Us and Them

Every four years our presidential election sharpens my sense of Us and Them.  As usual, my party’s positions seem more compassionate and reasonable, and my party’s candidate, Hillary Clinton, despite her regularly analyzed faults, a much stronger choice. 

In theory, the addition of Libertarian and Green presidential candidates should help to soften the binary choice of our two-party system. But bad memories of 2000, when Ralph Nader’s third-party run cost Al Gore the election, giving it to George Bush, have left many of us with the lesson that voting for either of the peripheral candidates in 2016 is dangerously not voting against Donald Trump.

The resentment and barely controlled anger stirred up at rallies by Trump, the political outsider, began raising my alarm when we were still in the primaries. True, there are good reasons for many Americans to feel ripped off by both our globalizing economy and the past eight years of “recovery” that has passed them by. But I watch Trump and his surrogates repeatedly accuse Obama of weakness, and Clinton of bad judgment and corruption. And, though I have grown to expect Trump’s ham-fisted and sometimes scary solutions to our domestic and international quandaries, I am surprised that Trump supporters seem rather uninterested in his proposals. Some, it is said, neither believe in, nor particularly care about, such promises as building a wall to keep Mexicans out.  

What enthralls the aggrieved crowd during a Trump rally is their shared sense of victimization by foreigners and systems beyond their understanding or control. Unlike many Trump supporters who have been forced over the past years into a series of workplace and financial defeats, Trump is presumably a very rich man. Though his counter-attacks are instant and vicious when he feels mistreated, I have also been struck by his collapse into helplessness. He is quick to see himself as a victim — the election, the media, the system, all “rigged” against him.    

I am talking here about a psychological bent. Both Trump and his supporters feel that someone else is to blame for their troubles, and that they are powerless and without recourse.    

Though none of us makes our lives entirely as we wish, and some of us face enormous obstacles that we had little or no hand in making, I believe it is always more useful to focus on the ways in which we are free agents and can change things. This belief forms the core of Hillary Clinton’s motto, “Stronger Together.” Though I suspect she is making insufficient use of her motto, its implication is that each of us has agency. Moreover, we will be more effective if we don’t go it alone. 

Election cycle or no, we live amidst multiple, potentially empowering circles, from our families and our neighborhood, to our houses of worship, our civic clubs and organizations, and our county and state systems. Although each of these circles implies other circles we are not part of, our sense of Us and our experience of Them are generally fluid, an Us turning into a Them, and vice versa, depending on our involvement. As we talk across these fluid borders, we widen our personal agency and strengthen our communities. Conversely, when we stop talking to each other, including about our disagreements, these fluid lines harden and our differences magnify. Although the natural tendency in a polarizing election like this one is to pull back, I hope that those of us with curiosity, tact and a little courage will reach out to listen and talk to Trump supporters.    

One of the benefits of living in our beautiful southern Berkshires is the intimacy of small town life — the sense that everyone can play their roles to make things work. (A recent Lakeville Journal editorial reminded readers of the importance of assuming board responsibilities to keep our local organizations thriving.) Though I tend to take on too much, I see our libraries and historical societies, as well as groups like Habitat for Humanity, Chore Services and the Visiting Nurses Association, as critical to making our towns welcoming to people of different ages and financial circumstances. It is through these organizations that we experience the interactions and mutual responsibilities that create trust, affection, and a sense of community — a genuine sense of Us.  

Though the presidential election offers us the opportunity — and responsibility — to exercise our agency by casting our vote, this is only a small part of what gives us satisfaction and a sense of empowerment and of what makes our democracy work. 

Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published six books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. What interests her these days are the complications of civil society in America.