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In the days right after Donald Trump’s election, lots of us were saying things such as “I need to understand this. These people can’t be that different than we are. If we just reach out, they are our neighbors.”

That lasted about two weeks for me. What I found seemed simply nasty, atrocious and hateful. What was I doing wrong? How should I have done it better? I turned for answers to Jon Witt, a sociologist who teaches at Central College in Pella, Iowa. He is the author of Soc, a popular introductory sociology textbook, and The Big Picture: A Sociology Primer. He also is an elder in the church where I pastor. – The Author

Steve: So, Jon, what was I doing wrong? How should I have made it better?

Jon: I think the assumption you made – that it would be easy to understand the perspective of people with a different experience – was not a good assumption. One of the things we’re doing in the United States right now is underestimating the degrees of difference that exist between categories of people. We hear such differences talked about in simple political terms – red versus blue. But that split is symbolic of deeper cultural divides.

We have been taught to be open and curious about other cultures and peoples, but people like us find it almost impossible to be open and curious with Trump voters.

Plus you’re an upper-middle class professional with a Ph.D. You have certain sense, probably, that your perspective on the world is informed and enlightened. When you look at other people, it is hard to give them the credit that they deserve. It would be helpful to consider the possibility that, just maybe, their perspective is also informed and enlightened but by different kinds of experiences.

Take, for example, what I call the Pocahontas Principle. It comes from the Disney movie song “Colors of the Wind”: “You think I’m an ignorant savage/ And you’ve been so many places/ I guess it must be so/ But still I cannot see/ If the savage one is me/ How can there be so much you don’t know/ You don’t know.”

People like us like to think that line applies to others who are less informed than ourselves, but what if we are the judgmental ones? We have been taught to be open and curious about other cultures and peoples, but people like us find it almost impossible to be open and curious with Trump voters.

If you’re being honest, don’t you look down on people like this? Wouldn’t you say this is typical of people like you and like me? You go to Wal-Mart. That’s all you’ve got to do. You see someone you know is white working class and you just feel superior. I am totally guilty of that! I am a snob, even though I don’t want to be. It’s not something we like to admit about ourselves.

In her book Strangers in their Own Land, sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild discloses that she was having a difficult time understanding why rural, white, non-college-educated people thought and acted in ways that she thought did not make sense. She decided to travel to Louisiana and, over the course of five years, spend time with people there so as to better understand them. As an urban, politically liberal college professor, she realized that doing so meant she had to climb over something she calls the “empathy wall,” which she defines as “an obstacle to deep understanding of another person, one that can make us feel indifferent to those who hold different beliefs.” One of my takeaways from her work was her realization that, when looking at such folks, especially as presented in the media during the Trump campaign, “we see the anger, but we don’t see the mourning. I think these people are mourning for a lost way of life, a lost identity.”

S: A little over a year ago, on Perspectives’ blog, The Twelve, I wondered if there was any way that we should understand “alienated Muslims, white working class Americans or the leavers in the Brexit vote” as “the least of these,” our sisters and brothers? Maybe my question is itself the very sort of condescension that Trump supporters despise.

J: It is ridiculously condescending. But I don’t know that there is a whole lot of choice in that. If we look at the relative structural positions that such people versus people like you and I are in, it is almost inevitably going to be condescending. Even the effort itself to say, “I want to try to understand you” is problematic, as if they owe something to you, as if they should open themselves up to you.

On the question of are they are the “least of these.” I’m not a theologian – but on some level aren’t we all the “least of these”? To say that someone is the “least of these” is to imply that you’re the “best of these.” That’s an inherent problem in the notion itself of “the least of these.”

If we just take the issue of relative power in society, yes, they are among the least of these. They don’t have access to the instruments of power. They don’t have access to the opportunity to be able to say “This is important! Hear me! Listen to me! See me!” They justifiably feel left out. Even though they may not be the “poor” – because a lot of these so-called Trump white-working-class voters are doing pretty well, above average median income – they feel disempowered, and in many ways they are disempowered.

If you look at the economy over the last 50 years, as a group they are worse off now than they used to be. I don’t think most of us really understand or appreciate the challenge the working class has faced, especially men, since around 1972. Their income is flat or negative. They still believe in the American dream, but it isn’t working for them. They saw their parents and grandparents do relatively well in the post-World War II economy – buy a boat or a cabin on the lake. And they’re thinking “Where’s my boat? I can’t even afford to send my kids to college.” I don’t think we get how desperate they feel.

