For many of us liberal academic types, the feeling of waking up in America on Wednesday morning resembled that of receiving an invitation to the funeral of a friend who was inexplicably shot walking down the street the night before.
Once we process this grief, it will be time to reflect on what happened. How we explain the electoral outcome is crucially important, because it will shape our understanding of how we move forward. A popular knee-jerk reaction has been to attribute the outcome exclusively to bigotry, misogyny, the Electoral College, uneducated white males, and voter identification laws. This is usually followed by a vow to “fight sexism and racism in all its forms.”
There is nothing prima facie objectionable with such a reaction. However, just below its surface lies the proposition that nearly half of American voters have finally shown us their true bigoted, misogynist colors, and the implication that it is up to us, liberal savants, to show them why they are wrong. Going down this route means going about liberal “business as usual.” It means digging in our heels in the face of an external threat and doubling down on our positions, taking them even more for granted than before.
A more productive response would be to engage in thoughtful soul-searching about what we missed. This will require recognizing that tens of millions of Americans voted for Trump despite his bigotry, not because of it. Our demand that they simply put universal values above their own perceived self-interest was a step too far, and their refusal to comply does not automatically make them racists. But it does say something about the moment we live in that we have so far failed to put our finger on.
This failure speaks as much to our brand of liberalism as it does to Trump’s populism. Within our privileged, cosseted circles we have gotten used to not only thinking that we are right, but that we are obviously so. By putting down “straight white men” with gleeful impunity, we gave poor white voters everything to apologize for, and nothing to believe in. By ignoring those women who do not see in Hillary Clinton the triumph of feminism but the triumph of insider privilege over female disadvantage, we lost the 42 percent of women who voted for Trump, as well as the many who stayed at home. In all, we missed the writing on the wall about shifting patterns of exclusion and alienation, and ended up with a paradoxically antiquated and incomplete version of “progressivism.”
Nowhere has this benevolent but ultimately self-defeating myopia been more pronounced than on college campuses. We have dismissed our conservative peers in the classroom and taunted them on social media all while refusing to seriously engage their views. We have taken hard questions like affirmative action and abortion entirely off the table, as if we had already provided an answer that should be immediately convincing to all. We have refused to consider a diversity of viewpoints on what constitutes “diversity.” We have resolutely resisted paying more than lip service to socioeconomic inequality, rural alienation, and shifting patterns of exclusion while still purporting to speak on behalf of all marginalized people. We have proclaimed that the only reasonable way to respond to racial and gender inequality is to entrench pre-existing identities rather than overcoming them through what unites us all.
When it comes to political action, we also got a lot wrong. In our only true activist foray into the world—protesting racialized police brutality—we often pursued legitimate goals with divisive means, and reproduced the same “us versus them” rhetoric that subsequently was picked up in the election in inverted form. Otherwise, we remained largely preoccupied with our own petty local versions of larger social struggles, and we insisted that these versions somehow spoke to the country as a whole. We demanded the world pay attention to the names of our buildings, Halloween costumes, and microaggressions while ignoring the more troubling question of who gains access to our communities in the first place. We put sexual assault on college campuses on the national agenda, but failed to note how much safer women who attend college are, compared to those who do not. And we entirely ignored a whole cadre of problems associated with not being part of the global elite, precisely because these problems made no echo in our insular world. We justified our inward-looking focus with implausible expressions of faith in “trickle-down” social change from the campus to the society. In doing so, we missed the lessons of both socialist and civil rights movements before us in reimagining not just a better university but also a better world.
No, it is not “our fault” for losing this election, whose outcome signals something much bigger than a revolt against the discourse that dominates American universities. We primarily lost this election because of our flawed electoral system, a compromised candidate, and the resurgence of nationalistic intolerance around the world. But the limits of our vision and the condescending tone of our attitudes played a role.
And this is the part of the puzzle liberal academia is best positioned to solve. Instead of being the avatars of liberal condescension, we can work to preserve liberal values while updating them for the modern world. We can disagree with our conservative colleagues without discriminating against them. We can redouble our dedication to fighting racism and sexism, but also find ways to bring in those we have hitherto ignored because they did not fit in our pre-existing notions of marginalization. We can find new, creative ways to think about inequality, difference, and alienation. We can confront head-on difficult questions, such as those arising from the complex relationship between immigration and employment patterns, rather than pretending they do not exist at all. Most important, we can build intellectually honest spaces that encourage diverse opinions, rather than simply permitting uniform opinions articulated by diverse-looking faces.
Shifting how we conceive the university’s role in political life is only a first step; much more work still lies ahead in fighting for equality, resisting old-fashioned racism and sexism, and addressing the new divides brought about by globalization. And moderate conservatives also have to work hard to help create a common front against extremism and populism.
But reconceiving the role of the academy is no longer just sensible, but necessary. Unless we build outward looking, socially attentive, and intellectually open universities, our “safe” spaces on liberal campuses will become isolated islets, leaving us to try to resist the rising tide of right-wing politics by reassuring each other of the correctness of our beliefs and trying in vain to attract the attention of an ever-elusive world.