college fraternities to be run, how they should be organized, how their by-laws should be passed, just what ideals they ought to realize, just what fraternal love is, just how fraternities instill virtue, etc. But then, pace the philosophers, actual fraternities are mostly drunken rape factories. It would be weird to react by saying, “Oh, sure, actual fraternities are like that, but I’m doing ideal frat theory.” What would be the point?
Ideal theory democratic theory is in a way incoherent. Some of it is the equivalent of “Hey, I came up with a solution to the problem of drunk driving, but it turns out my solution only works in a world where alcohol had never been invented”.
I’m hopeful that this will push political philosophy to a philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE) turn. On that point, though, I suspect few democratic theorists or political philosophers could teach Poli Sci 101 or Econ 101 off the cuff, or even pass the final exams, and that’s a problem. We’re spending too much time writing philosophy that assumes institutions work differently from how they actually do, will, or could.
One Election, One Trump
by David Estlund
My father ate right and stayed fit, but about 25 years ago he died of a heart attack anyway—out of the blue. Fortunately, nobody concludes from such tragedies that we should stop exercising and watching our diet. If they did, there would only be more tragic losses. This country has not been completely diligent in its habits (and my dad had a little bit of steak and gained a modest amount of weight over time, etc.), but we have, in our fallible way, pursued the idea of electoral democracy and equal basic civil liberties. And now this.
Should we conclude that this election refutes electoral democracy, or broad rights of free expression and association, or refutes some other cherished challenging aspiration? We will hear more voices along that line: maybe educated people like “us” should get two votes each; maybe much of Trump’s rhetoric is hate speech and should be legally restricted; maybe we should reconsider monarchy. Well, I’m a philosopher and I think there’s lots to learn by seriously thinking about all those things. But, I do not think for a moment that this one election……ok, maybe for a moment.
Has your view, up until now, been that constitutional democratic institutions are worth a try, but only until they are proven not to be infallible? I doubt it. So of course our thinking should stay nimble and sensitive to what history reveals, and our institutions can always be improved. But no, this debacle does not refute any broad stance I’ve ever had about democracy and civil liberties, and I hope it doesn’t for you either. That would be the wrong lesson, and a recipe for more tragedies. I’m not saying that nothing could ever throw those convictions into doubt; of course not—but certainly not one near miss, albeit a disastrous one. It could, I suppose, turn out that we should give up on vegetables and exercise, but we never thought that they are guarantees. So we need to take evidence on board soberly—which brings me to the slightly consoling observation that a couple of drinks a night turns out to be good for you, as far as we know. So, here’s to our health. Sometimes a somber toast feels more like a prayer.
Trump voters are not a bunch of Trumps, so who are they? Some people seem to think that we were blind until last night, but now we see: half the country, they say, approves of Trump, and his bigotry. If it’s not true, that would be important to know.
I think that it is plainly not true, and we all know it’s not true once we take the question seriously, and that’s a start. Yes, there is more and worse bigotry around than many of us believed before this campaign got started. We have been properly reeling from that revelation at least since he won the nomination. But now, after Trump’s victory, a more particular question also matters: How many of our fellow citizens do share, in large part, the bigoted views (or stances) of Trump, or of his most deplorable [sic] supporters? What if it’s not half the country, but half that? Or half that? Somewhere around 30% of Hispanic voters went for Trump. Around 40% of women did. Many previous Obama voters did too. These are not all bigots. Many of Trump’s voters are embarrassed by his ignorance and brutality, and voted for him anyway, not in approval of him but against some things (wrongfully, I believe). Many voted against a broad “liberal establishment” as they see it. Some voted against the cluster of views that make up a partisan Democrat. Many voted against the sheer fact that their jobs are gone with no replacement in sight, or against a more pro-choice Court, or against the cultural power of (certain) elites, or, notably, against the smug assertion that they are all racists. As I say, though this is not my point in this post, I condemn those votes strongly. Nor is my point, at the moment, to sympathize with their grievances. I’m not counseling conciliation, or eschewing it. Rather, there is an important matter of degree here, between bad and worse.
Here’s just part of why it is important practically: supposing, as many of Trump’s supporters have been insisting, that they don’t approve of the kind of bigotry we have seen from him—and I believe very many of them don’t—we can start, in a tentative spirit of cooperation, holding them to that. We might signal, with the respect that their anti-bigotry position warrants, our genuine willingness to believe them at least if they are willing to prove it—and they may demand the same of us. They’ve got the president they wanted (I should say “preferred”). Now they can also help to fight the bigotry that has reared its head and has not yet been put back down. Next steps: What are some strategies for spotlighting the risks and threats on the horizon to the dignity and equal civil liberties of various vulnerable groups, and how are we to talk to these Trump voters about helping? (Note to concerned anti-bigotry Trump voters in particular: I’m all ears.)
I do not think that everything is fine, believe me. I write with a lump in my throat. But the alarm went off Wednesday morning (in more senses than one) and we are back on the road, and we should look for constructive help wherever it can be found. I don’t believe that all or even most who voted Republican last night need to be seen (or pushed?) into the most deplorable corners of the populace. This is not blind faith, I’m basing it on evidence, and watching the evidence develop. Let’s, at the very least, make sure not to miss the evidence, and the opportunities, if they are there.
The Fragmented Muslim
by Saba Fatima
The day after 9/11, a very liberal-leaning professor called me into his office and asked me, an international undergraduate at the time, what I thought of the attackers. It was a brief interrogation of sorts, but the overwhelming feeling over me was that of betrayal. He, like many after him, was curious if we, Muslims, were secretly sympathetic to the latest terror suspects or if we were with America.