They’ve bought into some version of the meritocracy principle in which our outcomes are supposed to be based on ability and hard work. But they are beginning to doubt that hard work matters any more. And in our larger national discourse, meritocracy has become problematic. In principle, who could have a problem with the notion that ability and effort should determine outcomes? In practice, however, people use success as a sign of their innate, superior qualities, failing to recognize advantages they had and assistance they’ve received. On the right we hear echoes of that in the embrace of Ayn Rand’s work.

But there is also a liberal side where those who succeed also believe in their inherent superiority – liberal elitism. This is the whole hoity-toity thing – eating organic food, correcting people’s grammar (even if only inside their own minds), sending their kids to enrichment camps in the summer – and a total cluelessness to how that looks to somebody not in that world. “Who wouldn’t want to live like me?” Because, you know, obviously – kale! It is the liberal sin of self-absorption and condescension.

S: If in some ways, the Trump voter is the “least of these,” how do we recognize them, listen to them and yet at that same time disagree with them and challenge their views that are dangerous? Can you say, “You may be the least of these, but you’re also a fascist”?

J: Most of them aren’t. They are good people trying to make their way through the world just like us. Are there elements that are fascist? Sure. Are there elements that walked the streets of Charlottesville with Nazi flags? Yes. But those are outliers.

It is easy to assume that an anti-immigration stance is fundamentally rooted in racism. I think that is a mistake. I’m not saying that it doesn’t have racist characteristics or consequences, but the assumption that all these white working-class voters hate black people is just not accurate. There is a racial subtext. Some are overt racists, but most aren’t.

The people Hochschild spent time with don’t have a serious problem with inequality but they fear that the opportunity to succeed, which is implicit in the American dream, has been sabotaged. They feel they are doing things the right way but other people are cutting in line, such as poor people who receive government assistance, African Americans who benefit from affirmative action, immigrants from Mexico, professionals from India and China, refugees from Syria and others. For them, such people aren’t playing by the rules. Then, to make matters worse, the government assists these people in breaking the rules. Finally, adding insult to injury, liberal elites dismiss them as nothing but a bunch of redneck racists.

S: It doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were told that “angry white men” were a dying breed, soon to disappear. Was that misinformation, “fake news”?

J: One of my biggest realizations right around last year’s election was just our demographic reality. Only about one-third of people in the U.S. have a college education, which means that two-thirds don’t. I know that, but every time I hear it, it hits me like a ton of bricks! It tells me how isolated my world is. And of course, there is an association between college education and political preference. It isn’t absolute by any means, but there is a pattern there.

The other thing is that whites haven’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since –what is it? – 1964? Put those two together, and if there is some sort of white-working-class trend, it doesn’t take much to have a really significant effect on an election. Just a slight shift can bring about huge consequences. That’s what happened in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.

Rather seeing this divide as red versus blue, “populist” might be a more helpful term. White, working-class voters supported Trump more than they support the Republican Party. They saw him as a champion, someone who said, “the system is rigged … the system is broke” –  Bernie Sanders did this too – “but I am going to do something to make it work for you again.”

S: Would you share a bit about your own story, your own background, and how that might inform your perspectives on all this?

J: I grew up in a working-class family. My mom stayed home to raise us kids, and my dad worked as a printer. My parents got divorced when I was 7, and that threw my mom, my siblings and me into poverty. We received government assistance. The lights would get shut off. The gas got shut off.

I remember one Christmas – I see now in retrospect – that we didn’t have any money for Christmas presents. My mom bought felt and made dolls and ornaments from it so she’d have something to give at Christmas. To fill the little dolls she used pinto beans from the government-surplus food we received, because who wants to eat pinto beans? I remember the canned chicken. It was horrible. The worst, the absolute worst, was powdered milk. But it was the milk we had.

The rest of the story is that when my mom remarried, she returned to college, got her degree and became a public-school teacher. I remember being a young kid and helping her with Spanish flash cards for her degree. The lesson I learned was “education is important.” At some point, I got a report card that was just average. My step-dad said, “You’re smarter than this. You can do better than this.” I thought, “Oh yeah. I guess I could.” And I did.

Then in seventh grade, I got involved with Bible-quizzing. So I had to study the Bible. It was part of the Evangelical Free Church, and in eighth grade our Bible-quiz team made it all the way to the national Free Church Youth Fellowship Bible Quizzing championship at Princeton University. That was another critical moment in my life. I was exposed to a whole other world I never knew existed. Leaded-glass windows. Slate roofs. My world expanded in a dramatic way.

