Friday, November 11, 2016

The healing we need

As the full dimension of the Trump victory became apparent, a veteran strategist remarked, “My crystal ball has been shattered…Tonight data died.” After a sleepless night, I struggled like many others to come to terms with the shocking turn of events. How was it possible that someone so unqualified for the presidency could defeat the most qualified candidate in decades?

Trump owes much to the moral collapse of the Republican leadership who abandoned principles for political expediency, and to the arrogance of Democrats who took their base for granted and failed to reach beyond it. There should be serious soul-searching among the media giants who profited hugely from Trump’s ascent. He in turn received billions in free promotion through disproportionate coverage. Media gave virtually no consideration to matters of policy. They grossly underreported the underlying concerns of voters and relied heavily on polls and punditry.  

The biggest take-away from the election is that much of America lives in parallel universes. The mindset and daily realities of those on the east and west coasts are worlds apart from those in America’s heartland. And while the thriving and increasingly diverse major metropolitan regions across the country are largely Democratic strongholds, the vast rural areas and numerous small towns, many of which face declining economies and opportunities, are less diverse and strongly Republican. 
Much has been made of “working class” support for Trump. He won significant support in the rust-belt where the effects of globalization are felt most keenly. But the median income of Trump voters in the primaries was $72,000 while Clinton’s was around $61,000. Issues related to culture, values and identity were greater contributing factors. After all, if Trump was truly leading a working class movement, why did an overwhelming majority of African Americans and two-thirds of Latinos vote for Clinton?  
Racial anxiety, or, as a Pew Research Center survey found, concern that “the growing number of newcomers from other countries threatens US values,” appear to be the most common indicators of Trump support. White nationalism is a more accurate description of the movement. From the outset of Obama’s presidency, the backlash against the first black man to occupy the White House was vicious and sustained. Put in the context of similar backlashes in Europe, what we may be seeing is reaction to the end of 500 years of white colonial domination.

Our young people are experiencing the deepest and most lasting wounds. The memory of this brutal campaign will not be easily erased. A Muslim friend says that for months before the election her children were reporting racial taunts from white kids in affluent county suburbs. A Latino leader whose son attends a Jesuit school in affluent Silicon Valley told me that a boy came into class this week chanting, "Build that wall, deport them all!" Children who have grown up with Obama as a role model are confused and traumatized. Across the country thousands of young people who feel betrayed have taken to the streets in protest. 

Besides race, Trump tapped into a deep-seated male chauvinism and misogyny. Had Clinton behaved as crudely towards men as Trump did towards women she would not have survived a day in the primaries let alone in the presidential campaign.

But despite all this, we must also recognize that many white Americans do feel genuinely bewildered, lost and left behind in a rapidly changing world. Cultural, social and demographic changes as well as economic stress cause anxiety and a crisis of identity. Middle-aged white males are getting sicker and dying in greater numbers compared to every other group.   
Liberals, particularly the college-educated elite, must share blame for the deep polarization. As one commentator observed, they failed to foresee the political shockwave and have virtually no understanding of the worldview of Trump supporters. Within the white community the gulf between so-called “educated” and “working class” voters is as great as the racial divide. Charles Camosy writes in the Washington Post about the “monolithic, insulated political culture” in most of our colleges and universities. 

Liberals have often been guilty of bigotry against conservative religion and against rural and poor whites. Conservatives are not wrong when they resist what they see as a decline in moral values and family life and the crudeness of our entertainment industry. Democrats have been reluctant to recognize that many Christian evangelicals who may differ with secular liberals on issues such as abortion could be strong allies on racial justice issues. America is a vast and complex country and defies easy stereotyping.
Supporters of Trump and of Bernie Sanders are rightly in revolt against the corruption of Wall Street and Washington, DC. Above all, millions of Americans want their voices to be heard. The election result was more a shout against the establishment than a vote for Trump. Democrats and Republicans would do well to listen carefully.

There is much talk now of the need for “healing.” Clinton’s concession statement in which she pledged to help Trump be a good president was a model of graciousness. Democrats should follow her lead. Trump praised Clinton and says he wants to be a president for all the people. After his attacks on Muslims and immigrants he has work to do, and those Republican leaders who first denounced and then supported him must hold the new president accountable.

Obama displayed class and dignity by reminding America – and the world – that the peaceful transfer of power by the ballot and not the bullet is a hallmark of this nation. His remarkable welcome to Trump at the White House prompted the president-elect to call him “a very good man” and to add that he would seek Obama’s counsel.

