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Liberal elites miss the mark with calls for ‘unity’

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For those of us who thought a late night awards show would be a reprieve from the noxious spread of political hysterics, the Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild Awards (SAG Awards) proved disappointing.

In Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, she denounced President Donald Trump and bemoaned the vulnerable position of immigrants and minorities in America. At the SAG Awards, Ashton Kutcher opened his speech by welcoming “everyone in airports that belong in America.” Julia Louis-Dreyfus of “Veep” proclaimed that, “This immigrant ban is a blemish, and it is un-American.” Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight” made a heartfelt appeal for religious tolerance, Taraji P. Henson of “Hidden Figures” appealed for unity … the list goes on.

There are a number of problems with Hollywood actors denouncing Trump’s antics. Not only are their condemnations insufferably repetitive, they are also replete with vague, unintelligent platitudes that serve only to widen the ideological gulf splitting America.

To understand celebrities’ culpability in furthering this divide, the left must first understand why Trump was elected. The prevailing wisdom among progressive politicians is that Trump won because he appealed to white working-class Americans through a combination of anti-immigrant, anti-trade and anti-establishment rhetoric. Those blue-collar workers were economically anxious and flocked to a candidate who finally addressed their concerns.

However, there are several problems with this analysis. First of all, the median income of Trump supporters in the primaries was $72,000, well above the national median income of $56,000. In addition, political scientists at Amherst College found that racism and sexism were much better predictors of Trump support than economic dissatisfaction. Trump lost among voters that considered the economy their top issue, and according to statistician Nate Silver, low educational attainment was much more predictive of Trump support than income insecurity.

However, Trump supporters did in fact experience a visceral sense of economic anxiety, just not in the way political pundits have been preaching. Rather than personal economic hardship, Trump supporters were confronted with a shifting economic landscape and the feeling of a nation in decline: counties more vulnerable to outsourcing and automation voted for Trump, and Trump voters, after controlling for race, were more likely to live in counties with high rates of opioid addiction, low health metrics and low credit scores. Trump supporters thus voted to stem a growing sense of economic decay rather than out of parochial economic self-interest.

Given that the economic anxiety of Trump supporters is a much broader phenomenon than simple income insecurity, it is much less amenable to simple policy fixes like more generous wage subsidies. Trump voters also harbor a lot of cultural resentment, and there is a high correlation between racist and sexist attitudes and Trump support.

There are thus two options for the left in confronting the concerns of Trump voters. One option is to ignore them, and focus on emboldening the growing Obama-era coalition of minorities, women, millennials and urbanites. Proponents of this view point to the fact that Clinton won the popular vote by nearly three million, and that demographic changes stand to benefit the Democratic party far more than Republicans. However, this is a self-defeating and risky strategy. If Democrats actually want to institute liberal policies, they need to win elections. While Clinton lost by a small margin, what might the outcome be when the Republican candidate isn’t an avowed sexual predator and narcissistic buffoon? In addition, is it really a wise long-term strategy to drag half the country along behind policies they despise?

Democrats must return to the old-fashioned art of persuasion and reach out to disaffected Trump voters through level-headed dialogue and intellectually honest arguments. Not all Trump voters are hopeless, given the sizable number of counties that swung from Obama to Trump, and Democrats must pivot from vacuous appeals for unity and tolerance to intelligent arguments for progressive policies.

Liberal elites at awards shows are part of this problem, spewing feel-good slogans and condemning the concerns of Trump voters. Eighty-nine percent of Trump voters said terrorism was a very important issue: for Ashton Kutcher and Mahershala Ali to cavalierly ignore these concerns and focus on the plight of immigrants may fire up progressives, but it does nothing to foster a successful political strategy of coalition-building. Instead, it empowers the us-versus-them mentality of many Trump supporters, confirming their dubious narrative of coastal elites versus the flyover states of “real America.”

It also peddles the fiction that terrorism is a non-issue. While Trump’s executive actions on immigration are unethical and counterproductive, worrying about terrorists is perfectly legitimate. Liberals must learn to assuage the electorate’s rational fears of terrorism rather than cheering millionaire actors that obfuscate this issue. Appeals for “unity” and “tolerance” ring hollow to the vast swaths of Trump supporters that reject multiculturalism.

Rather than abandoning these deeply held values to appeal to Trump supporters, liberals’ best option is to meet them in the middle with policy compromise and persuasion. While Democrats get their act together, celebrities should learn how to give gracious acceptance speeches and stop exacerbating the political and cultural divides plaguing America.

Sam Carlen ’20 (carlen1@stolaf.edu) is from Saint Paul, Minn. His major is undecided.