I want to post part of some friendly reactions I received relative to my recent post on cynicism and what to do about Trump and what he represents. My responses below will be the last time I post on this topic for a while. Trump’s inauguration is coming and a strange new time will soon be upon us. Thus, our focus has to be on actively and forcefully resisting Trumpism and defeating it at every turn, including defeating the Republican policy agenda that will use Trumpism to turn America into Sam Brownback’s Kansas.
Blogger Jim Wheeler pointed out how the “fine distinction between cynicism and skepticism” is often lost on people, to the point that even dictionaries “seem to view the two as synonyms.” Since I find cynicism dangerous to our democracy, I wanted to use Jim’s point to clarify what I’m saying, even though I risk beating a dead horse:
Perhaps I should have made the distinction clearer, as the two terms are often, as you suggest, used as synonyms. I have always seen the two this way: skepticism is an essential analytical tool; pessimism is akin to faith, albeit a negative faith. I like to quote C.S. Lewis, “to see through everything is the same as not seeing.” Pessimism is a way of not seeing anything. It is a crippling anti-faith. Blindness.
I went on to suggest to Jim that Democrats in Congress need to make it as difficult as possible for Republicans to pass Brownbackian policies and to use my old home state of Kansas as an example of what will happen if Republicans have their way. But it’s not just up to our representatives in Congress:
As for the rest of us not in positions of power, we need to keep building on what is turning out to be a robust grassroots rejection of Trump and, more important, Trumpism. This is not an ordinary candidate, and what he represents is not, and cannot be allowed to become, within the norms of American politics.
Michael Gaden cautioned us that when it comes to Trumpism, “how we resist is equally as important as whether we resist.” Rather than resorting “to the same tactics that Trump and his ilk use,” he said, “we must resist by modeling the behavior we want others to emulate.” Michael also made this point:
The majority of people, when confronted with suffering or danger or injustice occurring directly in their sensory range, will respond in a helpful manner….Unsympathetic people are not necessarily evil or cold, they just do not see what more observant people see. We should figure out ways to help them see, not an easy task, I admit, but I believe the most effective one.
I agree with Michael’s view on how people generally react to “suffering or danger or injustice.” The more distant and abstract such things are, the colder the response tends to be. For example, it’s easy for some churched folks to invoke the Bible’s condemnation of homosexual behavior, but it is hard for decent people to look someone in the eye who is suffering from AIDS and tell them they deserve their fate because God hates homosexuality. We do, therefore, need to find ways to make the abstract more real to people who observe only from a detached distance.
Along these lines, Jodie Fund quoted the liberal chef Anthony Bourdain:
There are a hell of a lot of nice people out there, who are doing what everyone else in this world is trying to do: the best they can to get by, and take care of themselves and the people they love. When we deny them their basic humanity and legitimacy of their views, however different they may be than ours, when we mock them at every turn, and treat them with contempt, we do no one any good.
Again, I have sympathy with this view. There are “a lot of nice people out there” who don’t see things the way we see them. They don’t deserve our contempt. They deserve our best efforts to show them why we think they are wrong and we are right, which necessarily involves listening to them. This is all good, so long as we recognize that there some people out there who are not nice people, who lack empathy under any circumstances, who are beyond the reach of reason and understanding. A lot of Trump supporters, and we can argue how many there are, fall into this latter category. Hillary labeled them “deplorables.” While politically unwise, I can’t argue with her characterization in a lot of cases. You can meet them on Twitter anytime you feel like venturing into the sewer. They have contempt for all those who don’t celebrate Trump, and they most certainly deserve our contempt right back. And from me they will get it.
A commenter calling himself “thgeneralist” hoped that my hope for our democracy is not misplaced and “that we may weather this disaster and the wreckage of democracy it will leave in its path.” He rightly pointed out that, “Much of the international community is already looking at us as traitors to our responsibility as a beacon of justice, fairness and hope.” He also wrote this:
The lazy, poorly informed, American voter has signed his own death warrant. The amazing success of voter suppression in Wisconsin and North Carolina will become the model for the new normal. I offer ZERO slack for the stupidity of people who can’t add 2+2 and realize how often their willingness to so obviously vote against their own self-interest is also a vote against their neighbor and against civility.
As I pointed out before, I understand this reaction. Voters, deplorable or otherwise, who supported Trump are responsible for what we have seen since he was elected and what we will see after he is in office. I just can’t allow my disgust with what happened on November 8 to devolve into a paralyzing pessimism or a crippling cynicism. Such a reaction, it appears to me, would seal our doom. Below is my response to thgeneralist, which pretty much sums up what I think is the best way to move forward in these strange and dangerous times:
In politics, in our national life, hope is essentially worthless in individual isolation, or if it is limited to a handful of folks. Hope has to infect a wider swath of people, you might say the critical masses. It has to be part of any large and effective movement against Trump and Trumpism. Collectively, we have to hope democracy isn’t, in the end, self-destructive, as so many in history have predicted, and then we have to mobilize on the basis of that hope.
We can agree on at least one thing when it comes to evaluating the American voter. Many are “lazy” and “poorly informed.” I’m not the biggest Noam Chomsky fan out there, but he got it right when he said Americans, ordinary people, don’t generally suffer from a lack of intelligence and analytical skills. They demonstrate such abilities in things like sports, where some people have a wealth of knowledge that boggles the mind and can analyze in considerable detail the many in-game complexities. Thus, for so many people, there is no excuse for their facile understanding of politics and political issues. They are poorly informed because they spend no time, in relation to the time they spend on sports analysis or celebrity worship or other things they are interested in, acquainting themselves with the issues and policy prescriptions that make for a healthy democracy.
All of that is a mile away from stupidity, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, there are plenty of people who lack the cognitive skills to vote as informed citizens, I’ll grant you that. Those folks always have been and always will be part of a broad electorate in a democracy. But mostly people are cognitively capable of making good and decent political judgments. They are, though, often focused on other things because, for reasons I can’t fathom, they don’t think politics is important enough to invest much time in. They get lazy and rely solely or significantly on their pastors, their parents, their spouses, their labor unions, their bosses, their friends, their political parties, trends and feeds on social media, and so on. Probably more important than all that, they rely, as Jim Wheeler and others have suggested, on their guts, their uncritical impressions about this or that candidate. We can, if we are smart about it, use the ill effects of Trumpism as a way of getting more people to focus on the importance of being good citizens by paying closer attention to politics and getting better informed. Social media will be a big part of this effort.
Thus, if we are to save our democracy, I don’t believe it is productive to focus on “stupid” voters or to broadly label those in the electorate who voted for Trump as having a “dark ages mentality.” We need to, as part of a “resistance” movement that understands how voters make decisions, keep working at appealing to both their guts and their minds. Some we will never convince, for sure. But some we will win over by feelings, by trying to understand their rational anxieties without excusing the irrational ones. Some we will win over by presenting policies and analysis, without claiming we have all the answers. It has to be a multi-front effort to fix what’s wrong with American democracy, and I confess it won’t be easy. Hell, it may be impossible. But we have to infect as many people as we can with the virtue of hope, and then get them involved in the resistance to Trumpism, clearly explaining that what Trump represents is incompatible with a healthy, thriving democracy and that Republicans in Congress are cynically using him to enact an agenda that will hurt ordinary, working-class Americans and the poor. Otherwise we know how this will end.