John Jeremiah Sullivan Drills Down on Soft White Liberal Upper-middle-class College Types

JJS.001I have no desire to be that person, who lets politics affect him so deeply he forgets the higher truths. We’re all confused and error-prone. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need politics. We have to fight fiercely to respect one another. – John Jeremiah Sullivan


Throughout this election I’ve been saying that it seemed like much of the country wanted to give Washington D.C. a punch in the face. Donald Trump was the fist. Hillary Clinton was the face. In the aftermath, I’m not totally sure that’s true. I think the punch in the face is meant for a wider swath than just the politicians. The punch was meant for the urban elites, the liberal intelligentsia, the smug and arrogant ruling class, the people John Jeremiah Sullivan calls soft white liberal upper-middle-class college types. Ouch.

I am a bit of a hick by birth, born and bred in small-town Kansas where the two-party system consisted of Conservative Republicans and Moderate Republicans. But I am a post-liberal by training, which means that I was taught to consider liberals and conservatives to be two sides of the same corrupt coin and to cooly pass judgment on them both. All this to say I think perhaps I am part of the problem.

This election was unlike any in our lifetime. It was ugly and has left the country reeling and divided. For centuries white men have been able to control nearly everything through racism, misogyny, discrimination, and violence. I naïvely thought those things were on the wane. Trump used those things to get elected president. Regardless of your politics I think we should all be angry about that, but that only tells one side of the story. John Jeremiah Sullivan, one of my favorite writers, describes the other:

Sullivan describes a trip to the airport the morning after the election:

Most interesting in the gate area was to watch folks watching one another. It was clear from people’s expressions and from something in the furtiveness of their glances that a lot of us were thinking, “Are you one of them? Did you do this to us?” And the Trump people, or the ones I profiled as Trump’s, were maybe thinking, “Are you giving me a look because you think I voted for him? Up yours! This is America. You can’t guilt me for voting my conscience.” I can’t prove that they were thinking those things, but I wasn’t wrong. I found myself looking at two men in particular. They had on camouflage baseball caps, one’s arms were covered in aged tattoos, and they were whispering to each other, making each other laugh. They were the kind of guys I typically look at fondly, when I see them in public, with thoughts along the lines of, “Ha … if my New York friends were here, they’d be looking at these guys and thinking they’re such rednecks and stupid and whatnot, but I’ve known people like that all my life, and they have a magical way of turning into funny, weird, compassionate individuals when you talk with them.” It’s one of my most strongly held beliefs and has been for my whole adult life, that we don’t really see each other when we observe from a distance, that you have to get close to know anything at all and even then often don’t know. This morning I looked at them with hatred. I can’t believe I’ve written the word, but there’s no other for the feeling. That was the only moment my vision went swimmy. I have no desire to be that person, who lets politics affect him so deeply he forgets the higher truths. We’re all confused and error-prone. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need politics. We have to fight fiercely to respect one another. If we don’t, it’s not even that we’re lost, it’s that there was never a point to any of it.

Who is to blame for this state of affairs? We are, if anyone. The left. I am. Let’s confess it in all transparency. We were stupid. We forgot about a huge part of this country. We forgot about “regular folks.” We forgot about middle-class and working-class white people who don’t like the same things we do. It began a long time ago, this forgetting. They weren’t sexy. And anyway, enough of them were usually on our side that it didn’t matter. That was not just stupid but criminally negligent. We were also repeating a mistake that is older than our nation and that may doom us: the inability to understand who it is with whom we truly have common cause. It goes back to Bacon’s Rebellion. For the colonial elites to win, they first have to convince the “regular folks” not to side with the blacks and Indians. Best yet is if you can get both groups not to trust each other. Don’t fall prey to it. Greater polarization serves the other side. We just learned that. We have to reach out to the Trump voters. We have to present them with a vision of liberalism inspiring and coherent enough that those among them who can be swayed will be swayed. The margins are razor thin and can be moved.

Acting smug and superior is almost never the thing to do. I can simultaneously reject racism, misogyny, discrimination and violence, and refuse to hate those who voted for a man who embraced them to win an election, even the man himself. As Sullivan says, “I have no desire to be that person, who lets politics affect him so deeply he forgets the higher truths. We’re all confused and error-prone. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t need politics. We have to fight fiercely to respect one another.”

