I first had an inkling that we were heading for a stunning election day upset—what the political scientists call a “wave election”—on the evening of October 20. I was attending the Champions for Children dinner benefiting the Moyer Foundation, the charity run by former Phillies’ pitcher Jamie Moyer and his wife, Karen, that provides grief counseling to children who have lost loved ones.
Former Governor Ed Rendell was the recipient of the evening’s Community All-Star Award; when Rendell shuffled to the stage to make remarks, he was a different man than the force of nature who, as Mayor in the 1990s, turned around a downward Philadelphia narrative. In recent months, the former Governor had made the wrong kind of headlines on behalf of Hillary Clinton, musing, for instance, that Donald Trump’s misogynistic comments would come back to haunt him because “there are more ugly women in America than attractive women. People take that stuff personally.” Rendell, who could hold his own with policy wonks as an elected official, had seemingly become little more than just another cable TV talking head, a provocative bloviator, leaving many of us who have long known him shaking our heads and affectionately muttering, “Oh, Ed.”
I learned in the aftermath of November 8 that I very well may be the cultural elitist I’ve been reading about. And, for someone who prides himself on an oceanic sense of curiosity, I was blind to the pain of my countrymen, as expressed at the polls. That’s my failure as a citizen.
But during his remarks on October 20, I recognized the old Ed, and thereby got a glimpse of precisely what had been missing in this election season, particularly from Hillary Clinton. Rendell talked about his career in public service—district attorney, mayor, governor—and made a brief but compelling case for public service and the common good. “It’s an incredible opportunity to be in a position to sign your name on something and help someone, one person at a time, one and a half million at a time, 12 million at a time,” he said. “I remember one day at Sharon Baptist Church here in West Philadelphia, I signed a bill raising the minimum wage in Pennsylvania from $5.15 to $7.15. If you were a working single mom with two kids and you were working at minimum wage, you made $10,400 at $5.15; by raising it to $7.15, we gave you a $4,000 raise. By signing a piece of paper, I gave 420,000 people a $4,000 raise. So this has truly been a labor of love.”
That night, I couldn’t stop thinking of Rendell’s remarks. He’d always known that voting is essentially an emotional act, masquerading as a rational one. I remembered past speeches I’d seen; for all his faults, Rendell’s success had long been a testament to the politics of empathy. Watch this and tell me you can imagine Hillary Clinton striking the same emotional chords:
Or watch the candidate I was drawn to during the primaries, Ohio Governor John Kasich, who, after his surprise second place finish in the New Hampshire primary, spoke movingly and from the heart about coming together in common purpose:
Leadership is about calling others to stand for something bigger than themselves. People want to be inspired. And what had we gotten from Hillary Clinton? The ads blanketing our air waves boiled down to: I’m not the other guy. In a change election, where was the affirmative reason to pull the lever for her? Instead, we were getting checklist politics, messages designed to appeal to specific groups of voters. It was identity politics writ large, which flew in the face of, say, 2008’s Obama campaign, which struck at unifying themes aimed at our better angels: “There isn’t a red America, there isn’t a blue America, there is a United States of America.”
The examples of Rendell and Kasich made me ask, looking at both presidential candidates: Where’s the empathy? And: Can there be empathy if there’s no core conviction? Even Hillary’s campaign manager, John Podesta, wondered in his private emails what his candidate stood for.
So come election night, more surprising than the result was who tipped the results. Working class whites who had voted for Obama twice were now taking a flyer on…Donald Trump? Clearly, the Donald’s racist language, and racist advisers, were the appeal for many white voters. But it is also clear that the election wasn’t just about race—it was about those who, eight years after the Great Recession, still felt left behind, and they were having a collective Howard Beale (“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) moment. The left thought we were having an election, so they brought a fact-checker to a culture war.
The morning after the election, I had a surgical procedure performed at Penn. There, we all—nurses, doctors, clerks—bonded over our dismay at the previous night’s result, shaking our heads, commiserating. The ease with which all this was said, the unspoken assumption that of course we all voted for Hillary, forced me to look inward. Over the next few days, recovering, I had the time to check myself. I’d been wondering why Hillary didn’t run on the Obama economic record: 70 plus months of job growth, record stock market surges, low gas prices. But, turns out, I was in my bubble. No one that I know voted for Trump (or has admitted it to me). Nor do I know anyone who fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. I shop at Whole Foods, which has become a cultural signpost. According to David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, Trump won 76 percent of counties with a Cracker Barrell and 22 percent of counties with a Whole Foods, a 54 percent gap; in 1992, the gap between the same counties was 19 percent.
In his bestselling book Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance gives us the white working class, complete with polling that shows these non-college educated whites to be the most pessimistic group in America when it comes to assessing the country’s future. No wonder, given what Robert Putnam first chronicled 16 years ago in Bowling Alone: The institutions that once held communities together have frayed. From churches to political parties to bowling leagues, the bonds of common experience have evaporated. The factory worker in Macomb County, Michigan? He’s all alone. He twice voted for Obama to shake things up, but instead got more of the same, and that included the message that everyone else matters but him: Stagnant wages, Goldman Sachs executives running the Treasury Department, the Justice Department issuing edicts to public schools to make sure transgender kids have access to the bathrooms of their choice, rising health care costs and unending student loan debt.
Which brings us back to the much-needed sense of empathy that Rendell reminded me of. The wife of the 1992 presidential candidate who famously said to factory workers “I feel your pain” came face to face on election day with the one constituency that, in the age of identity politics, was left to shriek: “What about me?” Maybe the white working class voter who was with Obama in ’08 and ’12 recoiled at a candidate who seemed to think rules don’t apply to her. Maybe the email scandal—which I had dismissed as another in a long line of Clinton coverups in search of a crime—resonated because Hillary came to represent all those who had cut in front of them in line these many years.
