Last Friday, I went to the beauty parlor for my monthly cut and color. It is the hub of social mingling in my little town in rural Pennsylvania, the place to go for news about everybody’s family, and what’s on peoples’ minds. Here’s what I posted immediately afterward on our Facebook rabbis’ chat room:
“If you want to know what people think about the election, go to the beauty parlor. Here is what I learned today: Hillary will be indicted after the election (for what? don’t know). Wikileaks has been proven to not have any Russian connections (What is wikileaks anyway?). ATT-DirecTV has been blacking out the Fox morning show. Did you see that Hillary ad with the children? How can she say she supports children when she supports late-term abortions? Trump will clean things up in Washington. If you don’t live in a white, rural area of the country, just know that this is how a lot of my neighbors feel. This is not deep thinking, it’s visceral, and it’s real.”
As it turns out, the ladies at my beauty parlor represent a larger sector of the American electorate than many of my colleagues and friends in larger and bluer cities thought. They were among those who helped elect Donald Trump as president on Tuesday. In fact, they are the prototype of the Trump voter that Ezra Klein of Vox described so well in a recent podcast: They live in rural, overwhelmingly white, communities; and while they may be better off than some of their neighbors, they see poverty, need, and job loss all around them.
My neighbors are not mean people. They care about their families and their friends. Many care for ill parents, help out their kids, and are active in civic and church life. And I don’t think they’re angry so much as scared. Good-paying blue-collar jobs have been disappearing at an alarming rate, including in the coal industry, for a generation now. The Great Recession supposedly ended years ago, but here in rural Central Pennsylvania, people haven’t clawed back what they lost. These are people who have worked hard their entire lives to achieve the American Dream. But they see that dream slipping away. They are not better off than their parents were, and their children are struggling more still. There’s an unfairness about the way the country has “recovered” that they resent, and that showed at the polls.
Political scientist Kathy Cramer has been studying rural Wisconsin for years for her new book, The Politics of Resentment,” which she talked about recently in The Washington Post. Substitute Pennsylvania for Wisconsin and mining for logging, and she’s hit the bullseye on what she calls “rural consciousness.”
“Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They say, it used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult. I’m doing what I was told I should do in order to be a good American and get ahead, but I’m not getting what I was told I would get.”
Yes, there is more. Their notion of what America should be is shaped by my neighbors’ own lives – white, rural, conservative, gun-owning, church-going. It is anathema to someone like me who grew up in a politically progressive household and lived in racially and culturally mixed communities. We moved around – a lot. I went to a dozen schools before college, including three on military bases in the Far East during the Vietnam War. My dad, a behavioral psychologist, was engaged in the work of bridging racial and ethnic divides both within the army ranks and between Americans and the host populations of Okinawans and Koreans. When we returned stateside, the suburban D.C. neighborhood we moved to was populated with mid-level embassy employees and their families, of every ethnicity, religion, and home country imaginable.
The last eight years also have shaped and heightened divisions. For progressives like me, we have rejoiced in the presidency of Barack Obama. We are heartened by the pushback against discriminatory laws – the courts’ overturning of horrific state abortion restrictions designed to control, demean, and objectify women, as well as the courts’ rejection of voter-restriction laws that deliberately targeted the poor, the young, the elderly, and people of color who vote Democratic. And we were overjoyed when the Supreme Court ruled, in essence, that love is love is love. A President Hillary Clinton, we believed, would continue to lead the country in a progressive, inclusive direction.
But for many of my neighbors, these were all signs that America was losing its way, the way they had known for generations. This was a president who didn’t look like them, who wasn’t raised like them – who, in the words of my husband’s cousin, was “your Mr. Obama,” never “our President Obama.” This was a Supreme Court that rejected all that their church doctrine had taught about the sanctity of life, even life unborn, and the abomination of homosexuality. And this was a political elite – of both parties – that was ignoring their struggles, their pain, their needs. As Kathy Cramer put it,
“What I heard from my conversations is that, in these three elements of resentment — I’m not getting my fair share of power, stuff or respect — there’s race and economics intertwined in each of those ideas.
“It’s not just resentment toward people of color. It’s resentment toward elites, city people. And maybe the best way to explain how these things are intertwined is through noticing how much conceptions of hard work and deservingness matter for the way these resentments matter to politics.”
I harbor no illusions about the fact that there are racists and bigots and misogynists in our midst. That they have been emboldened by political pandering is terrifying and contemptible. But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss all Trump supporters as such, which serves only to limit our ability and opportunity to understand the identities and fears of others.
And while we decry the fact-free nature of our public discourse, we need to understand that, for my neighbors – and for yours – the issue is less about facts than about feeling. It’s less about policy than about place. As Cramer said, “All of us, even well-educated, politically sophisticated people interpret facts through our own perspectives, our sense of what who we are, our own identities.”
I happen to serve a congregation with a wide political spectrum in the pews, from Woodstock alumni to the current and immediate past presidents of the local Tea Party. I make it a point not to unduly antagonize. I frame my arguments for what I believe in, based on what I believe the Jewish tradition teaches us about issues of justice, fairness, inclusion, and the inherent and equal worth of every human being.
That will not change. If anything, I will redouble my efforts to let the prophetic conscience of our faith ring out from my pulpit. Justice, justice, shall we pursue. We shall love our neighbors as ourselves. We shall look after the poor, the widow, the orphan – those on the fringes of society who are often forgotten, neglected, or tossed aside.
Our politics may be polarized, and we may have distinctly different views on the role that government can and ought to play in making peoples’ lives better. But we can and must come together, as Americans, as Jews, and as human beings. We have been through worse. And we have survived and even thrived from these conflicts. We must do so again.