by Dr. Denise R. Ames
The presidential election of 2016 may seem like a distant memory. But it was instrumental in exposing simmering cultural, social, and political divides that have been bubbling underneath the surface of American society for some time. I found that I too, like the majority of Americans, had been living in a bubble, and I really didn’t understand the other sides of America.
During the long election cycle, I was fixated on learning more about what I call the “cultural divide.” By this I simply mean the ways in which different segments of the American population see the world very differently. It is as if different groups of people each wear glasses with different lenses. If a person were to share her glasses with a person in an opposing group, that person would have a blurry, unfocused vision of the world.
This division is tearing the U.S. apart and has dire consequences for our fragile democracy.
The divisive 2016 election confirmed my intention to start a new program, Gather, the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, at our nonprofit organization, the Center for Global Awareness. The purpose of the program is to provide books and resources to encourage participants to see different perspectives, know about pressing global issues, evolve compassionate attitudes, and engage with others to create positive change. I believe that an answer to our incivility is to support small groups of concerned citizens who gather together to help remedy deep cultural divides. Perhaps that is a lofty goal, but it is, I feel, a worthwhile one.
Effective communication, understanding, and empathy are essential to healing the cultural divide. For many years, I have done work in promoting cross-cultural understanding among different cultural, ethnic, and national groups around the world. I now feel that these cross-cultural skills are desperately needed to better understand our fellow citizens and heal divisions in the United States.
I find that some of the most intense divisions today are cultural divides between the citizenry of rural/urban, college-educated/non-college-educated, and white/people of color. President Trump was able to speak to the white, rural, and non-college-educated voter in ways the college-educated, elite media were unable to understand. Instead, they wrote off his message as ignorant, racist, misogynist, and homophobic, among other judgmental attacks that fed into more divisiveness.
Part of our Gather program involves telling our own stories and seeing different perspectives. In keeping with this goal, I thought I would share a story with you of how I imagine my extended family may have seen the election of 2016. Perhaps you have relatives or friends who are members of a different political party from you, and you will find a resonance in this story. Here goes….
During the presidential campaigns leading up to the 2016 election, the fierce political divisions in this country were being played out in my extended family as well as across the nation. As a lifelong Democrat, I had an inkling of possible trouble for Democrats during a conversation with my cousin in Rockford, Illinois. Her two sisters, my cousins, were voting for Donald Trump. I was perplexed. They had always been committed Democrats, part of the large swath of blue-collar working-class men and women in the Midwest who had been hard hit by economic globalization and technological change. Why were they switching to this untested candidate?
My extended family in Rockford, where I grew up, was typical of the movement of people to large industrial cities in the Midwest after World War II. Almost all of my family moved from the bogs of central Wisconsin around Tomah to Rockford, to work in the mass-assembly factories that desperately needed unskilled workers. My father was among them. I grew up in a world of the working class; my father and extended family firmly held working-class cultural values. My working-class roots are still with me at a deep level.
Our family’s cultural values were a mix of tribal affiliations, reliance on one’s own intuitions, and fierce pride. “Book learnin’,” as my father described it, wasn’t all that useful. “Your gut” would tell you the best way to make decisions, and it was best to follow it. During his campaign, Trump said he followed his gut; he didn’t rely on experts or data to drive his decisions. Clinton, on the other hand, had a squad of experts and data crunchers. Trump’s gut instincts seemed to win him the admiration of the working-class people who processed information the same way.
An article in The Atlantic by Salena Zito resonated with me: “When he makes claims like this [on unemployment figures], the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” My family communicated with each other through story, hyperbole, and humor. We told long stories, often repeated, with vivid descriptions of long-ago events or relatives living and departed. Our stories were laced with exaggerations—even outright lies—but we didn’t take them literally. I remember once correcting my father, who was the master of clever tales, on a particular part of his story. I was told, “You just read too many books.”
Trump’s exaggerations and vivid symbols, such as building the wall, would resonate with my family.
My friends, colleagues, and I were appalled at Trump’s scandals and treatment of women. But in my family, scandal was part of the colorful stories we told. Since so many of us had made mistakes and exhibited scandalous or inappropriate behaviors at one time or another, that was largely considered part of life. We didn’t judge these behaviors to be reasons for rejection from the family. I was not surprised that Trump’s scandals were condemned by the voters, but did not preclude their voting for him.
Our extended family had many of the characteristics of a tribe. We stuck together, helped each other, and were leery of outsiders. My grandmother had few friends outside her family. When I was a youngster, my friends were my cousins, and I didn’t venture outside that cocoon until high school. Trump was able to create a visual family, with his bright-red baseball caps and assorted paraphernalia, which proclaimed allegiance to his tribe and membership in the Trump family.
Many pundits were perplexed about why Trump, who was a New York billionaire, resonated with white working-class people. My family admired family members who made lots of money but were still “one of them.” One of my cousins is a multimillionaire but still comes to funerals and family reunions. This act is always greeted with words of appreciation and comments such as, “See, he’s still family.” Trump wore expensive suits, but his signature accessory was a baseball cap. He still fit in. Even though his language and demeanor had an air of superiority, he still resonated with his supporters. It was a validation that they were part of his community: one of wealth, glamour, prestige, and accomplishment. They were part of “Trumpland.”
I find these cultural differences fascinating and a key to better understanding a shocking phenomenon: So many working-class people disregarded the “hard, factual data” showing that Trump’s policies would not only not help them but would actually make them worse off economically. And yet they voted for him.
If we are to connect with people outside our inner circle of identity politics, we need to be able to reach out and understand “the other.” For years, the college-educated, myself included, have wanted mainstream white America to understand “the other,” those from other cultures and minorities. Perhaps it is now time to reverse the roles, and for the college-educated, the media, and other “elites” to be the students and learn that white working-class America is not monolithic. It does not uniformly share cultural norms and values. Their culture is different, varied, and worth learning more about. If we are to get past throwing disparaging accusations of racism and misogyny at groups of people, and if we are to more deeply understand who they are, then we will have a better chance of advancing an agenda of greater economic justice, peace, sustainability, and inclusiveness that translates into a greater political stability.
The progressive Democratic left often boils down the cultural divide to economic issues. Jobs are the answer to all divisions. The 1% are causing all problems. I don’t dispute the fact that economic dislocation is a huge factor in swinging the Rust Belt to Trump, but I also think that cultural factors are at work in this disconnect.
Until we are able to more effectively communicate with and understand each other, distrust, hatred, and further divisions will continue and intensify.
Questions to Consider
- Have you experienced the “cultural divide”? If so, what is your story?
Dr. Denise R. Ames is a long-time educator and president of the nonprofit Center for Global Awareness. The Center for Global Awareness develops books and materials with a holistic, global focus for adult learners and educators. In January 2018, the CGA will launch the Global Awareness Adult Conversation and Study Program, or Gather. In this unique program, adult learners form small study groups to launch conversations about pressing global issues, seeing different perspectives, transcending deep political and cultural divides, and engaging with others to create positive change. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.global-awareness.org for more information.