The standard explanation among Democrats for the existence of Trump voters is that they are, as Hillary Clinton labeled them, deplorables — bigots of all kinds who supported someone who would translate their hatred and rage into national policy. This answer has for the party the value of allowing Democrats to feel superior, morally and intellectually, without having to go any further.
The reality is that there is some truth here, though things are more complex. Some of Trump’s supporters just wanted to continue the Republican socialism for the wealthy and the incorporated. Some were working-class Americans who barely remember or have heard about blue-collar jobs that could give a good life to a family on a single income. But a large percentage, and this is not a mutually exclusive category, were at least sympathetic to hatred of racial minorities and of gender, sexual, and romantic minorities (GSRM), and found these feelings encouraged and developed since Trump rode down his gaudy escalator in 2015.
That being said, if we care about winning more votes for progressive programs and values — something that the Democratic Party has no interest in doing — we have to understand what motivates blocs of voters in the country.
There is a matter of practicality here, since I have argued in the past that a progressive party can win with thirty-three percent plus one vote. But while our system of government gains stability from the winner-take-all electoral system, no party can sustain itself for long without cheating if they cannot secure something approaching a majority. And in any case, it is disturbing and dangerous that we have millions of fellow Americans who find living with people whose skin color or consensual adult relationships differ from their own to be untenable.
The question that Democrats seem unwilling to ask is in regard to what generates bigotry in so many Americans. Our nation has a long history with racism, of course, having got our start by shoving aside and destroying indigenous peoples and building with major contributions from slave labor. And while we have made some progress in moving away from this original sin, the fact that a man can be murdered by the police on the strength of being accused of passing a bad twenty dollar bill shows that we still have a great measure of structural and popular contempt for anyone who is not white.
Part of this is what happens when we wall ourselves off from people who are not like us, and this walling takes place as much internally as Trump would like to impose on our borders. And this isolation is not merely along racial lines, though that is a major component. Places of worship, schools, clubs, and neighborhoods remain divided into ideologically incestuous groups of people who have all grown up and lived their lives in narrow contexts without having to accept the existence of difference in any way beyond the theoretical.
But that is the usual observation about how bigotries are hard to maintain when we interact with diverse groups of people, and this has the problem that merely being placed in mixed crowds is not enough. Integrated schools, for example, all too often retain divisions whenever students get to choose where to sit in the cafeteria. If a high measure of diversity were a guarantee against bigotry by itself, Europe would have been the shining paragon of peace for millennia.
There were some periods of peace, such as that found during the Roman Empire and under the rule of Marshal Tito, but these fell apart with the loss of a unifying force from on high. We have had periods in the United States of some kind of unity out of the many — when we were attacked by Japan and al Qaeda and when we first landed on the Moon are some cases — but we need to find a better motivation than only occasional events, many of them disasters.
To do this, we have to understand what makes bigotry an attractive way of thinking in the first place. The answer is to be found in what I gave as the breakdown of Trump voters above. Imagine, if you do not already live this, having to work multiple jobs, none of which guarantee affordable healthcare or pay enough to live, while the boss’s family lives a good life. Imagine seeing your children going to schools that have to beg parents for spare money that they do not have to pay for basic supplies, while the children of the well-to-do have the best schools with the best contacts in the professions. Imagine having payday lenders and pawn shops as the only available credit, while corporations routinely get bailouts for blowing billions of dollars. You get the idea.
In such circumstances, how much time and energy would you have to be open to learning about ways of life not your own? And how much could you spare to think through the sloganeering from the major parties who dominate our political discussions?
If we want to change the emotional dynamics that have created and sustained bigotries of all types in America, we have to change the root causes, and herein lies the problem. The people in charge at present have no motivation to do this. It is harder to hate people when our basic needs are provided for and opportunities for personal fulfillment are abundant. If we want an America in which at least a third of us is not staring out at the rest with a combination of rage and fear, the best solution is to take away the economic inequalities that drive these feelings. We would no longer be at war on the streets, people would not see dangerous drugs as an escape, and resentment against the fabulous lives of the few would be defused.
Would racism and other hatreds still exist? Yes, but at lower numbers and with less perceived justification. And politicians who tried to stoke bigotry would find themselves relegated to small venues with few attendees. Getting there will require our current set of leaders to change national policy, that that requires voters to make better choices.