The Dangers of Excommunication

A Comment on the Response to John Keslers’ May 3rd Article “How to Recover from The Great American Regression”

by A. Lawrence Chickering & James S. Turner

To our readers who contacted us about John Kesler’s article – Thank You:

The passionate responses we received, pro and con, responding to John Kesler’s article, ‘How to Recover from the Great American Regression’ (TTR, May 3, 2021), encourage us to think that we are on the right track. Among other issues, several of you who self-identify as ‘conservative’ simply asserted that ‘the article is not transpartisan’ –  and therefore has no place in The Transpartisan Review. One self-identified progressive lauded the article, saying it is the best article on transpartisan he has ever read. The responses seemed to present their own positions as the ‘correct’ transpartisan position. In our conception, the spirit of Transpartisan is a process of openness that facilitates the engagement of different points of view, searching for a conceptual framework that integrates the best of them.

We believe that ‘Transpartisan’ is a deep, aspirational force that reveals (otherwise often concealed) potentialities from values that are not in conflict, but can be seen as complementary. These complementary values, we believe, are embraced by the vast majority of people interested in political expression. The search for this integration happens by bringing together the two, principal values – held separately on both the Right and the Left – which, when integrated, not only bring people together but solve problems that cannot be solved (and are not being solved) by partisans who focus on individual quadrants. This is true of most people in the political class, both Democrats and Republicans. The two ‘primal’ values held by most people are (in mythic terms) Order and Freedom, with each value understood somewhat differently by both the Left and the Right.

We are persuaded by evidence that the public political debate actually creates space for only about 30% of the constitutionally-defined political constituency — roughly 15% on the Left and 15% on the Right. That thirty percent controls 99 to 100% of all elected offices at every level of government. It is the disparity of 30% controlling nearly 100% of all elected offices that we believe lies close to the heart of our current political alienation and dysfunction. That disparity, we believe, creates the focus for Transpartisan understanding of and action in contemporary politics. We believe Kesler usefully addresses this situation from his perspective, which we think is important.

We published this article because John is a prominent self-identified Transpartisan in Utah, a state of intense intra-Right contention, with significant transpartisan policy formation. In the terms discussed above about ‘Transpartisan’, John is a Transpartisan because he is willing to talk and collaborate with individuals who take positions that are 180 degrees different from his own. One of our objectives is to promote dialogue among such self-identified Transpartisan actors.[i]

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As we were reading your responses and reflecting about issues associated with the Trump Presidency that could be significant for a Transpartisan politics, we could not avoid thinking about how difficult it is to rescue concepts in a transition from one administration to the next. (It is true for any concept, but we are concerned here about concepts that may have significance for a transpartisan vision.)

Carrying concepts from one administration to another is difficult even when the administrations are from the same party. Although this happens infrequently, we have heard stories from President Bush’s succession of President Reagan about the successor branding its programs by changing the predecessor’s policies.

If sustaining successful concepts is difficult even for officials from the same party, it is much more difficult when the successor comes from the other party. And it is greater still when the predecessor is widely REVILED by the successor.

That most difficult problem is where we are at present, as Democrat Joe Biden succeeds Republican Donald Trump, who is almost indescribably loathed by Democrats.

We have chosen to concentrate here on an issue of enormous importance both for JUSTICE and we believe for promoting conflict in our politics. The issue has to do with the defection of large numbers of the white working class from the Democrats to the Republicans under Trump.

It is perhaps easiest to understand this issue through the lens provided by political philosopher Kenneth Minogue in The Liberal Mind, who associates the Left’s natural constituency with what he calls ‘suffering situations.’ ‘The point of suffering situations,’ Minogue wrote, ‘is that they convert politics into a crudely conceived moral battlefield. On one side we find oppressors, and on the other a class of victims. . . . Politics proceeds by stereotypes, and intellectually is a matter of hunting down the victims and the oppressors.’

We are selecting this issue for this Transpartisan Article to highlight a Trump position that we believe is important for understanding both the challenge of promoting EQUALITY in the current environment and the widespread alienation that major political constituencies now feel from the political system. It is no secret that Donald Trump inflamed their alienation, thus enormously increasing cultural conflict in the society.

Minogue’s perspective on ‘suffering’ is important for revealing how one particular issue embraced by Trump exposes a fatal weakness in Order-Left arguments for Equality. Trump found an issue so identified with the Left’s core value of Equality that his embrace of it as the centerpiece of a new populist politics became a major irritant driving many on the Left’s hatred of him. Rather than embracing the white working class as a long-time constituency of the Left, the mainstream Leftist impulse has been to attack the white working class as DEPLORABLES and RACISTS, who systematically oppress other ‘suffering’ groups defined by race, gender, sexual preference, etc.

