Hating the "Hateful"

To make real progress, those of us who care about diversity must become truly inclusive.

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Let’s face it: For all our gushing about diversity, many advocates of it hold a hefty slice of America in contempt. We assume that Republicans despise difference, that Trump voters are lodged in a backward past, and that they plan to impose it on our future. But we scorn “them” at our peril. Because upon closer inspection, a more textured picture surfaces. It shows that conservatives are not so far from “us” on the issues that we’re passionate about.

Consider racism and police violence. According to a Guardian/Opinium Research poll, nine out of ten Americans regard both issues as problems. Translation: More than a few Republicans side with Democrats. “Hooray for Republicans!” a progressive friend of mine responded. “Glad it took the heinous murder of George Floyd to help them grow a heart.”

Not so fast. The caricature of heartless conservatives is as much a stereotype as that of deranged progressives. Earlier this year, the Supreme Court ruled in support of LGBTQ people as well the undocumented immigrant children known as Dreamers. Writing the majority opinion in each case was a justice who leans conservative. That’s how forcefully a new cultural order has emerged in these United States.

I noticed signs of the emerging consensus back in 2015, when a Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that Americans preferred an openly gay president to an evangelical Christian one. Then Trump became president and the new order seemed in doubt.

But was it? In 2017, Republicans still had a tougher time than Democrats making peace with same-sex marriage but, according to a Pew Research Center survey, conservative views followed the trajectory of those of their liberal opponents: soaring toward acceptance. In another report that year, Pew warned that the “Partisan Divide on Political Values Grows Even Wider.” Yet when it came to affirmative action, most Republicans, like most Democrats, expressed support.

What, then, about Trump’s fiercely loyal base? Out of sheer desperation, they’re backing an avatar who represents the final flickering of the old order. Note the nuance: Their backlash has less to do with preserving the past than bidding a sorrowful goodbye to it.

In A War for the Soul of America, the historian Andrew Hartman chronicles something similar in earlier rounds of our culture wars. “The nation struggled with cultural change in order to adjust to it,” he observes. Resistance “was the first step to resignation, if not outright acceptance.”

Ardent Trump supporter Michael Anton has described the 2016 presidential race as the “Flight 93 election,” a reference to the passengers’ attempt on 9/11 to wrest control of their hijacked airliner, which ultimately crashed into a field, killing all on board. The nation itself is plummeting, the author and his acolytes warn. Rush the cockpit or die trying! Hardly the rallying cry of people in charge.

Their sinking feeling can be traced to the demographic diversity sweeping this nation. But many other Republicans are looking ahead, if a bit anxiously, to a pluralistic America. It’s the shaming by cultural power-holders that they won’t abide.

Who can forget Hillary Clinton labeling a swath of Americans as “deplorables”? The campaign aide who monitored undecided voters recalled that when video of those remarks hit the Internet, Clinton suffered her “single biggest spike“ downward.

Progressives and liberals risk stumbling into this trap again. We lash out at Trump sympathizers because we’re convinced that they’re powerful and we’re powerless. Frankly, we underestimate how much more enduring and transformative our cultural power is.

Culture sets norms. Witness the corporate rush to declare that “Black Lives Matter.” Businesses catch up to culture, and politicians—to stay in their business—must adjust sooner or later. While most elected Republicans have adapted to Trump’s norms, an increasing number of voters are bailing. Whether enough Americans return to Trumpism’s tent could, in the years to come, depend on whether liberals and progressives expand our tent.

Why are we consumed with presuming our powerlessness? Why not acknowledge our power, too? 

The sociologist Aladin El-Mafaalani gives a startling answer: We’re agitated precisely because we’re advancing. The more equality we attain, the more we expect. The more we expect, the more we demand. The more we demand, the deeper we fall for the cognitive illusion that we’re operating from scarcity; hence the increasing urgency of our demands. Even as we rack up gains, we feel as though we’re backsliding.

This isn’t to say that liberals and progressives should rest easy. Hell no. If Trump’s presidency goes up in tangerine flames, the “Flight 93” mission will roar on, possibly with a competent pilot this time. 

We must continue to protest the old order and, as part of a new order, build relationships with our political “others.” When we engage sincerely with those who are nervous about the new, we lower emotional defenses—theirs and ours. We also avoid mimicking Trump’s authoritarian instincts. We embody justice, not a dogma of “just us.”

The crucial question is this: How inclusive will we, the partisans of diversity, be? Our integrity depends on our inclusivity. If we prejudge people outside of our tribe, we are, by definition, stoking prejudice. Our diversity thus becomes a sham, and we expose ourselves as hypocrites, kind of like those we oppose.

Enlarging our definition of “us” will demonstrate that the new order is not a mirror image of the old. Let’s change the game instead of merely swapping jerseys.

Irshad Manji is the founder of Moral Courage College, which teaches young people how to engage honestly about polarizing issues rather than shaming or canceling each other. Her latest book is Don’t Label Me: How To Do Diversity Without Inflaming The Culture Wars (St. Martin’s Press).