When I look back, I could just say “I’m great! I achieved the American dream!” but I know that’s not true. Did others have ability equal to mine? Absolutely, but they might not have had just the right people at just the right time encourage them to more fully realize their ability. Did I work hard? Sure, whatever.

S: J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy has received a lot of attention as a helpful tool to understand all this. I know you’re not a huge fan of the book. Can you explain why? Your take on it, your critiques of it?

J: First, I think it is successful because it is possible to take away the message that you like. If you’re conservative, he clearly tells a story that the people in his Appalachian area are lazy and making bad choices. If you tend to think that about poor people, you can walk away believing that. If you’re liberal, you can walk away thinking that persistent structural inequality prevents these people from getting ahead.

Vance, who is conservative, tends toward the “bad choices” side, using the phrase “lack of agency.” My question is, How are you going to explain the lack of agency, the lack of ability to choose what you like? As a sociologist, I would have liked to have seen a little more attention paid to the structural elements involving lack of access to material, social and cultural resources.

In many ways, he’s me. I am that guy. Vance’s story and my own have similarities. I could look back at my people and say, “You people are lazy. You need to get to work.” But how do you reach that conclusion about your own people when you know the difficulties they face, the challenges, the efforts that they’ve made, the times they’ve tried and it’s not gone well, and the conclusion they sometimes reach at some point that “I just can’t try anymore because it feels like the whole world is up against me”? So I don’t know how you can just then say, “They’re just making bad decisions and are lazy.”

I am firm believer in the American dream. I don’t disagree that we have a responsibility to make good choices in order to maximize our possible outcomes. That’s how I raised my daughters. It’s what I tell my students. We can explain lack of success in structural ways, but, at the individual level, it doesn’t matter if the challenges you face are structural because you can’t control that stuff. You can only control the choices you make. So make good choices. That’s not a bad message to send.

Yet the rest of us who have the luxury of sitting back and analyzing things should also be saying, Let’s try to create structures where more opportunity exists. You can’t say, “Make good choices” and be done. We need to focus attention on greater equality of opportunity. If opportunity doesn’t exist, good choices won’t matter. The commitment to public education was a critical event in opening up opportunity. The GI Bill was another. This is where the “least of these” might really apply. How do we build a society with more opportunities, with fewer overlooked people?

S: Are there recent works that you believe are insightful and helpful in understanding the phenomenon of Trump supporters and the wider cultural trends?

I’ve mentioned Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. There is also Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment. These are among the best. Hochschild went to Louisiana. Cramer did something similar in rural Wisconsin. Both are surprised by what they found – that the people they studied are just people. One of Cramer’s especially good insights that politics is more about identity than policies or facts. We all interpret fact through our lens of identity. So to dismiss people as irrational or duped is really just not to understand their identity.

Other good works include Amy Goldstein’s Janesville: An American Story, about a town in Wisconsin where the GM auto plant closes down; David Shipler’s The Working Poor: Invisible in America emphasizes the value of family networks and uncovers what he calls the interlocking deficits of poverty; Matthew Desmond’s Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City uncovers the extent to which housing insecurity disrupts everything.

It’s also important to note that the dimension of race often falls off the table in these discussions when it comes to figuring out Trump. There is lots of talk about white working class, but what about all the African-American working class, who are working just as hard, suffering the same sorts of challenges, if not more? But they’re not turning to Trump. One book here is Peter Temin’s The Vanishing Middle Class. We tend to think white equals “working class” and black equals “poor.” But there is a huge African-American working class. We need to pay attention to the issue of race and how it plays a part and be alert to the ways we privilege the white-working-class perspective.

S: Any final thoughts?

J: I fear that our insufficiently explored cultural divides, which are exacerbated by the social-media-fed cultural bubbles within which we reside, make deep understanding problematic. I believe that those of us with access to greater social, cultural and material resources bear a greater responsibility to acknowledge our ignorance and climb over that empathy wall.

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is co-pastor of Second Reformed Church, Pella, Iowa, and a former editor of Perspectives. This interview first appeared on The Reformed Journal’s blog, The Twelve.

Photo by Jason Zeis on Unsplash

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is one of the pastors  of Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa.  He writes regularly here on the Reformed Journal's daily blog.