If you’re interested in reading the rest of Sullivan’s article, you can read it here.

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  • scott stone

    Not sure if you know who Jonathon Pie is but he’s a character created by british satirist Tom Walker. This is the best explanation of why Trump won that I’ve come across.
    https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=GLG9g7BcjKs

    • jekylldoc

      Well, I don’t know if it’s the best explanation, but it certainly expresses my feeling. I have been trying to make this point all week. Explain. Talk. Persuade. Discuss with people who are not from your bubble.

      • scott stone

        And be willing to change your point of view. So many approach discussion with a high degree of certitude. Be willing to admit that others may have a better idea. This is what is so strange. Aren’t progressives suppose to be the open minded ones? Are we proponents of diversity except diversity of thought?

        • jekylldoc

          Often it is not a matter of others having a “better idea” so much as others putting more emphasis on some things and less on others. The New York Times has a project in “The Run-Up” (podcasts) in which friends or family who have found themselves on opposite sides are challenged to talk to each other, and listen. The first dialogue posted is “Aaron and Kyle” and it’s interesting. One is an African-American who finished college and interprets things like Birtherism as obvious signs of racism. The other is a Latino he knew in high school who supports Trump and thinks that interpreting Trump’s candidacy as being about racism is part of the problem, (“we need more unity”) rather than part of the solution.

          • scott stone

            Totally agree. I’m a fairly progressive individual regarding social policy but I place the blame squarely on the left. If I see one more car with a Celebrate Diversity bumper sticker I may T-bone it. We have spent so much freaking time talking about what our differences are (diversity) and then ordering people not only to accept them, but embrace them. I want our starting point to be our commonalities.
            I have a friend who is basically a commi-leftist, he admits it. But we got to know each other personally and realized what we had in common. We don’t agree all the time but we agree enough and to be honest, I don’t care if we agree at all on political issues. He’s just a good dude. My point is we should start with what we have in common.

          • jekylldoc

            OK, sure, what we have in common is more basic, anyway. But I celebrate diversity too. Please don’t slam into my car.

          • scott stone

            A bit hyperbolic on my part!

  • scott stone

    I had to come back for another bite at the apple on this one because something Sullivan wrote has stuck with me today. “We have to present them with a vision of liberalism inspiring and coherent enough that those among them who can be swayed will be swayed.” Did it ever occur to Sullivan that he might just be wrong? Does it always have to boil down to a binary decision regarding ideology?
    I think there is a certain smugness in the notion that “we just need to do a better job of convincing people that our position is the correct position.” I’m just being the devils advocate but maybe the Trump voters are the ones who have it correct and it is Sullivan that needs convincing.
    Please don’t take this as an endorsement of Trumpism, I personally find him repugnant. But it seems that Sullivan blames himself and the left but reverts back to the position of elitism by stating the left just needs to explain things better. As usual I probably don’t know what the hell I’m talking about. I’m so over this election already. I just ordered my “I didn’t vote for either of them” bumper sticker.

    • John

      Yea, I did the same double-take. That last sentence negated everything he seemed to be saying. Maybe I am misunderstanding the direction of this article, but if sincere, then he just insulted a large group of the population all while espousing mutual understanding. Go figure.

      • jekylldoc

        If the point is that liberals need to listen, sure. I have no problem with that. But at the end of a long rant about dissing people, I took the “inspiring enough vision” to be a statement that we on the left need to be persuasive instead of morally arrogant, and I think that makes a lot of sense. Unpacking it a little more it would say “if we are actually right, then there should be a way to explain why, and we need to find it.”

        At the height of the crisis with Thatcherism in Britain, the head of the coal miners’ union said that Britain had to keep the coal mines open as long as there was any coal to be mined (regardless of whether it made sense economically – big subsidy if necessary). He was convinced he was morally right – the coal communities of Wales and Northern England had a right not to be left to fall apart if they could still be useful. The rest of England was understandably not impressed by his moral argument.

        Somehow we have gotten the idea that being right gives us a right to win in a democracy without persuading anybody of that rightness. This is quite confused.

    • Tim_Suttle

      I had a similar visceral reaction, which is why I quoted the part I did. I’m not sure JJS would be considered a true progressive. He’s more like old school agrarian dixie-crat.