The wife of the 1992 presidential candidate who famously said to factory workers “I feel your pain” came face to face on election day with the one constituency that, in the age of identity politics, shrieked: “What about me?” Maybe the white working class voter who was with Obama in ’08 and ’12 recoiled at a candidate who seemed to think rules don’t apply to her.
“So it shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise when millions of Americans were suddenly drawn to a crass strongman who tossed out fraudulent promises and gave institutions and elites the middle finger,” presciently wrote George Packer in the New Yorker just weeks before the election. (I know, I know. In an essay in which I confront my own cultural elitism, I’m quoting from the New Yorker. What can I say? I’m a work in progress.) “The fact that so many informed, sophisticated Americans failed to see Donald Trump coming, and then kept writing him off, is itself a sign of a democracy in which no center holds.”
Packer brilliantly foreshadowed the meaning behind what would be our election results:
In July, I went to see [former Treasury Secretary, Harvard President, and Harriton High School alum Larry] Summers at his vacation home in Massachusetts. When I arrived, he had just pulled up—in a Lexus—after a morning of tennis. We sat on a terrace overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Summers described numerous trips that he had made during his years at Treasury to review antipoverty programs in Africa and Latin America, and in American inner cities. “I don’t think I ever went to Akron, or Flint, or Toledo, or Youngstown,” he admitted. To Democratic policymakers, poverty was foreign or it was black. As for displaced white workers in the Rust Belt, Summers said, “their problems weren’t heavily on our radar screen, and they were mad that their problems weren’t.”
On HBO’s Real Time With Bill Maher, the iconoclastic Maher made some of these very points, pointing to political correctness—how must collegiate calls for “safe spaces” play in rural America?—and the elite’s pooh-poohing of the terroristic threat (ISIS is Al-Qaeda’s “JV team” the president once said) as proof of how out of touch we’ve become. Panelist Ana Marie Cox took issue: “So what we need is more coddling of white people?”
Not exactly. What we need is more real connection, a rekindling of American community. There’s actually a philosophy about this—Communitarianism. Ironically, it influenced a young, ambitious governor in Arkansas in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s who would go on to become president. Championed by George Washington University sociologist Amitai Etzioni, Communitarianism grew in the wake of Ronald Reagan’s looking out for one particular special interest group—the rich—and the left’s reactionary emphasis on identity politics. It was a call to serve the common good.
Etzioni’s emphasis on the importance of common things wasn’t new. It’s what Lincoln was getting at when he appealed to the “better angels of our nature.” It’s what a skinny state legislator with a funny name touched on one night in Boston back in 2004: “If there’s a child on the south side of Chicago who can’t read, that matters to me, even if it’s not my child,” some guy named Obama said then. “If there’s a senior citizen somewhere who can’t pay for their prescription and having to choose between medicine and the rent, that makes my life poorer, even if it’s not my grandparent…It is that fundamental belief—‘I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper’—that makes this country work. It’s what allows us to pursue our individual dreams, yet still come together as a single American family: ‘E pluribus unum,’ out of many, one.”
That was classic Communitarianism—the sense that to pursue the common good is really to benefit us all. But Obama didn’t align his governing with his rhetoric. White workers who voted for hope in ’08 and ’12 were now even more desperate for change.
What we need is a politics where self-interest and empathy converge. The more I ruminated over the meaning of this election, the more I thought that the answer to the divide is as old as our history. It is, in point of fact, why we started this website in the first place. Because what we need, in this country and in this city, is more citizenship.
One thing is certain: Left to their own devices, both parties will now begin the process of overreaching. The Democrats are already turning leftward, well on the way to elevating Bernie Sanders supporter Rep. Keith Ellison, the first Muslim in Congress, to head the DNC. And Rolling Stone is out with a contrarian piece that doubles down on balkanized identity politics, arguing that, in the future, winning political coalitions won’t necessarily need to court the white working class vote. For their part, the Trump takeover of the Republican party seems to promise a toxic mix of resentment-fueled populism with some mean-streak authoritarianism.
We need neither approach. What we need, instead, is a politics where self-interest and empathy converge. The more I ruminated over the meaning of this election, the more I thought that the answer to the divide is as old as our history. It is, in point of fact, why we started this website in the first place. Because what we need, in this country and, especially, in this city, is more citizenship.
To that end, The Citizen team has put together a comprehensive Election Apocalypse Guide—with practical ways not only for you to make your city, state and country better, but also to empower yourself. Whether you’re depressed or ecstatic about the election results, both are passive reactions. We’re trying to give you information to be proactive.
That’s why, at Thanksgiving dinner, I won’t be avoiding a discussion of politics. I will, instead, ask all those present—including my wacko far right aunt—to look inward and share with the group what, if anything, this election taught us about ourselves. (Take our Thanksgiving Challenge by doing the same and we’ll publish the best stories from your holiday dinner table!)
For me, I learned in the aftermath of November 8 that I very well may be the cultural elitist I’ve been reading about. And, for someone who prides himself on an oceanic sense of curiosity, I was blind to the pain of my countrymen, as expressed at the polls. That’s my failure as a citizen. I get the post-election marches and the frustration and maybe even the name-calling. But that stuff is actually easy. Empathy for those I might not understand, and constructive acts to help bridge our gap? That’s harder. And, usually, when you do the harder thing? That’s when you grow.