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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