Gregory Dennis: What liberals don’t get about conservatives

As we turn the page to another year — and liberals gaze with fear upon the Trump Presidency — it’s worth contemplating how we got here. What fueled the car that has driven us to the edge of a cliff?
I’m not talking about tactical mistakes the Clinton campaign made. I’m not referring to the idiocy of Jill Green’s candidacy, which may have, Nader-style, cost Clinton one or two states. I don’t mean the right’s wickedly effective demonizing of Clinton, or the widespread ignorance about the benefits that Obamacare has brought to millions of Americans.
What I’m pondering these days is the factors that drive conservative thinking among so many ordinary Americans. And what is it that so many liberals don’t understand about the beliefs that drove people to vote for Trump?
Perhaps if we had a better sense of why conservatives see the world and vote as they do, progressives could shape more appealing policies and more effective governance.
To simplify a bit, I see six things at work: God, guns, freedom, equality, snobbery and neglect.
Understanding these forces requires most Vermonters to look out beyond our borders. In Vermont we are blessed with a sense of community that often softens our political differences. In a state where progressives dominate, we don’t often experience the political extremes that have so polarized our country.
We are also short on one of the God factors: the conservative Christianity that has locked so many Americans into an allegiance to the Republican Party. More specifically, most Vermonters don’t make their voting decisions based on abortion issues.
Donald Trump gave Christian conservatives many, many reasons not to vote for him: his serial marriages that were fueled by self-confessed adultery; blatant disrespect for women as evidenced by his own taped comments; bigotry that marginalized blacks and Latinos; and a fear-driven religious intolerance that would have our nation require members of one faith (Islam) to be registered with the government.
Just imagine if a president tried to round up all the Christians and force them into a government registry.
Yet millions of Christian brethren were willing to overlook all that — in return for Trump’s promise to appoint anti-choice justices to the U.S. Supreme Court. Anything less, in the eyes of these voters, would be to condone the murder of “unborn children.”
Now to guns. With the Supreme Court’s broad affirmation of the Second Amendment, the individual right to keep and bear arms is indisputably the law of the land. But Hillary Clinton’s call for reasonable gun safety laws was perverted by the right into a belief that she would “take away our guns.”
Once falsehoods like that gain a foothold, it’s not that far a leap for some people to believe that Clinton ran a child sex ring out of a pizza parlor.
Next up: Freedom. Most liberals fail to grasp the appeal for conservatives of the idea that the government should just stay out of people’s lives. That we should be able to live as we please, free from government interference.
In this view, that government is best that governs least. Big government is by definition bad government. Power is best left to the states, local governments and individuals.
For those who value this perspective, it’s individual freedoms that have made America great. So when government steps too deeply into private life — as conservatives feel it did with Obamacare — the right perceives an unacceptable violation of basic American principles.
There’s a similar thinking at work when it comes to perceptions of equality. If government creates special treatment for a particular group — as with blacks and affirmative action — conservatives don’t see steps toward equality for a group that has been shamefully treated for much of our history. They see unearned advantages being unfairly granted to one group of people merely because of the color of their skin.
From this perspective, “special treatment” is unAmerican behavior in a land that supposedly exists to promote equal treatment for all.
The same “equality” argument gets made against policies to promote women’s rights and protections for gay and transgender people. Adding to the toxic stew is some Christians’ view that it’s an abomination to be gay or to understand that you are of a different gender than how you were born.
What role does snobbery play in our politics? Just ask disadvantaged voters who went for Trump. They know what a lot of well-educated liberals think of them: That they’re somehow less-than because they didn’t go to college; that they can’t understand the issues and aren’t quite as important as those of us with fancy job titles and initials after our names.
Talk down to people enough and they get the sneaking suspicion that you just don’t care about their fate.
That’s why the issue of Hillary Clinton’s email resonated with so many voters. Yes, she was cleared of any legal violations, but her use of a private email server fed directly into perceptions that Hillary and her ilk just felt they were somehow better than the rest of us. That if you were among the liberal elite, you thought the rules didn’t apply to you.
Then there is the stain of neglect.
I fault both major parties here. Behind its common-man rhetoric, the Republican Party too often behaves like a plutocracy, like an organization that exists to funnel money and advantages to the 10 percent at the top.
But Democratic leaders have also failed to stick up for working people. In places like New Jersey, for example, they’ve conspired with the GOP to weaken union protections for public sector employees.
Democratic support for free trade has strengthened the overall economy — but with new rules that provided inadequate help for workers who lost their jobs due to NAFTA and other trade agreements.
Neglect also explains another element of Trump’s ascendance.
When Al Gore won the popular vote but lost the presidency to George W. Bush, we all moved on too quickly — and neglected to remedy the outdated and fundamentally undemocratic arrangement by which the presidency is granted in a vote of the Electoral College.
This goes beyond the issue of what liberals don’t “get” about conservatives. But in a time when Trump will be president even though he lost by nearly 3 million votes, it’s worth saying again: Whatever misperceptions have divided us into a polarized electorate, any democracy that repeatedly ignores the will of the people is in trouble.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis

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