The Two Americas: An Election Eve Sociological Contemplation

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As a sociologist, my role in life is to place current events in their proper historical and political context.  Within the discipline, we call this the sociological imagination—a term coined by C. Wright Mills in 1959 in his seminal work bearing the same name.  I have been contemplating the historical and political significance of Trump’s election even before the results were in.  While my colleagues reassured themselves that he would never win, others, like myself, who are versed in critical theories of sociology were not so optimistic.  Also, this election is particularly relevant to my own position within society due to my identity as a gay male.  Simultaneously, my background growing up in a more rural Indiana town in a white working class family, I am blessed (or burdened) by the knowledge of the sense of alienation and anomie that both Trump supporters and marginalized communities in America feel.

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild, a professor at UC Berkeley, in her most recent book, Strangers in Their Own Land, has already covered this topic at greater length.  Her ethnographic study of Donald Trump supporters found that they feel a profound sense of loss in economic, cultural, and political terms.  This feeling is manifested in their lives through job loss, a society that mocks them for prioritizing “simpler” values (i.e. the importance of family, respect for the community, and often religious institutions).  While these values are not necessarily at odds with more liberal-minded individuals, many leaders have emphasized the connections between job loss, a decline in the affluence of the working and middle classes, and the changing culture.  These individuals are thus correct in feeling anger; however, instead of directing this anger toward those responsible, they direct it toward LGBT+ individuals, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups.  For them it feels as if these groups are taking something away from them and that, somehow, they are being pushed further back from achieving the American dream.  While many individuals are quick to denounce such attitudes, it is far harder to try to understand this behavior in a rational context and to empathize with the real anguish that Trump supporters are experiencing.  While I find such behavior toward others deplorable, I am also burdened by the knowledge that the system has left many poorer whites behind, and can at least empathize as to what that feels like—I am after all a gay man who teaches in the home of the Westboro Baptist Church, a very different world than Las Vegas where I lived previously.  

In the 1940s a group of Jewish intellectuals, known collectively as the Frankfurt School of Sociology, became interested in the conditions under which fascism and the Nazi party rose to power.  In many ways, their work predicted Trump’s ascendency to the Presidency.  Their work was a radical critique of society which they saw as simultaneously influenced by the over-utilization of science to “administer” society in the form of bureaucracy, and the stultifying effects of mass-produced culture they referred to as the culture industry.  The society which their writings described, pushed to its logical extreme, is not unlike the one depicted in the 2006 science fiction comedy film Idiocracy.  The film is set in a futuristic world where a celebrity Wrestler has become President, a food shortage looms due to a lack of irrigation (they use a “sports drink” to irrigate rather than water), and people are named after corporations.  In many ways, it is a film adaptation of the Frankfurt school’s critique of society as anti-intellectual, reactive, and irrational—due to its reliance on bureaucracy and a preoccupation with amusement.  Trump, a known celebrity, exposes the centrality of the culture industry in modern American social life—however, he is only a symbol of a much deeper problem.

Whether we like it or not, we live in a globalized, technologically sophisticated, and multi-faceted society.  Some have even described our time as postmodern; these individuals emphasize  celebrity culture, social media, extreme relativism, the inability to distinguish truth from fantasy, and fragmentation. However, the social world has not completely lost itself to abstraction: things still must be produced, but where and how they are produced is often called into question.  For example, buying a car from an “American” car company may mean you are, in actuality, supporting a factory in China.  Simultaneously, however, the speed, pace, and manner in which the world moves is often disorienting.  The bureaucratic apparatus which we have built has led to efficiency (in the form of speed), but has also resulted in a stupefying, uncritical, and disorienting way we experience the world.  Additionally, for many this has resulted not in fragmentation but in reactionary nostalgia, and the emergence of political groups seeking to reclaim a “lost” way of life.  Thus, as suggested by UNLV professor Dr. David Dickens, we must resolve the question as to whether we live in a postmodern era, what exactly has fundamentally changed, and how to deal with these changes to move society forward in a positive direction. Dickens characterizes our historical period as a society in transition, which has resulted in many individuals feeling uncertain about the future.  

Within the LGBT community these problems have manifested themselves as well.  A Pew Study of LGBT persons in 2013 found that, as a whole, we were nearly equally divided over how best to proceed politically.  One group within our community thought the best way to proceed was by becoming a part of mainstream culture, the other wishing to maintain our own distinct culture.  Other researchers have also begun to write about this very important issue.  Most recently,  Amin Ghaziani, author of There Goes the Gayborhood?, discusses how many LGBT+ individuals feel we live in a post-gay society, that gay areas such as Boystown and the Castro are holding up potential political achievements in the community, however the Pew Survey data does not fully back his claim.  Some of the findings of the study reveal that while we are equally divided on the issue of assimilation or maintaining our culture, a majority of gays (64.9%), lesbians (57.1%), and bisexuals (50.6%) feel we should maintain those spaces.  The sample also felt that at least some discrimination was occurring to LGBT persons (95% of lesbians, 93% of gays, 90% of bisexuals, and 93% of transgender individuals).  Yet many members in the study did not attend any kind of political LGBT event, pride parade, or participate in LGBT culture.  This discrepancy is a reflection of the current status of America, the mixed messages of our era that we are “post” something—yet, we are also reminded that we still have a long way to go on the road toward equality, and this reminder prompts the reaction to preserve our way of life.  Like the lower class rural white folks described above who feel left out, so too do the numbers from the Pew Survey reveal many LGBT persons feel left out from the politics of their community.  While lesbians and gays shared a similar opinion on many social issues facing LGBT Americans, transgender and bisexuals were almost always opposite in their attitudes.  Thus, we must remember inclusion begins in our communities and is not just part of national politics.  

It is thus with a certain optimism that I look upon Trump’s election.  Already I have seen a mobilization within gay political spheres that is unlike anything I have ever witnessed in my life time.  I am also seeing a decline in political apathy among my liberal friends, artists both famous and not, and other more apolitical individuals.  So long as the activism that I see emerging does so with an eye on how to be productive, and proceeds armed with rationalism, this could be a time of great political change—however, we must not forget that change is always difficult.  While we are no doubt in the middle of a culture war, if we can find a common language so that we stop talking past each other, it may yet be possible to move into a politics of action and away from a politics of non-action which has characterized much of contemporary American history.