As I write this, the calendar marks almost a month since President Biden’s inauguration. The weeks seem to flicker by, and day by day Trump’s importance seems to fade. With his absence, so goes the mainstream fascination with politics many people grew accustomed to during his term. It’s like a switch was turned off with some of my friends — all of a sudden, we’ve moved from discussing our feelings about the terrifying news of the day to me trying to convince them to pay attention to the genocide in China. So, something has clearly changed — but what?
The underlying story that birthed four years of drama is still puttering along. I drive by Trump signs almost as frequently as before, and 68 percent of Republicans still don’t believe the election was free or fair. On the other side, Democrats’ confidence in the legitimacy of the outcome skyrocketed to 92 percent post-election. Personally, I’m stuck in some strange middle ground between the sentiments of both sides. I’m glad to see that the whims of the capital haven’t entirely done away with the rationality of our republic, but the Republicans are right — at least in a sense. It’s not that the election was tampered with, but if one’s faith in the efficacy of our political system is subject to GME-level swings depending on what party you’re registered with… something is wrong. My fear that this wrongness could get worse is what motivates me to stay involved, to keep my eyes open.
Intuitively, if a government were serving its people with accuracy and efficiency, such mistrust wouldn’t arise. In fact, a normative claim could easily follow: One ought to trust the systems of the state if they are, fruitfully and without coercion, attending to the interests of the people. The tension arises when a huge swath of the country feels its interests aren’t being served (and therefore that it ought to renounce its previous trust), but the very language that frames our politics implies the state must serve this same group’s interests. This is the lexicon of the American dream.
For many of us, whether minority groups or leftists, the treachery of this language has been long evident. Politicians like Reagan might spout off about the blessings of opportunity and the dawning of “morning again in America” while passing tax cuts for the wealthy and opposing the Civil Rights Act. It was never hard to see the hypocrisy.
Yet, people hold to the last bit of hope that it’s not a false American ideology at fault for their sufferings, but Latinx immigrants, Muslims, or China — a hope that is easy pickings for someone like Trump to stir into a racist frenzy and direct to his benefit. They cling to the American Dream, never looking down from their grip to see the millions who already made the leap, and who are waiting to greet them as sisters in interest — as brothers in arms.
So how do we deal with this? Well, our pitch needs to change. It’s not helpful to simply tell people that their beliefs are racist. In fact, it alienates and entrenches them further into their views. To my fellow Obies: Call-out culture doesn’t work. If we hope to pass meaningful policy, we need to convince people, within their frame of reference, to change their beliefs. We must do what we’ve known should’ve happened since 2016: reframe the identity-based divisions spurred by Republicans and, frankly, some Democrats, as a tool being used by the elite to divide America’s working people. We must convince our country that it’s not winning some grand fictional conflict over America’s racial future that will help, but a restoration of faith in each other as working Americans with good intentions. As Ian Haney López points out, “Whites believed in structural remedies when they saw the poor as people like themselves, folks sometimes trapped by larger forces or bad breaks. They shifted to a belief in personal failings when they began to see the poor as nonwhites fundamentally unlike themselves.”
This shift is going to require much work from both sides. Despite everything I’ve written, in the past few months I have found myself trying to shut out politics at times and with barely enough motivation to jump back into the fray. Perhaps it is because November’s “win” feels less like a victory and more like we kicked the real conflict down the line. For many, a return to “normalcy” has finally arrived, i.e. not engaging with politics outside of reading headlines occasionally and regurgitating a clever line to friends.
I constantly fear that my generation is doing exactly what we hated about our elders — they let years go by, sufficed with the mediocrity of stability, until they could drop the accumulating pile of trash onto our shoulders. We can’t let that happen. But I see in myself the worst parts of our country. I feel most relaxed when I’m in a nihilistic mood, when I look at the changing climate and decide its inevitability, when I think that it’s not worth the effort to convince someone that the Mexican side of my family isn’t what’s hurting them. I suggest stealing Trump signs as we pass by them on the highway. I look with disdain and judgement at the people I assume are conservative when I get groceries, and take bets with my friends about if I think people were Trump voters or not. And, though relaxed, I frighten myself in this way, for if I cannot put aside such feelings, how dare I expect others to?
So I fear with eyes open or closed. Perhaps, then, I will offer a prayer. For and to no one but myself. I offer a prayer for the child in me whose fear was of monsters and not men, of darkness and not of what lies outside it:
Let me open my eyes, for the light I block out may be blinding, but without it I have blinded myself to begin with.
Let me feel the warmth of distant stars, and let me make a fire in their place until I can reach them.
Let me find faith in your good will once more. And let that faith be more than a story.
Let me find faith in my good will once more. And let that faith be more than a story.
Let me be kind, and let me see that others wish to be as well, even if they struggle.
Let me see that my good is not so different from my neighbor’s, and that her’s is not so different from Tom Joad’s.
Let me unfurl my trembling hand for even with cold fingers I can still reach towards the sun.
And let me find life in mortality.