A Midwest Liberal Encounters West Coast Liberalism
Over the summer, I read Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land as part of Pomona College’s required reading for incoming students. The book dove into the thoughts, minds, and history of the American right through interviews with locals in the Louisiana bayou, one of the poorest and deeply conservative areas in the country. As a Democrat, President Trump’s election was a fresh wound, and I looked to these interviews to clarify what other side of the political aisle thought. I was shocked by some of the statements: the man who said he didn’t feel sorry for Syrian refugees, the woman who said she would reconsider her anti-abortion stance if it meant abortion would kill future Democrats.
I ended the book uncertain of how we might overcome this political divide. But I thought Hochschild’s approach was a vitally important first step: she left behind her liberal world and talked to people different from herself in an attempt to understand them.
Certainly, she had the privilege to do so in a way that most people do not, with a doctoral degree, the funds to travel across the country, and the time to write a book about her experience; she is the quintessential “liberal elite.” But as a middle (and former lower)-class liberal from Indiana, I did not truly understand what “liberal elite” meant—until I moved to California.
The prosperity was astounding. The first time I visited Pomona and the Claremont Colleges—a consortium Pomona is part of—I felt like Harry Potter discovering Hogwarts and all the magic that comes with it. The dorms each featured baby grand pianos. The dining halls had limitless food. My student ID was loaded with “Flex,” which meant that I could buy things on campus without paying out of pocket. Everything was within walking distance. The music lessons were free. The massage chairs were free. Sure, it all came with the hefty price tag of tuition, but most of us were either able to pay the entry fee, earned outside scholarships, or benefited from a college with an endowment large enough to grant financial aid to cover most of what we can’t.
Claremont’s environment is noticeably different from where I was just a year ago. My first two years of post-secondary education were spent at a community college in Bloomington. There were no dorms and no baby grand pianos. There were no dining halls, just one on-campus cooperative (which I love dearly), but no Flex to pay for it. I drove to class every day, paying for gas by working two part-time jobs. There were no free music lessons, no free massage chairs. I was at community college because even tuition at a state school was a bit out of reach, as it was for many of my peers.
Because of this background, when I stepped foot in Claremont, I felt the momentary twinge of anger that my conservative friends so often express when regarding the “liberal elite.” I wish I had spoken up sooner. But instead, I listened during orientation while we discussed Hochschild’s book, or rather, it felt, ripped it apart. I listened while my classmates presumed that the conservatives in the book were representative of every conservative in America, emblematic of the entire Midwestern and Southern population. I listened while my classmates blew through the fact that Louisiana suffered from extreme pollution to the benefit of the coasts (Louisiana’s oil spills and industry make products that we use everyday). I listened while my classmates mused about what people who voted for Trump must be like, genuinely unfamiliar with the geography and the people in the middle of the country. Then I listened while some of my classmates decided that these people weren’t worth listening to.
That area of the country is my home, and those people are my family and friends. The conservatives there are people that I lived next to, grew up with, went to school with, and sit with at family dinners. Sometimes, they make statements as cruel as those in Hochschild’s book. Sometimes, they don’t, because their conservatism does not leak into the bigotry that liberals may assume comes with it. And sometimes they feel defensive of parts of a country and a culture that outsiders don’t seem to want to understand. But mostly, many have good in them, a complexity to their beliefs and their understanding of the world, about which we would benefit to hear.
That area of the country has liberals, too. They are people I lived next to, went to school with, grew up with them, and sat with at family dinners. I marched with them in the courthouse square to protest Trump’s travel ban. I went to rallies with them, voted with them, wrote letters to Congress with them, and debated alongside them with our conservative friends during the election. They are out there, in the middle of the country, plentiful in number and active in advocacy.
However, I feared when I arrived in Claremont that people on the coast did not quite understand this political complexity, and I am afraid of the repercussions of that unawareness. I fear that when people assume the Midwest is all conservative that liberals do not know their fierce, adamant allies are out there. I fear that when our discussions about conservatives do not seem to include any, we lose sight of them as people and imagine them as caricatures. I fear admitting that as a middle-class liberal from the Midwest, the abstract discussions we have here about poverty and the middle of the country, while sitting nestled in an oasis of wealth, feels detached from the reality of the situation and a difficult pill to swallow. Mostly, I fear that limiting discussion to mostly liberals in liberal environments isn’t helping to change anyone’s mind for the better.
If liberals want to prevent another term of a Trump presidency, or the election of someone similar, it is vitally important that we talk to and understand the people who voted for him. We need to look at why they feel the way the do if we hope to, in any way, change that feeling. We need to remember that they are not all the same or representative of one geographic area. We need to make our dialogue open to letting them in. And, in my opinion, we need to recognize the importance of leaving behind a liberal bubble in order to understand a conservative one in order to bridge the political divide.
I fear we missed Hochschild’s message to us all at the end of her book. She implored both sides to see the good and the similarities within each other. At the Claremont Colleges and beyond, we would do well to listen.
Photo: Flickr / mismailovs