A lot has changed in the last 15 years, for one thing, the witch hunt has intensified (during that time, I also became a citizen of this country). The witch-hunt seemingly appeared to be stalled when President Obama condemned the treatment of a young Muslim American kid whose home-made clock was mistaken for a bomb, and when the President finally visited a mosque in the last year of his presidency. However, suspicions about our loyalties never died, not only as the right and center demanded and achieved surveillance over us, but also as the President and Secretary Clinton praised our place in this country: as crucial (mere) tools in the fight against terrorism. The multiplicity of our complex identity remained obscured, as fragmented aspects of our self gained visibility. For the center left, they propped us up as caricatures of the ‘good’ Muslim, while some on the right emphasized the ‘bad’ (Mamdani 2004).
The “good” Muslim is one that performs the undying patriotic script, is willing to die for this country (que Army Capt. Humayun Khan’s parents), who emphasizes the peaceful nature of Islam, and is eager to report ‘suspicious’ Muslims to the state (doing the state’s surveillance for it). The “bad” Muslim is the visibly practicing one, who expresses distaste of our country’s foreign policy, and one who at any point could combust into an America-hating, animalistic, and evil terrorist.
President Elect Trump only sees us as the caricature of the bad Muslim. During his campaign, Trump has expressed interest in creating a registry of all Muslim Americans, ‘strongly consider’ and/or have ‘absolutely no choice’ in shutting down our mosques, banning all Muslims from entering the United States and/or having more ‘extreme vetting’ than the current two year process for Muslim migrants/refugees.
The fragments our political identity that are given uptake in the political realm have left us with the urge to flee from acting or feeling like the caricature of the fundamentalist ‘bad’ Muslim. We are always in fear that someone will view our thoughts and actions as corresponding to the ‘bad’ Muslim, lest we feel pain (or anger!) at the political plight of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, etc., because that may cast doubt on our commitment to the security of the United States of America.
In part, what this presidency means for many Muslim Americans is that we have to shield the complexity of our identity from full view yet again, because America has resoundingly asserted that it is not ready to embrace Muslims as whole, multiplicitous, and that we still not perceived as part of the fabric of this nation.
A Failure of Democracy?
by Michael Fuerstein
Data on the ignorance and irrationality of the average voter is abundant, and our new President elect might seem to be the ultimate manifestation of what social science (not to mention Plato) has been telling us about democracy for a long time. But seeing ignorance and irrationality as the primary forces behind Trump overlooks important antecedent causes. The capacity to rationally receive and process information, and especially to fairly represent the concerns of others, is itself dependent on how one sees oneself in relation to the larger community and its primary institutions of moral and scientific authority. Is the system that generates scientific policy knowledge itself responsive to the concerns of all people? Are the conventional norms of genteel civic engagement genuinely effective routes to the expression of valid grievances? Is the political elite genuinely engaged with the questions and anxieties of those outside wealthy, cosmopolitan circles?
When the answers to these questions are “no,” then the norms of deliberative rationality which have been so dominant in democratic theory will break down, and no one should be surprised that they do. In a broader sense, the democratic system will likewise break down, not only in political behavior that disregards scientific and moral authority, but also in patterns of scapegoating and out-grouping that further degrade the prospects for civic engagement. Democratic power can be used to channel judgments or preferences, but it can also be used to represent raw feelings of anger and neglect. However absurd one may find the prospect of President Trump, it is difficult to argue that such feelings were entirely inappropriate among his base.
In my original piece for this blog, I suggested that the origins of the Trump phenomenon lay in a “hollowed-out” civic experience, characterized by a rise in segregation, particularly by political sensibility, and the breakdown of many institutions of community of the sort documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone. One can see some evidence for this point in the remarkable divide between urban and rural voters pretty much everywhere. The missing piece in my original commentary was of course economic inequality. As many have documented, the rise in income over the past 30-40 years has essentially bypassed the middle and lower classes. It should hardly be surprising to anyone who has read the Communist Manifesto that those who have been left behind might want to destroy the institutions and individuals who represent the status quo.
As painful as Wednesday morning was for the (vast majority of) readers of this blog, it is not obvious that it represents a failure of democracy as such. Instead—to reprise themes from my first commentary—it seems to me to represent the vulnerability of democracy to social conditions that divide citizens across class, race, and geography. In many ways, the result shows that democracy does what it is supposed to do: when fundamental interests go ignored by power-holders, the possessors of those interests will use power to find a replacement and express their disapproval. Unfortunately, the particular figure elected to implement change seems poorly suited to do much good for anyone other than himself. At the same time, it seems plausible to me that only a figure such as Trump—so violently antithetical to the values, sensibilities, and sources of authority favored by the elite—could give adequate expression to what so many people felt. Let us hope that the short-term damage Trump causes is sufficiently outweighed by long-run changes which respond to legitimate sources of anger.
Dividing the U.S.
by Alex Guerrero
After voting with my two daughters in the morning on Tuesday, I had this thought: whatever happens, half the country will wake up tomorrow feeling some combination of anger, alienation, shame, sadness, despair, fear, impotence, rage, and hopelessness; thinking that our country is headed in an unimaginably bad direction, that they have no place in this future, that the person who will be in power at the top represents everything that they are most deeply against, that the system is broken, that this is not who we are.
From the inside, waking up to this new political reality, the electoral losers ask questions: How did we lose? How could so many people be so ignorant, racist, misguided? And then: what can we do to get power back?
We feel this from inside of it. But let’s step back. Why is it that every four years we either narrowly escape what we believe to be disaster and domination, or find ourselves erased and enraged by each new colored-in part of the map? This is democracy, we say. But that obscures important questions. Why should we—any of us, all of us—accept this situation? Why should we live with what feels to half of us—even if we take turns as to which half—like dominion and alienation and powerlessness? What, if anything, should we do about it?
