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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Reconciliation … Between whom and about what?

Subbu Vincent

Subbu Vincent (@subbuvincent) is the director of journalism & media ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own.

Talk of reconciliation in American society surfaces on and off and has a predictable cadence that follows the cycles of conflict. One dictionary meaning for this fraught term is “the restoration of friendly relations.” As a term, reconciliation is also invoked because it has an underlying morality. It passes off as a legitimate call to norms. But does reconciliation even apply to America’s current moment?

First, there is the question who or which groups are to be reconciled? Let’s call these the primary stakeholders. 

  1. One group is the majority of the American electorate who voted for Biden. The other group is, broadly speaking, those who voted for President Trump.
  2. The political leaders themselves are key stakeholders to any reconciliation, for it is they who seek to control the narratives to win voters, divisive, false or otherwise.
  3. A different stakeholder grouping is privileged communities (part of the elite) and marginalized communities. Who wants reconciliation more? Privileged or marginalized? That itself is a whole discussion. I would hazard that it is usually the former. 
  4. Marginalized communities deserve a separate mention as a stakeholder. Having already borne the burden of unjust outcomes for so long, they know their power imbalance does not get remedied by reconciliation alone. In fact, marginalized communities would view the “restoration of friendly relations” itself with skepticism. It may simply bring us back to status quo, and the world of indignity, inequality, structural racism and casteism does not bend to justice on its own. 

Second, there is the question of what is the dispute or conflict that we are trying to overcome through reconciliation? This is the more relevant question and it needs some historical context. The present American situation (broadly speaking), coming out of the 2020 election, has legions of Trump supporters threatening unrest, led by the president himself, on one side. The other side are people hoping for a peaceful transition of power to Joe Biden. The groups are separated by a deep values-based divide. And it is not just any values divide.

A divide that is not just about race

Some historians, (recently Heather Cox Richardson and Jon Meacham) often remind Americans that the central political dispute in America runs all the way from the civil war over slavery, to the defeat of Reconstruction, to Jim Crow-laws, to Barry Goldwater, to Richard Nixon’s adopting “us vs them,” to Newt Gingrich, and finally to Donald J. Trump. Meacham, in his interview on KQED Forum even offered rhetorically that America has always been “two nations.” As a 90s’ immigrant, I bought into America’s image as a liberal democracy. But America’s image was always ahead of her reality. I had to take off my blinders, and learn about this long-running cultural conflict that was never actually settled. 

But what may be different recently (during 2015-2020) is this: Social and digital media technologies have given ample machinery to politicians to manufacture and propagate narratives of any kind. For politicians on the right, it has particularly become easy to exploit the sense of threat felt by conservatives about social change. This is well documented. David Horowitz, Stephen Miller’s mentor, in his letter to then Senator Jeff Sessions in 2012, used the words “political utility of hostile feelings,” to advise Republican leaders of the electoral benefits of fear and hate. 

Digital media has made it ever easier to game this values divide to make entire people disbelieve reality and turn that into a political protest movement. Narratives such as “progressivism is a threat to my way of life,” are easy to nourish endlessly with lies and conspiracy about how the election was stolen by “evil liberals” and “their media.” The central aim here is to foster hate, mutual disgust and hostility. Fostering hatred of liberal-minded fellow Americans is a project with substantial digital machinery and legs in conservative media culture. 

Can’t leave out the American left

But it takes two to tango. The problem is not only on the right; the American left has its issues as well. Looking at America through the eyes of Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin in Michigan is deeply illustrative. Last month, Tim Alberta, chief political correspondent for Politico wrote a richly textured and deep profile of Slotkin. She was one of the “moderate” Democrats who won in 2018 and campaigned furiously to retain her seat this year. She won her seat on November 4th by 15,000 votes, after trailing her opponent all night. If not for the one county where her voters’ massive number of mail-in ballots tipped her over the finish line, she would have lost. “Victorious but chastened, the moderate from Michigan thinks her party has something to learn from—yes—Donald Trump,” says Alberta’s article about Slotkin.

