“We Must Not Be Enemies”

Progressives who wish for a less reactionary America could begin by trying to understand the Trump voter

Pamela Schmieder
Pamela Schmieder


In the aftermath of the November elections, progressives should stop asking themselves what went wrong and focus on where to go from here. A good starting place would be an attempt to understand the 60 million Americans who voted for Donald J. Trump. It will not do to dismiss them as “deplorables.” To argue for the importance of understanding what drove people to support a man like Trump is not to excuse acts or professions of violence, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, or overt discrimination of any sort. Some of Trump’s supporters may have been duped, say by Fox News, into believing things that are clearly false. Some, unfortunately, seem to exhibit major personality disorders. And some have been badly injured by economic and social changes but have misdirected their ire. Clearly, not all of these Americans can be reached by new progressive thinking, but respect for their fellow human beings and political prudence suggest that all of them should be approached as if they could be. The question is not only whether a new progressive movement can appeal to the less extreme elements of the Trump constituencies, but also whether progressives can understand the legitimate anger and frustration that many Trump voters felt and still feel, in the hope of creating a more workable, just, and peaceable society.

Many political commentators and other observers dismissively characterized the 2016 election campaign as a confrontation between enlightened, rational, cosmopolitan globalists and prejudiced, parochial, know-nothing nationalists. These globalist critics suggested three main reasons to see nationalism as something akin to xenophobia: nationalists oppose global free trade to protect their own country’s economy; they oppose immigration—especially immigration from cultures with different values—to protect their sense of national identity; and they oppose universal human rights in the name of national exceptionalism and sovereignty.

The self-righteous tone of many globalist critiques is well illustrated by an August 2016 New Yorker article by Pankaj Mishra, which appeared under the title “Down With Élites!” Mishra sees in Trump’s America—and in Europe, India, and Russia—whole countries that “seethe with demagogic assertions of ethnic, religious, and national identity.” These movements threaten “the great eighteenth-century venture of a universal civilization harmonized by rational self-interest, commerce, luxury, arts, and science.” Nationalists reject the wisdom of the great thinkers of the Enlightenment, Mishra writes, and instead follow in the wake of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whom Isaiah Berlin once called “the greatest militant lowbrow in history.”

Progressive leaders and followers need to look beyond this sort of self-righteousness and condescension. They need to draw not only on their commitment to individual rights but also on an understanding of community to bridge these two camps of Americans: the globalists who champion individual rights, immigration, and free trade, and the nationalists who put their vision of country above all else, who yearn for the old America of tight, culturally and socially homogeneous communities.

During the campaign, much less attention was paid to the communitarian views that Hillary Clinton extolled in her 1996 book, It Takes a Village, which pointed out that to raise children well (and to do well in the moral sense), all members of a community must shoulder the responsibility of taking care of each other and all of their children, and of advancing the common good. The thesis that every citizen has not only rights but also responsibilities is a communitarian keystone. (She elaborated these ideas when she addressed the 1996 annual meeting of The Communitarian Network.) True, her vision of community is hardly one that nationalists hanker for; still, it is a good starting point for a better understanding of what nationalists miss.

As I see it, the rise of right-wing populism in the United States and in Europe can be attributed to no small extent to the profound misunderstanding globalists have of community and communitarian values. Globalists tend to view society as composed of freestanding individuals, each of whom has his or her own individual rights and is keen to pursue his or her own self-interest. As a result, globalists assume that, given the proper information, their fellow citizens will see that their aging societies are refreshed by immigration, that free trade raises the standard of living for everyone, and that individual rights outweigh tribalism.

The trouble with this liberal view of society is less what it claims and more what it leaves out: namely, that people are also social creatures, whose flourishing and psychological well-being depend on strong, lasting, meaningful relationships with others and on the sharing of moral and social values. These relationships and values are found in national and local communities (including families, which are micro-communities). By definition, communities are circumscribed rather than all-inclusive and are inevitably parochial rather than global. Still, the values of communities can be reconciled with globalist values.

If the goal of progressives is to reduce right-wing populism, violence, prejudice, and xenophobia, then communities must be nurtured as they are urged toward equanimity, the rejection of unfounded fears, and above all tolerance. These goals cannot be achieved by denigrating parochialism. Rather, globalists must understand that parochialism can be reconfigured but cannot, and should not, be eliminated.

