Divide and Conquer: The Bipartisan Plan to Break America

Both Republicans and Democrats blame the poor on each side, creating a terrible dissonance in our politics and in our nation's psyche.

Van Jones: When people ask me how we got here, how did we come apart in the first place, I don’t blame any one politician or party. 

There was a bipartisan elite consensus in the 1990s into the 2000s that really wrecked the middle class potential aspirations in the country. Both political parties said we could have these trade deals and they would be great for everybody. It was great for some people, but the industrial heartland just got kicked in the stomach. Both political parties said we could deregulate Wall Street let the banks do whatever they wanted to and it led to this massive crash that wiped out about a trillion dollars worth of wealth, millions of homes were lost. Both political parties said we could build prisons everywhere that would make the country better. It didn’t. Both political parties said we could get in these wars overseas and everything will work out fine. It hasn’t. So when you have repeated elite failure at the top of both parties a rebellion in both parties is justified and that’s really what you saw in 2016. You saw the Bernie Sanders rebels and frankly the Black Lives Matter rebels on the left and then you saw the Trump rebellion on the right. And as a result the political establishment got dumped on its butt and that is the context that you then have to try to figure out a way forward. Unfortunately when you have this level of elite failure and crisis people can either turn to each other or on each other. 

Some forces in American society really seem intent on having us turn on each other and I would put Steve Bannon in that category, I would put Donald Trump in that category that they see a path to political power, at least for themselves, and maybe for some part of their constituency, that’s based on having people turn on each other. So turn on the immigrant communities, turn on the Muslims. 

The Muslims are the most bizarre group for us to be attacking, American Muslims. They have the lowest crime rate of anybody in the United States; they have the lowest divorce rate; highest level of entrepreneurship; one of the highest levels of female education in the country. American Muslims are awesome. In fact they should be used as a propaganda weapon against the idea that America hates Muslims because American Muslims are killing it here, but we’re supposed to be mad at them, we’re supposed to be mad at the dreamers, Black Lives Matter. Turn Americans against each other and as long as your block is big enough to win gerrymandered elections then you get to be in power that’s the Bannon/Trump strategy. Now once you get in power you can’t get anything done, but who cares. When you have more failure and more dysfunction you can blame more people and stay in power. And so this is I think a very, very dangerous development mainly because it means that conservatism, which is a noble tradition in our country that has a lot of positives to say for itself, I’m a liberal so I think I can be objective there, there have been some great conservative leaders and contributions has now been hijacked and turned into anti-liberalism. Well anti-liberalism is not conservatism, it is a political strategy to attack certain constituents to defame certain ideas for the sole purpose of keeping your base riled up to keep you in power. And anti-liberalism is not a basis to govern a country, that’s on the right. On the left you have another set of failures in the aftermath of all this, which is a simple failure of progressives to recognize the ways that we have sometimes accidentally created a market for a Donald Trump because there’s a style of politics that’s become fashionable on the left that would rationally lead you to conclude if you are a straight white male conservative from a red state that you are no longer a part of the moral concern of progressives, that you are an other, you’re kind of an outsider, maybe even the enemy and that what you needed to do is to own your privilege and to give up a lot of standing in power that you shouldn’t have. And when you have that approach it really opens a door for a Donald Trump to say well these guys don’t like you, I do. These guys don’t want you, I do. These guys see you as unworthy, I see you as worthy. These guys want to put you down, I want to lift you up. 

And we have an opportunity I think as progressives to draw our circle a little bit bigger again and just to make sure that it’s not just that we have the policies that would help white working class folks, we’ve always had the policies, but we also have the politics that says we need you, you’re a part of this, we want to lift you up, the America we’re trying to build actually will have more success and more good things for you in it than the country we have right now. It will also have more good stuff for the Muslims and the transgender folks and the Latinos and black folks, but you are a part of that parade of people that we want to see thrive and win in America. To the extent that you don’t hear that a lot from progressives you can’t then be mad when those folks don’t vote for you or when they vote against you. So both parties have fallen victim, I put more fault on one than the other, but both parties have fallen victim to a very easy mistake of just drawing your circle too small and pointing your fire at, frankly, poor people in the other party. So you see the Republican Party say “oh those dirty Mexicans and those black folks and those people” and that becomes a way to cheaply rally your base. And then sometimes on the left you see liberals, “those stupid red state voters, those hicks, those racist and bigoted Trump people blah, blah, blah,” sometimes not taking into account that some of those Trump voters may have some legitimate grievances or anxieties that we don’t talk about with much empathy or much sympathy or with much skill anymore and so both parties I think have to look in the mirror.

Log on to just about any comment section or Facebook thread and it won't take long to see some sort of political argument break out. Those on the conservative right tend to blame Mexicans, blacks, and what they perceive as "takers" (i.e., the poor). But while the Left likes to think that it is above that kind of finger-pointing, nothing could be further from the truth. The Left demonize white and rural in both party messaging and in policy: it's a very easy argument to make if you just tally up Hillary Clinton's travel—or lack thereof—to white, rural areas during the 2016 election. So how do we break the cycle? Van Jones shows us the mirror, and we may not like what we see in it. Van's latest book is Beyond the Messy Truth: How We Came Apart, How We Come Together .

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