As a politician, Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin would be a key stakeholder in any conversation on American reconciliation, not because of her views about conservatives, but of liberals. She indicts the intellectual-left for condescending on conservatives, and making them feel “looked down upon.” Alberta reports that Slotkin has begun to question the notion that Democrats are the party of inclusion. Slotkin fears, he writes, that Democrats have created a barrier to entry, largely along cultural lines, that makes the party fundamentally unwelcoming to anyone with supposedly retrograde views of the world around them. 

“We sometimes make people feel like they aren’t conscientious enough. They aren’t thoughtful enough. They aren’t ‘woke’ enough. They aren’t smart enough or educated enough to just understand what’s good for them. … It’s talking down to people. It’s alienating them. And there’s just certain voters who feel so distant from the political process—it’s not their life, it’s not their world. They hate it. They don’t like all that politics stuff. Trump speaks to them, because he includes them.” -- Elisa Slotkin

For Slotkin, says Alberta, this is not merely about race and racism. He paraphrases Slotkin’s articulation thus: “The schisms go far deeper, to matters of faith and conscience, economic freedom and individual liberty. Indeed, for the heavy losses Trump sustained among affluent college-educated whites, he nearly won a second term because of his gains with Black and brown voters. That these Americans were willing to support Trump, often in spite of his rhetoric, reveals an uncomfortable truth for the left. There are millions of voters—working-class whites and working-class minorities—whose stances on social controversies put them out of touch with the Democratic Party. It’s a truth they might be willing to overlook, if only the party could do the same.” 

Find common ground as humans, with dignity

So any discussion about reconciliation must start from an understanding of both the nature of the dispute, the larger cultural divide around social change it manifests as, and how we have all contributed to it. Is reconciliation as a means to bring Trump-voters together with the rest of Americans even workable? 

I would contend that it is not.

Instead, we need to go down to a more fundamental human level in interpersonal and inter-group relations in local communities. Americans must have opportunities to see and hear each other as full people, with dignity, each with our better angels and worser ones. No labels—liberals, conservatives, coastal-elites, heartlanders, recent immigrants, nativists, racists, nationalists, woke-ists, socialists, and whatnot. People need ways to see the truth of each other’s everyday lived experiences (jobs, wages, pain, parenting), especially of those each of us viewed as the “other.” Such convenings (Elissa Slotkin for instance, says she plans to bring people together in her fraught district in Michigan) must happen without the toxic narratives of hate, caricatures, and untruth imposed by those who gain from division. 

Writing his essay this week, “How to change,” on his interview with Michigan City, Indiana-based community organizer, Vincent Emanuele, Anand Giridharadas says this: “You shouldn’t seek to reach out to Trump voters or try pointlessly to understand them, but rather just try to do things with them.” Emanuele says that conversations between Democratic Party supporters and Trump-supporters are best dealt with through actual campaigns such as those for tenant-rights, where he tries to find common ground, solidarity, and build a sense of collectivity. Emanuele also echoes much of Congresswoman Slotkin's critique of the Democratic party.

To be fair, many groups have been trying this in America. Such efforts need more power, scrutiny and support. They become a truly constructive force in democracy when they empower people to build solidarity with each other around issues where there is already common ground in America: $15 minimum wage, affordable healthcare for everyone, and so forth. 

This is not impossible, but it will be hard to do. And that is where we are.

References

  1. America, Racism & Patterns of Change (with Heather Cox Richardson), CAFE, June 11, 2020. 
  2. Historian Jon Meacham on the 2020 Presidential Election, KQED Forum, Nov 5, 2020. 
  3. The Man Who Made Stephen Miller, Politico Magazine, Jan 8, 2020. 
  4. Elissa Slotkin Braces for a Democratic Civil War, Politco Magazine, Nov 13, 2020. 
  5. What Are the Solutions to Political Polarization, Greatergood Magazine, July 2, 2019.
  6. How to change, The.Ink, Anand Giridharadas’ newsletter, Dec 8, 2020.
Dec 9, 2020