The tension here is between two competing ‘suffering’ groups.

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild explored this tension in her book Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (2016). Hochschild explores issues that reveal why it is so difficult for the Left to embrace a group that had always been strongly associated with the political Left and the Democratic Party — the white working class — but that became the heart of Trump’s political base.

Hochschild spent six years in Louisiana interviewing the subjects of her study and really getting to know them. Her initial purpose was to understand their strongly negative attitudes toward the government, especially on environment regulations that it seemed would clearly benefit them. The portrait that emerges tells a very different story about them than the ugly media stereotypes currently in vogue.

In a chapter called ‘The Deep Story’, she tells ‘the real story’, a story both deep and real expressed by feelings, removed from judgment and fact. Deep stories explore ‘the subjective prism’ through which each party sees the world. Everyone, she writes, has a deep story, and understanding all politics depends on it. (We suggest that the transpartisan impulse/imperative is drawn from the deep stories of individuals and that when they have the time, space, and resources to exchange their deep stories, their superficial political/partisan identities recede into the background [or disappear altogether].)

When she was doing her research, the Tea Party was a major political vehicle for conservatives, and Hochschild concentrated on understanding the Tea Party’s deep story. (Her Tea Party friends thought it fit their experience.) She uses the metaphor of waiting in line, leading up a hill. Just over the hill is the American Dream, which everyone seeks. Many behind her friends are ‘people of color – poor, young and old, mainly without college degrees.’

The American Dream is a dream of progress. In the past every generation has done better than their forbearers. But the ‘line is barely moving . . . Has the economy come to a strange standstill? . . . You haven’t gotten a raise in years, and there is no talk of one.’

Then the epiphany: ‘You see people cutting in line ahead of you! Who are they? Some are black through a variety of preferences. But then also ‘Women, immigrants, refugees, public sector workers – where will it end?’ She even mentions the brown pelican, almost made extinct but after the 2010 BP oil spill now provided clean fish to eat, clean water, oil-free marshes, etc. ‘The supervisor wants you to sympathize with the line cutters, but . . . it’s not fair. In fact, the president (Obama) and his wife are line cutters themselves.’

And here the coup de grace: ‘[A]nyone who criticizes America – well, they’re criticizing you. If you can no longer feel pride in the United States through its President, you’ll have to feel American in some new way – by banding with others who feel as strangers in their own land.’

Her powerful metaphor makes it clear why the Left has not embraced these ‘strangers’ as they did in the past: because the stranger’s ‘oppressors’, responsible for their ‘suffering’, are the Left! This deep story of the suffering white working class, laid off against all the other suffering segments of American (and global) society, was used to drive the Red Wave of 2020. That the Blue Wave played well at the Presidential level made the Red Wave constituency as crazy as the appropriation of the white working class by Trump made the Order Left.

We have touched on problems associated with overlapping and conflicting suffering groups, especially when some groups are chosen over others. Other problems and issues arise within groups designated as ‘suffering’, which involves conceptually stereotyping everyone in the group as suffering, including those born to privilege and those who have earned success.

The ultimate objective, surely, is to empower and encourage ‘sufferers’ to overcome adversity of all kinds, including history and culture, in efforts to succeed. Examples abound of programs that been very successful in accomplishing this.[ii] The alternative, which the current mainstream narrative currently and strongly advocates, is to disempower them by blaming ‘oppressors’ who are claimed to have all power over them.

Implicit in this view is that ‘sufferers’ can succeed only when their ‘oppressors’ (who, by definition, hate them) change. In this conception, recognizing and honoring success when earned is problematic if not impossible. When the theory of ‘systemic racism’ is rigorously followed, no exceptions can be acknowledged, and the (ugly) consequence is that claims of success are then often stigmatized as accomplished only by ‘Uncle Toms’.

The ultimate question here is how to create opportunities for marginalized people without these negative consequences. We will explore this larger issue based positively on AFFIRMATIONS focused on empowerment rather than on NEGATIONS focused on punishing mythical ‘oppressors’. We will explore how programs that are successful have used different approaches to accomplish this on different issues in future articles and Transpartisan Notes.

We believe that a movement weakens itself if it builds its identity through excommunication.

We would love to hear your comments on our response. Please share them in the reply section below.

[i] We presented some of John Keslers’ transpartisan thinking in ‘Transpartisan Maturity in Utah Developing a National Transpartisan Constituency and Movement’, The Transpartisan Review, June 12, 2019. It might be interesting to compare the arguments in the two articles and see how their consistency (or lack of it) affects individual reactions to either. Such an exercise could help flesh out understanding of the full range of transpartisan possibilities and development.

[ii] Examples may be found in ‘Growing Out of Identity Politics’ – Transpartisan Note #98.

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