I had a conversation recently about one of the rising problems in American politics. My friend and I were discussing the reflexive distrust that many have towards certain types of people. During this conversation, my friend pointed me to a recent column by David Brooks that addresses part of the issue.
Brooks’ column dealt in part with Republican attitudes toward those perceived as “elites.” He wrote that many Republicans view America as being run (poorly) by a group of coastal elites who are corrupt and only look out for themselves. Brooks recognized the core truth in this belief — which is that there is a lot of overlap between elite institutions in government, media, education and some corporate leadership. There is some truth in the idea that many of our decisions are made by a small group of people with a particular background, connected to particular organizations, located in particular places. However, many holding this belief take it a step too far as they equate what Brooks describes as a “social chasm” with a conspiracy against much of America.
I believe Brooks correctly characterizes this mindset. As Republicans, especially in the American heartland, it is easy to see the decisions made elsewhere and feel as if we are being left behind. We see people disconnected with our way of life making decisions with little apparent understanding of, or interest in, the way such decisions will impact the lives of those outside of their particular circle.
This is certainly valid grounds for anger and protest. However, I am reminded of an old maxim: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” While I would not necessarily describe the decisions made as “stupid,” I would describe many of them as ignorant. Simply put, most of these decisions are not made out of malice towards the people of middle America. Instead, because of the echo chamber that the elite institutions foster, the decisions are made without an understanding of the values and desires of those outside the world of the decision makers, or the impact those decisions have on us. Unfortunately, the result of this disconnect is that many Republicans have begun equating the attributes of the decision makers with the problem itself. They see that most of those who overlook or ignore our views are highly educated and have spent long, successful careers in government or other elite institutions and begin to see all people who fit that description as part of the problem. As a result, they begin also seeing people who speak about the complexity and nuance of our problems as being less trustworthy. Rather than speaking to our experiences — especially the anger that many feel as we see detrimental policies imposed against our will — nuanced explanations of competing interests and unintended consequences come across as disconnected.
This causes a “race to the bottom” where candidates who speak solely in emotional terms are more successful than those who speak about solutions. The more emotive a candidate — and the less they speak about complexities and specifics — the more likely we are to vote for them. This merely widens the “social chasm” that Brooks spoke of. Instead, what we need is a way to narrow the gap between “elites” and the rest of America.
The solution lies in leadership. We need leaders who can bridge the gap between thoughtful nuance and the shared experience of many of us in “middle America.” We need leaders who recognize the value of complexity and the need for solutions while understanding the anger and frustration that many of us feel.
This is a big thing to ask of those in leadership. It is not an easy path. There are many who would rather exploit the division for their personal gain. Anger and fear are more compelling motivators than patience and nuance, and much easier to wield. However, patience, nuance, and above all, courage are what we need most from our leaders.
I do not believe that the elites wish to destroy middle America. When I was in law school, I got a glimpse of the world of the elites. As a smalltown Wyomingite at Harvard Law School, I was certainly in the minority. Many of my classmates came from wealthy backgrounds, had gone to elite undergraduate colleges, and were destined for prestigious jobs at international law firms, corporations and the heights of government. Nevertheless, I cannot recall any that had ill-will toward middle America. They may have thought that those of us in the heartland were a little backwards or behind the times, but I believe the most common attitude was simply not to think about us much at all.
Instead of rejecting everything associated with out-of-touch decision makers, we Republicans must seek out leaders that can recognize the values and concerns of the American heartland without belittling or disregarding them. We also need leaders that recognize that some issues are complex and require a response based on intense and careful consideration, rather than emotive reaction. Above all, we need leaders that can build the trust necessary to bridge the “social chasm.” Both nuance and understanding are necessary if we are going to build a successful future.