As I see it, there are two possibilities. Either we aren’t as divided as it seems and feels to us at times like these, or we are. What we should do in response depends on which of these is our situation.
This electoral season has been particularly hostile. It’s fair to say that those of us who supported Trump, and those of us who did not, feel very divided. This was not a debate about complex policy and political priorities. This was an assault on the character and values of the candidates and, by extension, the character and values of their supporters. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, elitism, cronyism, corruption. Those were the campaign themes. People on your side are like this; people on their side are like that.
Still, for all that, maybe this is true: we aren’t that different. We aren’t that far apart on fundamental values. We all love our families. We want a better future for our children. We care about this country. We don’t always understand those who are different than us. We want to feel productive, protected, respected, valued, engaged. We might even like each other if we came to know each other. Call this the We the People hypothesis.
What evidence is there that this hypothesis is correct? Well, we might hope that people are people—with similar desires, aspirations, needs, fears. We can get more specific: many of the key Trump votes came from counties in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania that voted for Obama not once, but twice. We can note the similarities in the messages of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. We can think about why the Black Jeopardy skit with Tom Hanks resonated so powerfully. I can think about my relatives, who I love and respect and generally understand—my father, my aunts and uncles, my cousins—who reliably vote for the candidate I oppose. Maybe you have similar connections to people on the other side.
If the We the People hypothesis is right, then we need to identify and address those things that are accentuating and catastrophizing the division within our political society. Here’s one story. As voters, we are ignorant of the policy issues and even of the detailed stances of various candidates on those issues. It is time-consuming, difficult, and tedious to pay attention to the details. On the other hand, we enjoy and easily comprehend the character drama, the horse race, the scandals, and the inspirational candidate. And we are highly susceptible to in-group and out-group thinking. So, we identify our candidate, our party, and they become our team. We root for them, hard, and adopt the positions are adopted by our team. We antagonize the other side, reduce them to a caricature of their worst elements, see them as the enemy. We filter evidence and media through this lens, letting in (mostly) only what we agree with. Group attachments and social identities drive our thinking about politics, rather than the other way around. This basic story is the one offered—and supported in exhausting empirical detail—by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their recent masterwork, Democracy for Realists.
What response can be offered, if this is the story about how We the People come to feel deeply and intractably divided? Elsewhere, I argue that elections are a large part of the problem. I argue that we would be better off using randomly chosen citizens, selected to serve on single-issue legislatures (each covering, say, transportation, or education, or agriculture), where they would be given a chance to learn in detail about the relevant issues, and then actually engage at some length and in person with a descriptively representative sample of their co-citizens before enacting policy.
I can’t defend the system here. Let me just point to a few reasons to think We the People might be better served by such a system, at least with respect to our felt division. First, without elections (and let us imagine a system with no, or only a greatly-diminished, elected executive), we lose the horse-race, the explicit confrontation of us versus them, the sense that “our team” will either be stably dominated or dominantly in power for 4 or however many years. And we wouldn’t have clearly defined teams. Second, the focus would shift away from candidate personalities and toward policy issues and policymaking. We would no longer respond to our policy ignorance by trying to pick our favorite person of the bunch. Third, moving away from a generalist legislative process opens up places for us to identify issues on which we agree, moving us out of the situation where our attention is concentrated on those few issues which most deeply divide us. It also lessens the stakes with respect to any one institution. Fourth, it might become possible for us to move beyond elite capture and control of political institutions. If part of the story of our apparent division is a story of manufactured conflict, where the most powerful members of society keep us from working together by creating this sense of two teams (and handing each team a set of policy positions and political candidates that are basically agreeable to the most powerful), then lottery-selection might be a way of taking real democratic control back.
I hope the We the People hypothesis is true. But this election cycle, as well as much of the anti-Obama rhetoric over the past 8 years, may suggest that it is false. Perhaps the red-blue division is deep and real, or the urban-rural division is, or at least the Trump/anti-Trump division is—stemming from deeply different values and beliefs concerning gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, the proper role of government, the appropriateness of prioritizing American interests over the interests of people everywhere, and much else. If it is, why should we have the situation where every four years half of us get to lord it over the other half of us? Why should some of us get to make the decisions that govern all of us?
This question is a fundamental question of democratic theory: the question of defining the demos. It is a question we must occasionally revisit and take seriously, because of how bad it is to have conditions of political domination. Perhaps we are not in the We the People situation. Perhaps disagreement and distrust runs too deep.
If that is our situation, we should consider going our separate ways, breaking up the USA. Perhaps divide into several different countries, perhaps into even smaller units: states, counties, or even municipalities. There would be costs—it would be harder to solve collective action problems, it would result in inefficiencies (at least until the relevant trade agreements were in place), there would be some period of reduced global stability. But there would also be benefits. The obvious benefit would be in living in a place where there wasn’t a federal government controlling what you could do, taking your tax money and using it for things that you deeply objected to, and generally serving as a force for dread and oppression and repression in the years when your team was not in power. But there are other benefits. Local control would mean better informed control, as Ilya Somin argues. And there would be global benefits from getting rid of an uber-dominant superpower.
Obviously, questions and practical problems abound. But, if we are not We the People, and we can’t see any way of getting back to that, these are among the questions we should be considering—rather than just those of trying to figure out how to get our team back in the driver’s seat.
Promises and Vulnerabilities
by Adam Hosein
As the results came in, the people around me kept asking me ‘Are you really that cold?’ I had gradually been putting back on all of my outdoors clothes, and eventually borrowed a blanket that I wore like a scarf. I ignored the questions, carried on frantically following the numbers, and thought I was just a little chilled from canvassing earlier in the evening. It wasn’t until late in the night that I recognized it: fear. A deep, physical anxiety.
