In 2016, millions of Americans voted against their own economic interests. They did so by electing a man who vowed to dismantle the government-supported health care many of them rely on; who opposed increasing the minimum wage paid to many of them; and who promised more of the kind of deregulation that has ushered in unprecedented levels of inequality – a pestilence to the blue collar voters who are some of his most loyal supporters.
For some liberals, this apparently irrational behaviour helps to cement their disdain for Trump voters. As denizens of London well know, it’s common to encounter liberals who baldly state they want nothing to do with Trump supporters (the same goes for supporters of Brexit). There are plenty of such declarations on my Facebook feed, on dating website profiles (“Will pass on Tories, thanks”), in friendly first encounters (“I sure hope you’re not a Trump supporter”), or even in classroom discussions.
For another group of liberals, that so many voters would make such a decision is less a sign of those voters’ ignorance than their profound distress. A vote for Trump was their way of sending, in as high-profile a manner as possible, a message to the liberals who were overlooking them. Real wages are stagnant; university educations are increasingly unaffordable; jobs that supported families for generations, such as in manufacturing or mining, are disappearing. People’s votes for Trump were, to this second group of liberals, a cry for recognition of these hardships.
At institutions like LSE, it’s important, I believe, that we fall into that second camp. The growing divergence of prosperous liberal metropolitan areas and stagnating conservative rural areas will be one of the defining themes of the coming decades and perhaps the rest of our lifetimes. Graduates of the LSE, who will help to run institutions around the world and serve in important posts in policy-making bodies and business, have more responsibility than most to respond to the 2016 election — as well as to other major political events, such as Brexit — by recognising the plight of voters with whom we disagree.
We would do well to follow the example of The Beaver’s comment editor, Vince Carse, who wrote in a recent edition of this paper that the results of the 2016 US election caused him to become more, not less, open-minded. Rather than responding to the election the way most of America and no doubt the world has — by treating the election results as evidence that the people on the other side are so obviously in the wrong that they don’t deserve serious consideration — Carse started examining his own assumptions more rigorously, he wrote. For example, rather than assume that the reason the decline of manufacturing jobs had created so much pain was because of a failure to invest more in jobs and retraining programs, Carse began acknowledging the real suffering people in such jobs must be experiencing. If they were throwing their support behind Trump, what message could they be delivering except that there are no good answers?
The social forces that led to Trump and Brexit aren’t going away anytime soon. We will find ourselves in disagreement with large shares of the population even more commonly in the future. We should never forget the importance of examining the sources of those disagreements. And we should welcome, not reject, the voices of people with whom we disagree. In places like London, there are already precious few.