As a native of West Virginia who took the last name of a husband of Polish descent, I’ve been subjected to my fair share of jokes about my intelligence.
Just before one of my early Christmases in Maryland, a colleague asked this question at the lunch table: “Why wasn’t the baby Jesus born in West Virginia?”
Several pairs of eyes glanced furtively at me before looking back to him. I’d earned myself a spot as an English teacher in one of the most renowned school systems in the nation—a system that, at that time, usually hired intellectual teachers from prestigious schools. Though I’d graduated both high school and college at the top of my class, I’d earned my degree from a little-known state college, and I sometimes felt out of my league in a department largely made up of intellectuals.
I sensed the punch line before he delivered it with a snort and a laugh: “Because God couldn’t find three wise men and a virgin.”
I frowned but said nothing.
He raised his hands in a gesture of apology and said, “Present company excepted, of course.”
When people default to a stereotype, they seldom recognize the disconnect when they know someone who defies the stereotype. And that is precisely the problem we face in moving forward on many of the issues that face us.
While we liberals are horrified when people stereotype immigrants and minorities, we are slow to react to stereotypes of rural whites and poor people. I have well-educated friends and acquaintances who rail against injustices based on racial profiling but who don’t hesitate to share cartoons and articles that stereotype poor white people who don’t share their political views.
These same liberals are now giving a bit more credit to the conservative politicians they railed against in previous elections. Many are sharing the letter that former President George H.W. Bush left for President Bill Clinton and acknowledging that perhaps, in light of Trump, they didn’t give enough credit to the Bush presidents.
At this point, while Trump seems poised to lose the election to Hillary Clinton, perhaps we need to learn from our past mistakes. After all, it is this very divide—and the insistence on vilifying the opposition—that has led to the rise of Trump. What if we continue in this vein and the 2020 candidates are even more at the two extremes?
That possibility should be horrifying to all of us.
But that possibility is more likely if we continue to ignore the concerns of Trump voters and to dismiss them as uneducated, sexist, and racist.
As much as my fellow liberals refuse to admit it, that stereotype is no more true than the stereotypes of young black men and undocumented immigrants. And if we can’t recognize that, then we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of recent elections that have led to the rise of a candidate like Donald Trump.
Voices who speak to this concern remain largely ignored. Even Vice President Biden’s comments have been reported by few news outlets:
I just think we have a very strong argument on the substance, and I think that we should be pounding away. Once you actually make that case [on job training and the new economy] and you go into places like southeast Ohio and the northeast [Ohio] . . . these are places that should be—like Youngstown—they should be Democratic areas. (Washington Post)
But they’re not. According to the Post, “Biden worries that Democrats are turning into a party controlled by intellectual elites who don’t know how to relate to people like those from his home town of Scranton, Pa.”
The Democratic Party cannot afford the luxury of comforting themselves with the illusion that Trump supporters are all ignorant, racist, and sexist. While we liberals may be right on many things, especially the importance of recognizing inequities of race and gender, if we can’t recognize that poor whites have also been denied access to the privileges of power, we are doomed to repeat the history of recent elections.
As much as we liberals would like to believe otherwise, not all Trump supporters are racist and sexist. Just this morning, CBS Sunday Morning did a segment on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who has been an outspoken critic of both candidates, and her siblings. Her brother and sister, both educated, articulate and sincere, support Trump.
Recognizing our biases, for both liberals and conservatives, is key to moving forward on the issues that affect all of us. All of us have empathy for individuals. Freelance writer Karen Weese has this to say in her summary of studies about human empathy:
We give more easily to the people and causes we see, often regardless of the magnitude of the need. Americans gave nearly $1 billion more to the approximately 3,000 victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks than they gave to victims of the South Asian tsunami three years later, even though the latter tragedy killed more than a quarter of a million people. A study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy showed that affluent people in homogeneously wealthy Zip codes are less generous than equally affluent people in mixed-income communities. If you never see a homeless person or a trailer park, it’s easier to forget they exist.
Unfortunately, many educated liberals, while they have empathy for the homeless in America’s cities and suburbs, have no understanding of the poor people in small towns who live in trailer parks or in ramshackle houses in Appalachia.
Because my first home after college was a trailer rented with a fellow first-year teacher, it’s easy for me to have empathy with my fellow West Virginians that others stereotype. I have a former student, a bright woman who never went to college and whose husband is in law enforcement, who plans to vote for Trump. I have a close childhood friend who is a wealthy Republican who preferred other candidates in the primaries and who has stopped talking to me about whether he may vote for Trump. I have a college-educated family member who plans to vote for Hillary who often tries to explain to me why many of her disillusioned friends have no faith in either candidate.
What all of them have in common is that they don’t know which media reports to believe and that they are disillusioned by the promises of politicians in both parties.
Even if Hillary Clinton wins, this is an issue that we must address. Because if we don’t, we will create a climate in four years where another “change candidate” will rise in the polls. And, if we’re lucky, that candidate could be one who convinces us to believe in what’s best in us. But what’s scary is that that candidate could be even worse than Donald Trump.
That possibility should give even liberal intellectuals pause. And if it doesn’t, we liberals will be to blame.