I am a non-citizen from an Islamic background. Though I am generally very privileged, I do not know what lies ahead. What is there is go on? So far, we’ve heard Trump’s policy proposals—a ban on Muslim immigration, increased surveillance of mosques and ‘other places’—and also his general attitudes: asked what he would do about Islamophobia, he instead reminded us that, unlike President Obama, he’s all for the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” Going forward, so many of Trump’s promises are plainly unattainable—a huge, costless wall, thriving steel factories in Pennsylvania—that he will surely need an alternative way to appease his base. A very likely strategy is scapegoating everyone whose faith or ethnicity is associated with Islam, and doing the same to Latinxs and blacks.
The message of hate from above will legitimize and promote private violence. It will also alter the relationship that Muslims and people of color in the U.S. have with their government. In fact, it already has. Individuals have a right to live under institutions that they can expect to treat them as equal members, subjects of concern and not just of suspicion and control. A government of hate disenfranchises people by terrorizing them out of democratic participation, crushes their liberty by forcing them to question every potential action, and alienates them from a body that is supposed to act in their name.
I am still searching desperately for answers, but for now let us be open together about our individual fragilities. Not just immigrants and ethnic minorities, but also disabled people, LGBTQ people, women, and everyone else under threat from Trump. And let us, everyone, respond to that hateful threat with kindness to one another, especially the most vulnerable.
Betrayal and Progress
by Suzy Killmister
In my earlier Daily Nous post I focused on two issues—the threat to relations between citizens of Trump’s outspoken bigotry, and the precarity of democratic institutions when citizens feel betrayed. Now that Trump is the next President of the United States of America (a phrase I never seriously imagined I would utter), both of these issues loom larger than ever.
I’ll leave it to others to predict the policy-level implications of a Trump presidency for African-Americans, Muslims, immigrants, women, the LGBTQ community… the list goes on. Whatever happens on the policy front, I expect we’re going to see a surge in street-level hostility towards the groups Trump has demonized throughout his campaign. We saw this in post-Brexit Britain, where there was a 41% increase in hate crimes following the referendum. Trump’s election sends a clear signal to those who dream of a politics of patriarchal white supremacy that their vision for the country is possible, and that the respect they have been told for years they must show to those of us who are not white men will no longer be demanded of them by those in power. This makes it imperative for those of us who reject what Trump stands for to loudly and publicly declare our solidarity and support for those who are likely to be hit hardest by his election.
This raises the issue of betrayal. In my last post I focused on the sense of betrayal articulated by those who were drawn to the anti-establishment ethos of both Trump and Sanders. In that case the betrayal was one of having been overlooked and left behind by a political elite interested only in advancing its own ends. In this post I want to focus on a different sense of betrayal, the betrayal many Americans felt early this morning when they discovered that their fellow Americans had voted into office a man who declares them to be inferior human beings: who sees them as pussies to be grabbed; illegals to be deported; a ‘law and order’ problem to be eliminated. To feel betrayed in this way by one’s fellow citizens is toxic to democratic institutions, which depend on mutual trust and a willingness to co-operate.
Those who felt betrayed by the political elites responded by giving us Trump. Those of us who now feel betrayed by Trump’s election have a decision to make about how we move forward. While part of me wants to urge respect for democratic processes, and hence moving past the antagonisms of the election cycle, I know that that part of me speaks from a position of privilege (my Australian passport is being clutched very tightly today). Moreover, to make such a call would be to ask those whose basic humanity has been denied by our next President to continue in political community with those who endorsed that denial. While I have the utmost respect and admiration for those who are willing to walk that path, no one can be obligated to do so. Playing by the democratic rules can only be justly demanded of those who are accepted as equal participants in the democratic game.
Decency and Democracy
by Christopher Lebron
For months we were told that Hillary Clinton would be the forty-fifth president of the United States and our first woman president. The conclusion seemed increasingly foregone. Tapes revealed that president elect, Donald J. Trump, was a self-admitted sexual assaulter; documents were never disclosed revealing his actual wealth, thus we were unable to corroborate his legitimizing narratives of success. Then the conclusion came into question as FBI director James Comey put back in front of the American people that Hillary Clinton might be a criminal. On Nov 8th, the American people were asked to choose between a genital grabbing obfuscator and a slippery-seeming long-time Washington insider. The genital grabber won. And this says something about the American people.
In nearly every philosophical account of social justice and democratic theory you can find, there is a presupposition that a nation can be united, if even loosely, by an ethos that gives the nation its character. Few accounts assume unanimity in political judgment or in life-plans among a numerous and diverse population. These give the nation its distinctive and alluring qualities. But most of us in the business of thinking up a better social scheme than the one we have got necessarily depend on a shared essential commitment to decency, a shared desire for basic trust, a shared ambition towards integrity. It is telling that often Bernie Sanders was often seen as the closest approximation of this bundle of ideals among the bunch of politicians who ran (which is not to say he was actually close, mind you). And despite that, our nation chose a slate of candidates from both parties with fatal character flaws that, in either case, would have demanded confronting once all ballots were cast.
But now we have one to rule them all and we must give this careful consideration.
