As Bill Bishop powerfully showed several years ago in “The Big Sort,” we’ve been slowly at work over the past few decades separating ourselves into ideological enclaves.
So for me the question of how the first 100 days of the Trump presidency have gone is first and foremost about we, the people. Is there any hope for us?
There’s some, I think. Since the election, I have had more conversations with fellow citizens about the electoral college, the history of American political institutions, and the relationships among the census, state legislatures, redistricting and Congress than in the rest of my life put together, I think.
I have found myself in innumerable conversations about whether it is possible to rebuild some understanding of shared American values, for instance, around the goal of securing “liberty and justice for all.” Might we develop enough of an account of this ideal to reconnect some broad swath of Americans in the middle to one another?
And I find that I am not alone in wanting to figure out how to rein in the extremes at both ends of the political spectrum — those on the right and the left who use lies, profanity, threats, ad hominem attacks and even violence to try to get their way.
All this thinking, cogitating, stewing, organizing, has to be a good thing. This is the people rejuvenating itself. Only if we, the people, can levitate above the low level to which we have descended can we solve our problems. In truth, it’ll probably be a long time before we get back to liking each other. The urgent question is simply whether we can recover a motivation to work together.
This brings me to the issue of we, the elites. One of the key questions for any effort to rebuild our capacity to collaborate is whether members of the professional elite can recover a commitment to the people as a whole, and not merely to those who live near them — near us, I should say — in urban enclaves.
The good news is that those of us who win coveted seats at the top colleges and universities, and jobs that earn the wage premiums of our knowledge-dependent economy, have started to try to see how we look from the perspective of those we often fail to see. There’s Nicholas Kristof journeying to Oklahoma and the huge popularity of J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy.” The research work of Princeton economists Angus Deaton and Anne Case about increases in mortality rates in the white working class has by now fueled many investigative reports about rural America.
Of course, the working class impacted by our economic travails also includes many black and brown people. We shouldn’t forget this in our hurry to see people we’ve been overlooking. Similarly, we shouldn’t downgrade the issue of mass incarceration. For that matter, too much of rural America is dependent on jobs in prisons in out-of-the-way places. That, too, is something we should notice.
But at least we elites are starting to look around.
According to the Pew Research Center, the votes of those with and without college degrees have historically moved together, sometimes in a more Republican direction, sometimes in a more Democratic one – that is, until recently. For white voters, these groups began diverging around 2000 — the divergence increased dramatically after 2012 — with those with college degrees moving toward the Democrats and those without toward the Republicans.
Here it is worth remembering how differently the 2008 recession impacted each group. Increases in unemployment were much smaller for those with college degrees, and our wages stabilized faster after the recession. In other words, the fortunes of these two groups diverged sharply, and so, too, did their partisan drifts. This divergence of fates perhaps helps explain why professional elites have been so tone-deaf of late to the voices of the majority of our fellow citizens.
So there is hope, signs of rejuvenation, in the people. Yet there are also signs of how far we have to go. According to the New York Times, last weekend’s science march in Washington included the chant, “Who run the world? Nerds.” For some, the election’s basic lesson hasn’t gotten through.
In democracies, we, the people, run the world. We, the elites, are servants. The question for members of the professional elite is how to direct our energies and resources to public service in its most profound forms. This requires understanding the full range of our fellow citizens’ rights and needs and ascertaining how we can bring our resources to bear to advance the cause of their flourishing.
How can we open up a prospect of liberty and justice for all? And I mean “for all.” Only if we, the people, and we, the elites, are committed to the flourishing of all, can we rebuild America the Indivisible.
Allen is a political theorist at Harvard University and a contributing columnist for The Washington Post.