The miscomprehensions of today’s globalists are reminiscent of how Enlightenment thinkers such as David Hume viewed religion, and how quite a few rationalists still do. In the 18th century, some thinkers placed religion in the same category as witchcraft and black magic, reducing it to a set of traditional values that made people act irrationally and held back the progress of humanity. Hume wrote in The Natural History of Religion in 1757 that “the primary religion of mankind arises chiefly from an anxious fear of future events; and what ideas will naturally be entertained of invisible, unknown powers, while men lie under dismal apprehensions of any kind, may easily be conceived.” Most of us have learned that people have a profound need to grant meaning to parts of life that science—and more broadly, reason—cannot address: What is the purpose of life? Why are we born to die? What is it that we owe one another? Although some forms of spirituality (meditation, mindfulness, and yoga as a ritual) that do not qualify as religion fulfill many of these same needs, it is also true that Enlightenment thinking is not about to replace religion.

On the contrary, religion is thriving around the world, even in places like Russia and China. Despite decades of suppression by the Soviet government, the church is going strong in Russia. In 2012, 70 percent of Russians identified as Orthodox Christian, up from 31 percent when the Soviet Union disbanded in 1991. In China, the number of Protestants alone has grown by 10 percent per year since 1979, and China may well soon have a larger Christian population than any other country in the world. In Latin America and Africa, the Catholic and Anglican churches are being challenged not so much by secularism as by the rise of evangelical and Pentecostal churches. Polling indicates that a majority of Muslims in many countries would like to see Islam and, specifically, Islamic law play a greater role in their lives. And religion continues to hold a significant place in the lives of millions of Americans and Europeans.

If globalists believe, however incorrectly, that religion is and perhaps should be on its way out, then perhaps they should be encouraged to note that within almost every religion there is or has been a struggle between the prejudiced, parochial, violent strains and the more tolerant, relatively universalistic, and peaceful strains. Compare the Christianity of the Crusaders with that of the National Council of Churches; compare the Catholic Church that supported the conquistadors in South America with the Catholicism of Pope Francis; compare the faith of Reform Jews with that of many of the West Bank settlers; compare the faith of today’s Muslims who hold that jihad means killing all the infidels with that of those who believe it requires a journey of self-improvement. The same general point holds for Americans: some will bomb abortion clinics and burn mosques, but most people of faith believe that they must worry about the least among us. Given this religious diversity, it would be a mistake to dismiss the religious impulse as something out of step with the modern world. We should be troubled by violent expressions in the name of religion while noting that violence is not inherent in any religion, Islam included.

When globalists champion free trade, they tend to ignore the “externalities.” Many developing nations can produce cheaper goods because they pay little attention to the welfare of their workers or to the environmental consequences of mass production. Trade agreements are supposed to curb these social costs and help workers in countries that pay higher wages compete with workers in countries that don’t, but such curbs have only limited effect. True, free trade lowers the costs of consumer products at Walmart, but how does that help people whose jobs are outsourced? Promises to retrain them and find them other jobs—for instance, to make computer programmers out of coal miners—are often unrealistic. Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times, Robert J. Samuelson of The Washington Post, and writers in The Economist all argue that job losses are more attributable to technological developments than to free trade. But this is like saying you should not mind being kicked in the stomach because you would hurt more from also being hit over the head.

Above all, globalists ignore the effects of free trade on people’s essential communitarian needs. Economists often fail to understand people who are reluctant to move from West Virginia to Montana, say, when the coal industry is declining but the gas industry is growing. They do not sufficiently consider that people lose their communal bonds when they make such moves. People leave behind the friends they can call on when they are sick or grieving and the places where their elders are buried. Their children miss their own friends, and everyone in the family feels ripped away from the centers of their social lives: school, church, social club, union hall, or American Legion post. A reliable evaluation of the benefits of trade should take into account the destructive effects on communities of churning the labor force. We should at least feel the pain of the casualties of free trade rather than denigrate them as redneck boors who just don’t get it.

And when these people finally bring their families along and form new communities, changes in free trade often force them to move again. Thus, after a boom in Montana, prices of oil and gas have fallen, and so many of the workers who moved there now need to relocate again. In this way, free trade churns societies, exacting high social costs by undermining communities.

These social costs do not mean that nations should stop trading with one another; rather, it means that those who are concerned about the social effects of new trade treaties are not know-nothing, parochial nationalists but are people with valid concerns. It means that making trade deals fairer to workers in the United States is a reasonable demand and that we have to invest much more in finding out what can be done for those whose jobs are replaced by trade and technology and cannot find new jobs—for instance, by securing a basic income or providing work in a publicly financed conservation or infrastructure corps.