If you are a theorist of justice and democratic morality as I am, today, tomorrow and for the foreseeable future, you are obligated to rethink what makes a nation a nation. Do we really aspire towards integrity? Clearly not always. Do we desire basic trust? If this election cycle is anything to go by, it seems we are willing to forego trustworthiness for something else. In electing Trump, America chose a troubling desire to recapture the good ol’ days of America. Had we elected Clinton, we would have expressed a troubling apathy to elite insiderism. Do we really have a shared commitment to basic decency? I think the surprising answer to this question is yes, but just as John Rawls argued that we all have the concept of justice but competing conceptions of it, we have competing conceptions of decency. No election could have made this clearer. For us engaged in this part of the division of intellectual labor we have to start thinking about ideas past fairness, rights, equality, and legitimacy and dig down deeper into what we might do to make our competing conceptions of decency more compatible. Rights and the rest approach worthlessness when people see each other as illegitimate bearers of those rights, and often what stops others from seeing us as proper bearers is not some competition for scarce resources but a desire to dominate the grounds of social judgment by populating it with crooked notions of what it means to belong and upside down ideas about what it means to see past one’s irrational group narratives. Underneath this lies, I think, the decent heart. But centuries of group violence and exploitation increasingly threaten to stop its beating for good. We should hope it is not too late.
They Make Choices, Too
by Jacob Levy
We are agents, capable of making choices. They are passive objects, acted upon, part of the chain of social causation, responding to external stimuli.
When they are somehow caused to bring about great harm, we must devote our effort to criticizing each other, with great venom—-because we could have chosen differently, manipulated them better, reshaped their environment and stimuli, approached them with better tactics. We must adopt my understanding of how to deal with them. We must sympathize with them in the way my model describes. The subset of the US who don’t share my understanding of how to deal with them are the enemy, to be raged against.
There are reasons for these temptations, but I propose to start by rejecting them. Some 59 million people chose to enact horror and obscenity, and they’re agents in the world. They acted wrongly and are blameworthy. Whatever mistakes other people made in persuading them don’t lift the moral responsibility from their own shoulders.
I’ve got arguments aplenty with other people who rejected Trump, and there are of course prudential reasons to care intensely about how best to persuade those who chose him not to choose horror and obscenity in the future. But I’m going to try to avoid the temptation to be angrier at the people who seem closer to me—because they’re smart and could have chosen differently!—than at the directly responsible actors.
Looking Ahead: What does Injustice Mean for Our Teaching?
by Luke Maring
Young people 18-25 years old—the students in our undergraduate classes—are one of the few demographics that solidly rejected Trump. They are the people who will inherit his (and our) mess. But they cannot put things right without a firm understanding of concrete social issues.
That may be where we come in: those of us lucky enough to teach undergraduate Philosophy courses have a unique and valuable platform. With Trump’s presidency looming, how should we use it? As injustice escalates, is it irresponsible to teach classes that don’t substantially engage concrete issues?
I am far from sure about how to answer. But we ought not dismiss the question. Think about just how extraordinary our undergraduate classes are: We have remarkable latitude in what we teach—far more than professors of, say, Math or Chemistry. If we forge it carefully, the student-teacher relationship is an unparalleled tool for gently pushing students outside their respective echo chambers. Unlike many arenas of life, classrooms incentivize listening and learning. And, lastly, we have whole semesters in which to give difficult social problems their due.
Why is this unique platform valuable? The tools of our trade can reveal bad arguments, cast entrenched issues in a new light, and, generally, push understanding forward. (Whether or not you think it resolved, the philosophical debate about abortion, for example, is light years beyond its popular counterpart.) If my classes are any indication, students are often starved for intellectually robust discussions of social issues—our classes, again, are for most students a rare opportunity. The importance of these intellectually robust discussions grows as injustice escalates.
But students seldom get a chance to investigate pure theory or to simply trace the history of ideas either. Isn’t the life of the mind important? Of course it is. But we can pursue the life of the mind—and all the goods internal to that pursuit—and incorporate explicit reflection on social issues at the same time. We can teach epistemology and make students aware of the cognitive mechanisms that breed bigotry. We can teach phenomenology and diagnose the problems of solitary confinement. We can study Plato and use his criticism of mob rule as a springboard for thinking about the factors undermining our own democracy. Given that we can do both, what justifies a class on pure theory, or a course dedicated to, say, Aristotle’s metaphysics? Why isn’t that an irresponsible way to use our unique platform?
As a discipline, we think very carefully about course design; we think less about the relationship between course design and justice. If these reflections about the particular demands of justice are wrong—not something I’m ruling out!—I hope other minds will do better. My main goal is to point out just how unique and valuable our undergraduate teaching is, particularly given the specter of a Trump presidency. We should think hard about how best to approach it.
by Simon May
I have three points I want to make about the election, writing as a partisan supporter of the Democratic Party as the best available vehicle for progressive values in US politics, despite its many flaws. I’ll preface these remarks by saying I think the outcome of the election is both surprising and disastrous. All three points aim to guard against a certain kind of reaction to the result, given these two characteristics.
First, we should be wary of drawing hasty and overly simplistic analyses of the cause of this loss, or exaggerate its severity. In particular, we should be very wary of simplistic analyses that rely on moralistic evaluations of Clinton’s personal flaws as a candidate, strategic decisions that were made by the campaign, or institutional practices of the party itself. No doubt much criticism is warranted on all these points, but our psychological temptation to find a narrative that explains the loss and assigns blame to the culprits should be resisted. Elections are complex phenomena and electoral results tend to bias our assessment of what went right and what went wrong, especially when they are as close as this. I would very much like it if a comprehensive reckoning of the election supported a shift in the direction of the party toward the (much more left-wing) political positions that I would prefer to see (a single payer health care system, an end to mass incarceration, sweeping protections of the political rights of all citizens, massive investment in egalitarian public education, etc.). But I don’t imagine that this loss itself vindicates the claim that a more progressive candidate would have fared any better. Maybe, maybe not. We should not draw empirical conclusions on moral grounds.
