How “Woke” America and “Great” America Can Learn from Each Other

Photo: Wharton School

If you are even an occasional consumer of news, you’ve probably come to realize something over the past several months: the 2016 election is the election that will . And perhaps for good reason — it revealed deep divisions in our polity that to some extent had been papered over in elections past. It has forced us to confront a number of questions regarding our fellow countrymen and women, and prompted questions about how we might be able to move forward and share a country with people with whom we may profoundly disagree, and whose ideas we may even find repulsive. One of the foremost questions has been, how do we even begin to do this?

This is part of a broader conversation I’ve been trying (to varying degrees of success) to initiate ever since the election. Last week, I came across an interview that I found highly instructive in creating a starting point for these imperative conversations. The political scientist Yascha Mounk — whose podcast and regular column in Slate analyze the state of democracy in the West — sat down with journalist Anand Giridharadas to discuss the latter’s recent article in the Huffington Post, “.”

The is rich and informative, and I think people on both the Clinton-esque left and Trump-y right (and, really, everyone in between) can glean some good insight from it. Here, I simply want to draw attention to what I thought was one of the most important and instructive segments. Giridharadas begins by offering some background:

One set of causes of this age of anger that we’re living in is the condescension and neglect of rich people. But another very important, if not dominant, part of that story is the massive culture war that is coming with the transition of a country that’s essentially been run by white men for 400 years to a country that is seeing women empowered and becoming majority-minority.

So this transition that we’re seeing in America that is giving people so much heartache — this transition to a country in which women and people of color are equal and have a voice — is actually part of this larger phenomenon of the decentering of white guys who owned the currency of history for the last 500 years. It’s connected to the ascendance of India and China, of innovative potential in Africa and Latin America. What I observe in the United States is an enormous amount of anxiety on the part of those who are experiencing those changes as a headwind.

Of course, I am part of the America that is experiencing those same changes, for the most part, as a tail wind. And one of the ways I think about the moment that we’re in is: It’s very easy to just get cozy on the sofa on your side under the blanket, like we’re all partisans of the new America that is coming. But sometimes you have to try to go a little deeper and think about the idea that as much as I want this new America to come, I do understand — and have to understand as an obligation of my citizenship — how hard it must be to lose the certainties of the era that is rightfully dying. I quote Toni Morrison in the piece you referenced, and she has one of her characters say: “What difference do it make if the thing you scared of is real or not?”

So what I try to do in this piece is think about the two poles of America. Woke America, which wants this new America to come as fast as possible. And Great America, which thinks that our best days are behind us and wants to reclaim them through the nationalism of Donald Trump. What I tried to think about is: What could each do to understand what the other is telling it, beneath what it is simply saying?

He then compares the need for conversation between these two major camps to how one might work through couple’s counseling:

Anybody who has ever had therapy, or gone to a couples counselor, understands that often the thing people are screaming at you is not the entirety of what you need to understand. So what happens if we actually treat each other like a committed couple? If we say: “We’re going to get through this”? And by the way, while couples have the option of divorce, we really have to get through this as a country.

Finally, Mounk asks Giridharadas to walk him through how a counselor would address each of these groups and get them to consider this changing world through the eyes of the other:

Mounk: So walk me through the couples counseling version of each side of the debate. If you were the therapist, and you were looking at people who are on the side of Great America, what is it that they should hear instead of rolling their eyes? Instead of just calling members of what you call Woke America “snowflakes” or “SJWs,” or whatever?

Giridharadas: So if I was doing that in this room right now, and let’s say I heard from each of these, I think I would look at the partisan of Great America and say: You don’t like the fact that the person from Woke America is talking about white privilege and male privilege, you find this very off-putting. You think they’re obsessed with race and gender. You don’t like what a big deal they make about transgender bathrooms. It’s so few transgender people — why make such a big deal about these bathrooms? You don’t like the fact that they don’t seem committed to free speech because they’re kicking these professors off campus, and it seems totally illiberal and out of step with American values. OK. Let’s go deeper. What are they telling you beneath that?

What I think they are telling you is that the free country that you think you live in — the country of the American dream that you think you live in and are defending — has actually never been for them what it has been for you. Their experience of the world is often that the world is unwelcoming, that the rooms they walk into would rather not have them there. That the tables they’re at would rather ignore them, that every room they enter feels like a fortress they have to penetrate. So what I would say to the person from Great America is: The people complaining about the lecture, or the transgender bathroom, or white privilege, are giving you an opportunity. They’re actually pointing out ways in which your vision of America can become even truer.

So if that’s what they’re trying to express, there are actually two reasons why people who aren’t members of Woke America have trouble hearing that. One is that they don’t feel like there is that commitment to American values. A lot of Woke America, they’d say, is not clamoring for inclusion under equal terms, under principles like freedom of speech, but actually rejecting freedom of speech.

And the other thing is something that, to be totally frank, I sometimes feel: Every time I go on Facebook or Twitter now, there is a sneering reference to middle-aged white men. […] …there is an amount of ad hominem attack that can feel a little needless. And I can take it because you know what? My life’s going pretty well right now. But if I was frustrated, if I felt like the world isn’t seeing my talents, I don’t get to do what I want to do, my wife just left me, I have a shitty job, and I hate my boss, and then I go and see something like that? I think I’d be pretty mad. So what do you think Woke America should change in order …

Let’s turn around the couples counseling. I think you’re absolutely right that it goes both ways. By the way, this does me no favors in my circles. My circles are Woke America circles. And frankly, people are often uncomfortable with any kind of criticism being directed at Woke America. There is this sense that this is the inevitable future and people need to get with the program. And I actually don’t think that’s right.

If I were now speaking in our podcast couples counseling to someone from Woke America, I would say: When people on the right are saying things that are offensive or ignorant, that are angry, that frankly diminish your humanity and question the right of people like you to exist, to be in the country, to do what you do, there’s no need to excuse any of that. I condemn all of that. But if that’s the end of your analysis, you’re not doing your full job as a citizen — simply because letting that be is not a great strategy for the kind of country that’s going to be habitable for you.

What I would urge those in Woke America to hear is the fear and pain behind some of those kinds of thoughts. “Understand the fear behind something” is often taken to mean to excuse or forgive it. But I’m not saying that. From time to time I’m told, “Go back to your country!” or “Where are you from?” And I fight it with every ounce of ferocity to which I’m entitled. But understand where it’s coming from. Understand that there are people who were born into a country in which their social world was 96 percent white and men ran everything. Frankly, they never got the memo about a new world that was coming. They feel lost. Bereft. And the condition of having that kind of fear and pain is often being unable to say that you have fear and pain.

There’s sometimes a political fatalism in Woke America about those in Great America that I think is deeply self-defeating. Resistance is one kind of safety, and I think right now, given what we’re under, it’s a very important, immediate kind of safety. But the more durable piece that people in Woke America will feel is electoral. Let’s be real for a second: If you can just get 5 percent of the people who voted for Donald Trump to somehow, for some reason, feel like it was a bad decision and that we’re betraying our humanity when we make people feel degraded, the guy is done.

The is worth listening to or reading if you have some time.

Political analyst focused on electoral politics, Congress, demographic trends, polling, public policy, and political history.