Globalists favor the free movement of people across national borders. They strongly support the Schengen Agreement, which removes border controls among many members of the European Union. They cheered Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, for welcoming millions of immigrants to Germany. And they view Trump’s call for building a wall on the Mexican border and restriction on immigration from Muslim countries as typical right-wing, xenophobic, reactionary policies.

However, the well-known social psychologist Jonathan Haidt views mass immigration as the trigger that set off the authoritarian impulses of many nations. He concludes that it is possible to have moderate levels of immigration from “morally different ethnic groups”—so long as they are seen to be “assimilating to the host culture”—but high levels of immigration from countries with different moral values, without successful assimilation, will trigger an authoritarian backlash. Haidt suggests that immigration policies ought to take into account three factors: “the percentage of foreign-born residents at any given time; the degree of moral difference [between the] incoming group [and the members of the host society]; and the degree of assimilation being achieved by each group’s children.” Globalists do not approve of this approach.

Progressives are sure to continue to favor a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. But they’d better pay more attention to the further acculturation of this large group than many globalists do. To favor unlimited immigration—whatever the numbers and the cultural differences—is possible only if human rights outweigh all concerns about the value and importance of communal bonds, shared moral understanding, and a sense of identity, history, and fate. Adding a sizable number of people who are indistinguishable from its current members will stress a given community. Adding a large number of culturally distinct people is very likely to engender social tensions. The answer is not to draw up the bridges or build walls but to adopt realistic sociological strategies for absorbing immigrants into their new, host communities.

One such strategy might be called “diversity within unity,” which can help lower social tensions in countries that accept relatively large numbers of immigrants while welcoming diversity at the expense of full assimilation. The United States has in effect followed this policy, with surprising success, compared with the more assimilationist European nations, as well as Japan and South Korea.

Assimilation, in its strongest form, requires that immigrants abandon their distinct cultures, values, habits, and connections to their country of origin in order to integrate fully into their new country. France stands out as an archetype of this approach. For many years, it was regarded as discriminatory to even recognize the country of origin or religion of a French citizen. In this spirit, France passed a law in 2004 banning all religious symbols from public schools. The law is so far-reaching, and has been interpreted so broadly, that several schools have demanded that female Muslim students not wear long dresses. Towns and cities, including Nice, have banned so-called burkinis, bathing attire that follows Muslim prescripts for covering women in public. Schools in several French towns have decided to stop serving pork-free meals at schools. This approach is prone to failure because immigrants are required to give up values and behaviors that are central to their identity. Furthermore, such excessive homogenization is not necessary to obtain a sound state of community. The high level of alienation in immigrant and minority communities in France—and the corresponding alienation of the majority—reveals that this approach is not working and is indeed counterproductive.

In contrast, diversity within unity is a combination of partial assimilation and a high level of tolerance for differences in others. It presumes that all members of a given society will respect and adhere to certain core values and institutions that form the basic shared framework of the society. (This is the unity component.) At the same time, every group in society, including the majority, is free to maintain its distinct subculture—those policies, habits, and institutions that do not conflict with the shared core. (This is the diversity component.) Respect for the whole and respect for all are the essence of this approach; when these two come into conflict, then respect for the national community (which itself may change over time) is to take precedence.

Among the core values are adherence to the law, acceptance of democracy as the way to resolve differences and create public policy, and belief in civility in dealing with others. Religion, a core value for many European societies, need not be a unity value. However, a measure of patriotism should be expected, especially when loyalty to the new, host nation clashes with commitments to the nation of origin. (Thus, if the United States were to go to war with another country, our immigrants from that country are required to support our effort.) Under diversity within unity, all immigrants are expected to learn the national language but are welcome to keep their own and speak it with their children as a secondary language. Immigrants can celebrate their own holidays (Chinese New Year, say) but are expected to participate in the national ones, such as the Fourth of July.

Nobody can decide exactly where to draw the line between the elements of unity and those of diversity, and the line shifts as historical conditions change. However, the main sociological design remains: allowing immigrants and minorities to keep intact their immediate communities—often ethnic ones—in places like Chinatown, Spanish Harlem, Little Havana, Bronzeville in Chicago, and numerous suburbs—while maintaining their membership in the national community.

Even a global community, if one can be forged, would have to be constructed on top of local, regional, and national communities, rather than as a single independent entity composed of more than seven billion individuals, each with individual rights but no social bonds or set of shared values. Thus, universalism and parochialism can be combined, but attempts to maximize either position are sure to lead to troubling, socially disturbing results.

