Monday, January 9, 2017

Robert Leonard on Why Rural America Voted for Trump: A Critique of the Argument

Robert Leonard's recent op-ed piece in New York Times on why rural America voted Trump is receiving a lot of attention as a cogent new statement in the growing body of literature upbraiding American liberals for their failure to understand the thinking and mores of heartland citizens who voted for Trump. This literature inevitably proceeds from the assumption that liberals live for the most part in "elite" enclaves on the two coasts of the nation, and have done too little to inform themselves about what people think and feel in flyover country — hence their abasement in the 2016 elections.

Though why those producing these arguments, who themselves tend to live in or represent the very same elite liberal "bubbles" to whom they're pitching the arguments, don't trouble themselves to pay any attention to the real, living and breathing liberals (can anyone say, Rev. William J. Barber II?) to be found in the heartland is curious to me . . . . Is it, do you think, because it would complicate their simplistic, binary presentation of the problem to be solved in American political culture if the testimony of real-life liberals living in dark heartland places were allowed a hearing in the "bubbles" of liberal elites? 

The literature chastising liberals for their failure to "understand" their fellow citizens in the heartland is clearly being produced for the very "elites" that it upbraids. And in key respects, it's designed to let those elites off the hook even as it lectures them. Its binary, simplistic, either-or analysis of the problem of "understanding" that liberal elites need to confront, we're told, is in many ways a panacea for real action and real understanding — action and understanding of the sort called for by real liberals living in areas in which promoting liberal social agendas requires paying a price, making choices, not engaging in the cheap-grace game of "understanding."

Again: can anyone say Rev. William J. Barber II?

Here's the heart of Leonard's argument:

For me, it took a 2015 pre-caucus stop in Pella by J. C. Watts, a Baptist minister raised in the small town of Eufaula, Okla., who was a Republican congressman from 1995 to 2003, to begin to understand my neighbors — and most likely other rural Americans as well.  
"The difference between Republicans and Democrats is that Republicans believe people are fundamentally bad, while Democrats see people as fundamentally good," said Mr. Watts, who was in the area to campaign for Senator Rand Paul. "We are born bad," he said and added that children did not need to be taught to behave badly — they are born knowing how to do that. 
"We teach them how to be good," he said. "We become good by being reborn — born again."  
He continued: "Democrats believe that we are born good, that we create God, not that he created us. If we are our own God, as the Democrats say, then we need to look at something else to blame when things go wrong — not us."

This is the foundation of Leonard's contention that elitist liberals need to do more work to "understand" how people think and behave in the heartland — to "understand" how Trump voters think and behave. I'd like to make a few points about this argument:

1. Ironically, the argument is being pitched to us by the very same "elitist" media outlets that have spent much time of late criticizing us, and liberals in particular, for our lack of theological and historical literacy.

2. But this is an explicitly theological argument, though it's a theological argument disguised as something else in presentations such as Leonard's.

3. As anyone with even the most passing acquaintance with American history knows, when the founders set the American republic into place, they had to contend with a theological belief system deeply embedded in the nation's culture, which held that human beings are inherently sinful and incapable of collaborating to build social structures serving the common good short of divine intervention.

4. This theological contention was particularly strong in the sectors of colonial culture heavily influenced by Calvinism. It was richly represented in New England, in the Puritan substratum of that region's culture.

5. The belief that human beings are inherently sinful and incapable of building social structures that serve the common good without divine intervention runs directly counter to the belief system of the founders of the American republic.

6. The founders of the American republic met this Calvinistic belief system with the Enlightment contention that, though they may be imperfect and fall far short of the good, human beings nonetheless have the ability to apply reason — without relying on theological presuppositions and theocratic intervention— to build social structures that serve the common good.

7. The foundation of the American republic represents, in other words, a fork in the road vis-a-vis these two competing systems of belief: one holding that people are fundamentally bad and incapable of building societies that tend in the direction of the good without direct divine intervention — and that's to say (a point to which I'll return in a moment) without the intervention of divines and pastors — and the belief that people have the ability to use reason to build social structures that serve the common good, regardless of their particular religious convictions or the lack thereof.

8. The founders of the American republic took the nation along the second path. In doing so, they made a choice: they repudiated the first path. They quite deliberately set into place in their new republic a wall separating church and state, designed to keep divines and pastors from intruding into the new nation's governance with theocratic claims based on the contention that a good society can be built only when its control is delivered into those gentlemen's hands.

9. Given this history — and it's not esoteric history, history that's hard to dig up and familiarize oneself with — what's curious about Leonard's argument and about the arguments of like-minded media gurus who are now beating "liberal elitists" up for failing to "understand" heartland folks is that there's not a scintilla of awareness in these arguments that what they're really proposing to us is the dismantling of the American republic and its social contract as set up by the republic's founders.

10. Under the guise of calling on us to "understand," these commentators are actually collaborating with the Rev. J. C. Watts of the country to demand that we void the foundational documents on whose base the American republic is constructed, repudiate the founders and their work, and turn the republic over into the hands of divines and pastors, priests and bishops, prosperity gospel preachers, and religious charlatans — because we're simply so "bad," born bad, that we have no recourse except to take this radical step.

11. We need, we're being told by those calling us to "understand" the testimony of our heartland brothers and sisters, to accept the project of dismantling the American democratic experiment and its social contract that has been underway from Ronald Reagan forward — we need to "starve the beast" and "drain the swamp" — and admit that the republic took a wrong path from its inception and the divines and pastors, priests and bishops, prosperity gospel preachers, and religious charlatans have had the better idea all along.

12. Because we silly geese befuddled by silly Enlightenment ideas got off on the wrong foot in the American democratic experiment when we forgot that we're "fundamentally bad" and incapable of building any kind of viable society without the theocratic management of those who channel God to us . . . .

I'm at a loss to comprehend why those who keep pitching this argument to us for better "understanding" of the heartland and its belief system don't simply admit that what they're calling for is not "understanding" at all. What they're calling for is choosing. They're calling for the American republic to walk back in time to its foundational moment and take the path the founders repudiated — "People are fundamentally bad," they're "born bad," and they need to be reborn with the help of the divines — rather than the path on which it has walked from its inception.

Having shredded the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we need, in other words, to hand the country over to Rev. J. C. Watts and his ilk. Since this is what's underway now with the Trump election and the election of a Repubican-controlled Congress, why don't the media gurus calling for "understanding" do a more accurate job of describing the process they're blessing — and admitting for whom they're actually carrying water with their simplistic, binary, either-or arguments pitting "elitist liberals" against the "real" folks of the heartland?

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