Second, we should reflect on the social norms that are supposed to function as the moral rules of the electoral game. A great part of what people on the left find horrifying about this result is that a racist misogynistic bigot has been elected president and, more particularly, that his racism, misogyny, and bigotry did not make him politically radioactive. We’ve called foul on the many egregious claims he has made, only to see that there is no referee there to rule them out of order. So the morally intolerable has been politically tolerated – crying foul has not been enough. It should be the case that no politician, let alone a presidential candidate, feels free to insult an entire ethnicity or religion or to demean women without immediate and overwhelming political repercussions. But imagining that we are already in that kind of society does not actually mean we are there. I do not know what to do about this, but I doubt whether just crying foul louder is obviously the most effective way forward, however justified it may seem to be in itself. Maybe, maybe not. But we should be creative in thinking about how best to shift the social norms of American life and American politics in a progressive direction.
Third, we should avoid the temptation of treating Trump himself as a spectacle. It’s easy to get caught up in decrying his personal failings and it’s certainly objectionable that someone with those failings has been elected. But the situation we are in now would be just as terrifying, if not more so, had he Nixon’s intelligence and Reagan’s charm. What matters is the decisions he will make and the policies his administration will implement. So I recommend switching off, or at least muting, the reactive attitudes you might have to him as an individual. However warranted these attitudes might be in themselves, however sullied you may feel with him as your head of state, that indulgence detracts from criticism of the most harmful steps that his administration is likely to take. I don’t mean we should pretend he is a good person–he isn’t–I mean we should act, for the most part, as if he were an incredibly destructive natural phenomenon. Be cold, impersonal, and surgical in response. The political stakes are too high for feelings of personal contempt, disdain, or bitterness to dominate.
The End of Illusions
by Lionel McPherson
The electoral force of the Trump phenomenon, if not his presidential victory, could be seen coming almost a year ago. White liberal types were unable to take the possibility seriously. But when Barack Obama was first elected president eight years ago, the illusion of a post-racial America started to dissipate—aided by Trump’s “birtherism,” no less. Even late into Election Night 2016, White political commentators carried on the American tradition of pretending that racism and White racial resentment are not still central features of American life. This observation is of course compatible with recognizing that the fading deal for the White middle-class is fundamental to the story.
An electoral majority of the United States returned to its roots in the vain hope to “Make America Great Again [for White People].” Roughly, Trump won the “white” vote 58 to 37 percent. He won “white men” 63 to 31. He won “white women” 53 to 43. That Clinton won the overall “female” vote, 54 to 42 percent, is due to “black” (94 to 4) and “latino” (68 to 26) women. Clinton won the overall “black” vote 88 to 8. Her campaign never grasped what such numbers would indicate—and instead chose to chase a self-indulgent mainstream narrative about the anxiety and suffering of “working” White people. In fact, Clinton won the “under $50k” vote 52 to 41 percent, while Trump won the “$50k or more” vote 49 to 47 (according to exit polls).
Many Trump voters are ignorant or vicious but that doesn’t mean they’re merely stupid. The Democratic Party kept operating with a “jobs” and “the economy” playbook from the ’90s, when the dream of a rising tide was still alive—before everyone learned that what’s best for Wall Street might be bad for most of the rest of us. The Obama administration dusted off and complicated Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts health care scheme to yield the Affordable Care Act, one of whose architects remarked that “the stupidity of the American voter [was] critical to getting the thing to pass.” Trade deals like NAFTA and TPP, spearheaded by Democratic administrations, are widely seen as having no net benefit for ordinary Americans. Meanwhile, radical wealth inequality has continued to grow (with the acquiescence of many of these same Trump voters).
Hillary Clinton, apart from being an ethically challenged politician, offered more of the same: a neoliberal, incrementalist lesser evil, along with socially liberal values that don’t help Democrats in socially conservative-leaning states. Trump represents little more than White nationalist delusions and a big FU to the corporatist establishment. As Trump told Black voters, “What do you have to lose?” In general, enough of the country was willing to find out.
American Whiteness and Democracy
by José Jorge Mendoza
There do not appear to be a lot of positive takeaways from this week’s election, but one potential silver lining might be the dramatic increase in Latino/a voters. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Latino/a voters gave Clinton a rather easy victory in Nevada, a state which many pundits had considered a tossup going in, and made usually solid republican states, such as Arizona and Georgia, a lot more competitive than they had been in prior elections. It’s also very likely that the growing Latino vote in Virginia is to thank for Clinton being able to hold on to that state. The conclusion we might be tempted to draw from all this is that as the percentage of the Latino/a electorate increases, as it is expected to do at an exponential rate in the coming years, the more likely Democrats are to win elections.
In this respect, the state of Florida would appear to be a kind of outlier. Since the infamous 2000 election, this state has been very close in every election and this year was no different. Back in 2000, Latino/as made up approximately one sixth of the state’s population. By the time this most recent election took place, Latino/as had grown to almost a quarter of the state’s population. Given what we have just said above about the correlation between the Latino/a vote and Democratic victories, one would expect that Florida should have gone from a swing state in 2000 to a now reliably solid Democratic state in 2016. Yet, this year’s election saw Donald Trump carry the state by almost two percentage points! So what does this mean?
I want to suggest that Florida is neither an aberration nor a contradiction to the claim that changing demographics are favoring the Democratic party. Instead, I want to claim that Florida gives us an underappreciated insight into just how “whiteness” works. Whiteness, as most race theorists have noted, is neither a fixed nor bounded category. In other words, whiteness can and does change depending on the context in which it appears. We also know that when white supremacy comes under threat, whites have tried to maintain their dominant social position either by trying to eliminate (e.g., genocide) or isolate (e.g., apartheid or segregation) the threatening nonwhite group(s). What is less discussed is the fact that whiteness has also shown itself willing to coopt certain segments of the nonwhite population if it would require only a small change to the present understanding of whiteness but would allow whites to maintain their dominant social position. This is how and why, for example, ethnic groups from southern Europe were eventually granted “white” status in the United States.