Healing will not be easy. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, could play a key bridgebuilding role in the Senate. He is well-liked and trusted by members of both parties, and he combines a strong faith with a passion for racial justice. As a representative of an increasingly diverse southern state, he understands the importance of history and tradition as well as the reality of changing demographics.   
The trustbuilding work of Initiatives of Change USA with its focus on race, reconciliation and responsibility has never been more relevant. The core principles of its manifesto issued in 1996 as a Call to Community could form a basis for the healing that America so desperately needs. They include a commitment to listening carefully and respectfully to one another and the whole community; honoring each person, appealing to the best qualities and refusing to stereotype; building lasting relationships outside our comfort zone; and holding ourselves, our  communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.

Initiatives of Change is partnering with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and more than 130 other organizations to develop a Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation process for the United States. Perhaps the shock of the election will jolt Americans enough to take a fresh look at our assumptions, prejudices and insularity. We might take a break from social media and talk with our neighbors. Perhaps we are more ready for honest conversation than we realize.  

Friday, November 4, 2016

Addressing poverty from the inside out

Mother Teresa once remarked that the “greatest disease in the West…is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.” She went on to say that the poverty in the West is poverty of loneliness, but also of spirituality. 

Physical poverty is real in America. In a city like Richmond nearly 40% of our children experience it every day. And 15 million children across the nation live in families below the poverty line. It is America’s shame and a topic that scarcely surfaced in the presidential campaign. But Mother Teresa was pointing to a deeper truth. 

In a sobering column, Growing Up Poor in America, the New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof describes the home of a 13-year-old boy in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, who has three televisions in his room, but there is no food and no books in the house. “The home, filthy and chaotic with a broken front door, reeks of marijuana.” 

Harvard professor Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, documents the different experiences of families navigating changing economic times in his home town of Port Clinton, Ohio. In Putnam’s youth, kids of different income levels played sports and interacted socially together; “civic engagement and solidarity were high; and opportunities for kids born in the lower echelon to scale the socioeconomic ladder were abundant.” Today Port Clinton is “a split-screen American nightmare in which kids from the wrong side of the tracks that dissect the town can barely imagine the future that awaits kids from the right side of the tracks.” 

Putnam writes that “an unexpected consensus has begun to crystallize across ideological lines that the collapse of the working-class family is a central contributor to the growing opportunity gap.” A child with a mother in the bottom educational quartile is almost twice as likely to live with a single mother as a child whose mother is in the top quartile. Putnam’s carefully documented case studies track the experiences of children from well-educated middle-class families and contrasts them with the challenges facing kids whose parents have a high school education or less and are struggling economically. 

Putnam acknowledges that changes in the economy are important contributing factors in the weakening of family structures. Unemployment, underemployment and poor economic prospects discourage marriage and stable relationships. But he also notes that gender and sexual norms have changed: “For poor men, the disappearance of the stigma associated with premarital sex and nonmarital birth, and the evaporation of the norm of shotgun marriages, broke the link between procreation and marriage. For educated women, the combination of birth control and greatly enhanced professional opportunity made delayed childbearing both more possible and desirable.” 

President Obama, in a thoughtful review of “unfinished business” for the Economist, highlights the need to address rising inequality. While most economists focus on technology, education, globalization, declining unions and falling minimum wages, he believes that “changes in culture and values have played a major role” in widening the gap. He notes that in previous decades “differences in pay between corporate executives and their workers were constrained by a greater degree of social interaction between employees at all levels – at church, at their children’s schools, in civic organizations.” 

As a society we are communicating very mixed messages to our children. This is particularly evident on college campuses where students enter what one professor calls “a culture of moral, emotional and social chaos.” The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that alcohol is a factor in 97,000 cases of sexual assaults annually among college-age students. A drunken fray by Michigan students caused more than $400,000 in damage to their vacation hotel rooms. Harvard - one of the world's most privileged institutions - cancelled the the rest of the season of the men's soccer team following revelations of a so-called scouting report that rated the sexual appeal of their female counterparts. Is it any surprise that graduates from our universities display selfish and irresponsible behavior when they get to Wall Street? 

The elevation of tolerance as a primary virtue can leave people adrift without any guidelines for personal conduct and public action. If there are no objective moral benchmarks, how can anyone claim that one value is superior to another? We see a growing social consciousness on issues such as women’s rights, and the need to protect the environment and to fight corruption; but relativism can end up actually being in conflict with widely acknowledged values of respect, equality, and honesty.  

To return to the starting point for this blog: poverty is a moral challenge for the richest nation on earth. Liberals and conservatives should find common cause in addressing it. But as Kristof writes, “Liberals too often are reluctant to acknowledge that struggling, despairing people sometimes compound their misfortune by self-medicating or engaging in irresponsible, self-destructive behavior. And conservatives too often want to stop the conversation there, without acknowledging our society’s irresponsible self-destructive refusal to help children who are otherwise programmed for failure.” 

We must work at structural change and “inner” change at the same time. We need just policies and personal responsibility. One without the other is unlikely to be effective. We must hold ourselves, communities and institutions accountable in areas where change is needed.