When Americans, including Trump supporters, meet with citizens from other nations, especially in Europe or Japan, they should be able to point to the diversity-within-unity approach as one that the United States has adopted to generally good effect.

Progressives’ greatest social and philosophical challenges could arise from situations in which their passion for human and individual rights clashes with their understanding of communitarian values. However, there are ways to reduce the tensions between these two core elements of a good society.

Globalists hold that all human beings are created equal, that people living in Kansas City and in Kandahar are essentially the same, and that they are all entitled to the full measure of individual rights as spelled out in the 1948 U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (The moral philosopher Peter Singer goes so far as to argue that we owe as much to children on the other side of the world as we owe to our own.) Some globalists favor using force to prevent large-scale violations of human rights, under a United Nations precept called the Responsibility to Protect, and to establish liberal democratic regimes in those nations that do not rush to the light—a strategy referred to as regime change. These globalists view local communities (in particular, gated ones) as discriminatory if not racist. And they hold that people who have a hard time accepting gay marriage and the march toward equal rights for women and minorities are longing for a Norman Rockwell vision of America that never existed or was hopelessly prejudiced.

Here is another place to avoid the trap of dichotomies, of either/or, and see the merits of a combination of universalist elements—first and foremost the respect for rights—with the respect for communal bonds and a shared moral culture. That is, the elements of tolerant, liberal-minded communities.

One way to illustrate how such communities can be fostered is to look at the gated communities in which millions of Americans live. Scorned and criticized by globalists, these places nevertheless offer their members social bonding and solace. Once again, a two-layered approach is called for: gated communities should not be allowed to discriminate, ban books, suppress speech, infringe upon the freedom of religious expression, or violate anyone’s rights. But in other matters, these communities should be welcome to form their own policies, to create rules for the appearance of their communities (homes, lawns), restrict certain types of behavior in their members (loud music after midnight), and address scores of other matters, expressing the distinct collective preferences of the members of these communities.

When some localities resisted the opening of public school bathrooms to transgender students, the federal government threatened to withhold billions of dollars in federal funds, putting at risk the education of hundreds of thousands of their citizens, especially poor and minority children. A less zealous approach to the rights of transgender people would have found policies that could satisfy both sides, by for example adding gender-neutral bathrooms. In this case, the small number of transgender people—less than one percent of the U.S. population—makes the problem relatively easy to resolve.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to marry applied to same-sex couples. A few clerks refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples because they felt that such acts violate their faith and that God’s law takes precedence over human law. Globalists thought these clerks should be fired. Instead, globalists might have shown empathy for the strong beliefs of such people, without accepting this or any other violation of individual rights. After all, these people might need time to adapt to a fast-changing new world. Meanwhile, other clerks could issue the licenses. Justice does not always demand the last ounce of flesh.

Communitarian sociologists have been pointing out that, for two centuries, the rise of modernity has threatened the communal bonds and shared moral cultures that are essential for a person’s sense of identity, emotional stability, and moral codes. Studies of the rise of Nazism show that communities serve as the best antidote to the mass appeal of demagogues. The kind of reasoned, self-governing, tolerant, civil person whom globalists favor is much less likely to be found among individuals outside the bonds of community than among people with stable social bonds, imbued with a proper moral culture. Hence, globalists have strong reasons to shore up communities. Policies that could enhance them include keeping open local institutions (such as schools and post offices) even if regional ones are somewhat more cost efficient, transferring the responsibility to deliver some services to communities from the states, and encouraging sound design in both urban and rural places—creating public spaces such as parks, ball fields, promenades, and hiking and biking trails, and discouraging suburban sprawl.

Progressives should remember that nobody can bond with seven billion people, and almost everyone feels more responsibility toward those closest to them. People have profound needs for lasting social relations, meaning, and shared moral beliefs. Globalist values can be combined with nationalist, parochial ones—demanding that communities not violate individual rights while allowing them to foster bonds and values for their members in the ways that suit them best.

Local communities need to be nurtured rather than denounced, not only because they satisfy profound human needs but also because they anchor people to each other and thus help to dilute appeals to their worst instincts. Championing fair trade, fostering diversity within a framework of unity and shared values, and accepting many kinds of communities as long as they respect rights—all are positions that show understanding and even empathy for citizens who voted for Donald Trump and will go a long way toward making America as great as it can be.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Amitai Etzioni chairs The Communitarian Network, which he founded in 1993. He is University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University. Among his many books is The Active Society(1968).


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