Beginning in the early 1900’s, Americans of northern European descent began to realize that they were quickly losing their majority status. Their initial reaction to this threat was to start keeping non-northern Europeans out of the US by placing immigration restrictions on them. This, however, did not solve the problem. Eventually, the solution that was settled on was an expansion of whiteness to include not just northern Europeans but also groups, like southern Europeans, that were closer to whiteness than say groups like African or Asian Americans (interestingly enough, it is also around this time that Arabs came to be classified as legally—although by no means socially—“white” in the United States). By being willing to undergo this brief expansion, whiteness was able to maintain its social dominance in the United States.
What I am suggesting is that we are seeing something similar today happening in places like Florida and in the future we might see happening in other states as well. Trump and his fellow Republicans have figured out that they can win states with large Latino/a populations not only by suppressing their vote, but also by coopting a particular segment of that population—in the case of Florida that segment has been Cuban Americans. This does not mean that all Latino/as can or are eligible to buy into American whiteness, but it does suggest that one of the silver linings of this year’s election might not be as comforting as it might have initially appeared—especially not if American whiteness undergoes yet another expansion (and there is no reason to think that it won’t) and coopts a small but significant segment of the Latino/a population.
The Emotional Labor of Loss
by Regina Rini
It hurts to lose, as any Cleveland baseball fan will attest. It hurts even more to lose an election. A political loss means that you—your ideals—failed, and it means your life will change in ways you do not accept. And losing in politics, unlike losing in baseball, imposes emotional obligations upon the losers. They must do their best to try to understand the winners, to sympathetically and charitably imagine how a fellow citizen could have voted otherwise. Why? Because the democratic ideal is a shared social project, in which we meet as equal co-citizens reasoning together. That ideal demands more from us than the Hobbesian alternative of elections as mere dulled-blade proxies for war. If our democracy is a shared project, then losers must not simply lie low while their forces regather; they must struggle to understand how decent, public-spirited citizens could have voted for the victor. Call this the emotional labor of loss. (The winners, of course, must also labor to understand the losers—but that point is less interesting to me in our current circumstances.)
What does this emotional labor involve? First, it requires self-management. You must manage your anger, to keep it from provoking anti-democratic violence. And you must manage your sadness, to keep yourself from withdrawing despairingly from the public. When this is in hand, you must turn to the emotions of others. What did your opponents feel, when they voted otherwise? This isn’t simply a psychological question; it’s not properly answered by explaining away your opponents as mere puppets of affective causation. Your opponents’ emotions are just as rationally intelligible as your own, though their interpretation requires straining beyond well-worn grooves of deliberation. It will be tempting to think your opponents’ motives are entirely confused or vicious, because this allows you a self-flattering comparison to salve the defeat. But this is mostly false. Or if it is true, then the democratic ideal is already lost. So we must assume that our opponents, most of them anyway, mean well, and that we can sympathetically reconstruct their motives if we try hard enough.
Emotional labor is work. It costs time and energy. Though everyone must do the emotional labor of loss, this does not mean everyone must do it in equal proportion. Some people are already under other burdens. Some have fewer emotional reserves, or less sympathetic ability. Most importantly, some are more affected by the electoral loss itself, in ways that make significant emotional labor both unrealistic and unfair. Members of socially marginalized groups, especially those who have been explicitly targeted for mistreatment during the campaign, have a strong reason to attend to their own lives rather than supporters of a candidate avowing their derogation. Their anger and grief is not only powerful, but it is entirely legitimate. Asking them to react to this sort of loss with calmness or sympathy for the victors is too much, especially in the early weeks and months.
What makes this election extraordinary is the breadth of social categories derogated and the depth of their mistreatment. Trump openly attacked Muslims, Latinos, immigrants, people of color, people with disabilities, LGBT people, and all women. Their numbers among the losing side are vast, and for this reason the emotional labor of this loss may be imbalanced to a nearly unprecedented degree. After all, the labor still must be done. Someone must do it, or we no longer have a truly democratic culture. And it is especially difficult to do this year, because the victors include triumphant white nationalists whose motives are incompatible with democracy itself, and these must be recognized and separated out from the Trump voters who simply made a tragic but well-intentioned miscalculation. Many voted for Trump instrumentally, launching him at the hated Washington establishment like a distasteful cannonball. Their emotions are real, and the losers must labor to understand them—while at the same time reserving emotional support to show solidarity with the victims. This is unusually heavy work, which cannot be distributed evenly. So the final irony of the Trump campaign is this: since those he abused cannot be expected to fully shoulder the usual demands, the greatest emotional burden instead falls disproportionately on those he flattered, the straight white men. Everyone who lost must do our democratic work when we are able, but some must start sooner. Meanwhile, understanding runs both ways: for those demonized by the Trump campaign, the emotional burdens of democracy are heavier and rightfully demanded only in time.
Too Many in the Water
by Gina Schouten
A puzzle that has long kept many philosophers busy concerns the way one person’s moral obligations can change when another person isn’t doing her part in a shared moral project. We are collectively obligated to prevent certain kinds of harm, and to help victims of the harms we can’t prevent. But how does each person’s share of that obligation change when others aren’t pulling their weight? If I’m on a beach and I see a child drowning, and I can safely rescue her, I have to do it. But what if it isn’t just me and the child there on the beach? What if another adult is there pretending not to see the danger? What if there are multiple children, and multiple could-be rescuers pretending not to see?
I’ll spare you the details. But I’m convinced of this: The greater the harm, the more we’re obligated to do to prevent or address it. More importantly, perhaps, I’m convinced that each person’s share of the obligation grows when others fail to pull their weight. I’m not morally obligated to save only the one child I’d have needed to pull from the water if everyone were doing their fair share. If I can’t persuade others to do their part, morality demands that I take up the slack. Here’s the upshot: In circumstances of profound injustice, morality can demand more from us than we tend to think we have to give.
I get the claim that we should have seen it coming. Somehow, still, Trump’s victory was a shock. I learned months ago that too many would vote for hate. What I learned on election night is how many people who aren’t partisans of hate would nonetheless fail to vote for the only viable alternative to it. In some cases, I know, they deplored Trump’s invocation of hate. In those cases, something else weighed heavily on their choice. The imperative to vote against hate didn’t weigh heavily enough to prevail, and there’s profound injustice in that. There’s injustice, too, in the hurt that it was weighing against.
Last week, a friend was surprised to learn that I knew people—grew up with people, still maintain relationships with people—who planned to vote for Trump. As far as he knew, this friend had no such acquaintances. His point was just to lament the “bubbles” he lives in. But in that moment, I felt ashamed. I’ve spent years practicing a certain set of skills: skills for reasoning carefully through a complicated problem and bringing others along with me. How could I have failed to deploy those skills to persuade people in my life to vote as, I believed, moral decency required? How could I not have done better, argued more effectively? Surely some shared premises could have been established. I needed to convince them that I wasn’t calling them racist; I was calling on them to be anti-racist, and insisting that anti-racism required them to vote for a (highly qualified) candidate they otherwise found unacceptable. I needed to convince them that I wasn’t accusing them of misogyny; but insisting that anti-misogyny demands that we treat boasts of sexual assault as beyond the pale.
I did try, but I could have tried harder. I could have deferred less to politeness. I failed to do even my fair share.
I worry now that we’ll miss important nuance when we cast the roles of drowning children and shirking bystanders. Many more voted for Trump than showed up at his rallies fervently in support of hate. They were my former classmates and my former students. Many of them will be among the victims of a Trump presidency, and have been among the victims of our previous failures to combat injustice. There are far too many drowning, and far too few of us standing securely on the shore have waded in to help. If the size of our obligation depends on the extent of injustice, and if we must take up the slack where others falter, then our share of the work of fighting injustice is far greater than we judged it to be. Election night made this clear because we saw more clearly where we have been, and because we now know something of where we are headed. The policies to come and the hate that Trump has emboldened will only obligate us more.
If the hurt itself weren’t enough, there’s more: Those of us who have attained some measure of safety, security, and stability haven’t gotten there alone; nor have we gotten there only through our own efforts and the investment of those who love us. We are standing on the shore, rather than struggling against the undertow, in part because we’ve benefitted from some form of public investment: Maybe, like me, you went to good schools at public expense, or maybe some in your personal support networks did. Maybe, like me, you benefitted disproportionally from a publicly-funded legal system that made you feel safe rather than fearful. The system of social cooperation we’ve built together has allowed us to survive or even to thrive. To be sure, many of us also help pay the costs of maintaining that system, but we don’t pay them alone. And whatever you think about those who lack safety, security, and stability, nobody can reasonably deny that a great many of them have benefitted far less from the system of social cooperation than have we who are standing safely on the shore. Those struggling to stay afloat didn’t wander haplessly into the water. They are victims of social and economic injustice. Our moral obligations here aren’t obligations of charity or benevolence. They’re obligations of justice.
On election night, we learned more about how much injustice there is, about how dire is the harm, about how little we have been doing to ease it. I, for one, have not been doing even my own share.
Social and economic injustice is a shared problem, and we need political solutions. We need to come together to demand them. In the meantime, we need to do what we can, collectively and as individuals, to fight injustice and support its victims. Maybe we find ways to work within the roles that the social system has equipped us to perform. I teach and write political philosophy, and I know there’s more I can do in that capacity to promote the good. I could be braver about provoking difficult conversations in the classroom, and work harder to learn strategies for making those conversations go well. I could be bolder in insisting that higher education and philosophical thinking have value that warrants public support, and more creative about how to make that case publicly. Of course, we also have to scrutinize the roles themselves. Maybe we can devise new ways to use our privilege to promote justice, or maybe we have to find ways to divest ourselves of that privilege.
What I know now is just this: election night gave us very good cause to rethink our expectations about how much we’re required to contribute to the work of making things better.
by Matthew Smith
There is no single, reductive explanation for Trump’s victory, nor is there a simple answer to the question, “What now?” But, given the suffering to be unleashed upon so many vulnerable people by Trump and his accomplices, straining to understand his voters wastes precious resources. Those with the energy and power should instead focus on fighting for what’s right: resisting his deeply cruel policies and their effects, and building alternatives. These two projects go hand-in-hand. Making headway is exhausting and frustrating when we have a ‘good’ president. It will be a pitiless slog in the coming years. Desperately trying to enact soft platitudes about the virtues of empathy for the white working class and listening to one’s opponents does nothing for those who will fare the worst during this dark era.
Instead, we must focus on where we have power. These are places where progressive organization flourishes and where space exists for political creation. People in the less benighted parts of California and New York, Colorado and Washington, for example, should move quickly to create anti-Trumplandias. These would be sanctuaries for those persecuted by the Right’s policies. They will be laboratories for progressive alternatives. Statewide single-payer healthcare systems, robustly progressive tax schemes funding schools, and radical approaches to urban transport, among other plans, should be on the table. Those of us outside these regions must find ways to support these projects. (For example, by funding those in these struggles.)
The ‘soft platitudes’ of empathy and listening should be enacted in this context, during the difficult processes of building coalitions, which always involves painful abandonment of favored projects. Thinking creatively also involves thinking across ‘official’ boundaries. We might seek to organize networks of municipalities (and even states) that enact progressive policies and establish mutually supportive arrangements.
The struggle is real. Today, the future has fallen into their hands. We need to create our own.
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