From this perspective, it becomes easier to see that people who voted for Trump did so, in part, because they thought their needs for care were being ignored.
This article – The meaning of Trump’s election for caring democracy? – is Part II of a series of care ethical comments on the US elections, published by Ethics of Care.
Joan Tronto, November 2016
Caring Democracy ((Tronto, J.C. 2013. Caring Democracy. New York: New York University Press.)) starts from the premise that all societies have a way to organize care. As democracies have evolved, they have not yet made care congruent with democratic life and values. So the goal of this realistic utopian politics is: how can democracy become more caring, and caring more democratic?
The US election, and the growth of populist movements everywhere, do seem to threaten some premises of caring democracy: that all should be cared for, that all should share in caring burdens, and that economic inequalities need to be viewed from the standpoint of care. How will these threats reveal themselves, and is there any reason to hope?
Path to caring democracy
In the book, I laid out a path to thinking about democracy as more caring that now seems quite distant. The steps described are these:
- first, that we have to realign a system of privileges that make it impossible to discuss how some people take on an unfair load of care responsibilities;
- second, that everyone’s voice must be heard in making these adjustments;
- third, that democracy is better when caring is organized democratically and that caring is better when it is organized democratically;
- fourth, that once virtuous circles of caring-with exist among citizens who care for their democracies, trust and solidarity emerge.
Along the way, I also observed that neoliberal economic thinking, with its reliance on markets and strictly personal responsibility, is one of the great roadblocks to the goal of creating a more caring democracy.
How does this analysis help us to make sense of the world we now face?
Many commentators have been noting that there is a serious breakdown of trust between Democrats and Republicans. But if we think about it from a care ethics perspective, we need to step back and ask from where such distrust comes.
To me, the failure of citizens to trust one another comes not from hatred but from fear. That fear emerges from an insecurity about whether one’s self, family, country, will be well cared for. If so, then thinking about whether a society is caring or uncaring might be a way to make sense of recent political forces of anger and despair.
From this perspective, it becomes easier to see that, though I think they are wrong, people who voted for Trump did so, in part, because they thought their needs for care were being ignored.
What makes me so despairing is that ignoring and distorting their needs has been a part of the strategy of neoliberal economics (lower taxes and more trade and deregulation) since the beginning of the Reagan era, described by Bill Clinton as ‘the era of big government is over’.
It is time to move out of the academy and into the streets.
Until Trump supporters are willing to reconsider that question, there will be no progress on the economic issues they wish to resolve. This strategy is clear and after an entire generation in which inequality has continued to increase and the working people’s economic improvement has stalled, it is time to say that it just doesn’t work.
In the generation-old eloquent words of Mario Cuomo, then Governor of New York, in his address to the Democratic National Convention in 1984:
“President Reagan told us from the beginning that he believed in a kind of Social Darwinism, survival of the fittest…[that] we should settle for taking care of the strong, and hope that economic ambition and charity will do the rest. Make the rich richer, and what falls from the table will be enough for the middle class and those who are trying desperately to work their way into the middle class.” (Quoted in Isenberg, 2016, p. 315)
When people are afraid that they will be left uncared for, they lash out and try to assure that whatever caring resources they have will not be taken from them. Such anxiety is part of the extraordinary appeal of the slogan “Build the Wall!”
That Trump has already backed off on this particular promise is no surprise, but the idea resonates with the appeal: take care of us first, and not them. If care is a zero-sum game, then this idea makes sense.
But there is a second part of this changing set of needs, that goes to the heart of the question of privilege. When one’s needs are not being met, at least know that you are not the lowest of the low becomes an important advantage. President Lyndon Johnson presciently saw this point as the great Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was passed.
“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” (Quoted in Isenberg, ((Isenberg, N. 2016. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, New York: Penguin.)), p. 315)
From such a vantage point, it will be difficult to get people to believe in caring democracy, rather than treating it as another stupid liberal idea.
The first step in creating a caring democracy, as I suggested, is for people to agree to take away the existing privileges that make it possible for some people to ignore care and caring needs. I argued that people would be willing to do so, because they would see the advantages to them of more fair caring and that, under a regime of caring democracy, more of their caring needs would be met. But this is a very difficult leap of faith for people to take. What this election looks like is a desperate attempt to cling to old privileges. It is surely the case that the beneficiaries of old privileges think that the past looks better than the present or the future.
With regard to race and diversity, there is much reason to be anxious about the current state of affairs. The election of Obama did not usher in a “post-racist” society or heal the racial divide. It simply put another Band-Aid on a very deep wound, which then festered.
Listening to my Trump-voting family members rant against the Black Lives Matter movement showed their primal hatred and anger. At the family table, one relative who I usually consider a decent person yelled about a protester, “Just shoot him in the face.” This hatred, and there was plenty during the election directed at women, African-Americans, Muslims, Jews, “Mexicans,” and others, is a symptom of deep incapacities to embrace difference.
Will people act out their newly restored senses of privilege? I am quite worried that they will. Mr. Trump has not seemed to understand that his words have consequences. His criticisms of minority communities, saying to people in Minnesota that ISIL had “infiltrated,” and that “’Here in Minnesota, you can see firsthand with problems with … refugees’” ((Sherry, A. 2016. ‘Trump in Minnesota, Clinton in Ohio for Campaign’s Final Push’. StarTribune, November 7.)) have incited some supporters to act in threatening ways.
Mr Trump has asked those who are harassing Latinos and Muslims to “Stop it” ((Sixty Minutes. 2016. President-elect Trump speaks to a divided country on 60 Minutes [Online]. New York: CBS News. Available: [Accessed November 14 2016].)), but the license to act on those bullying words has already appeared. How now to stop it?
A week after the election, I am a little bit hopeful. It is now clear what to do.
In the first place, many Democrats have been as committed to the neoliberal free trade agenda as have been Republicans; Democrats were only slightly closer to a truly caring democracy than have been Republicans in the past. Rather than staying on our side of what Arlie Hochschild calls “the empathy wall,” it is time to think about making common ground ((Hochschild, A. R. 2016. Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American Right, New York: The New Press.)).
We now need to lower the walls of fear, and create the conditions for everyone to begin to examine their own privileges. After that, perhaps we will be ready to get to the questions of giving up our passes out of care, and see why it is unfair for them to hold on to them. What we have to do is to construct the publicly accessible compelling case for caring democracy. It is time to move out of the academy and into the streets.
Nausheena Hussain, the co-founder and executive director of RISE, Reviving the Islamic Sisterhood for Empowerment, was interviewed by Ibrahim Hirsi last week. This Somali-American Muslim activist noted that some of her friends and co-workers must have been Trump voters. Here are her words on coping with the next years:
“What I hope in these next few years is what am I going to do to bridge that gap and who can I work with to make sure that we do have a prosperous America and that we hold dear to those diverse values and to make sure that we’re all taken care of. There are people who are hurting and we haven’t been listening to them, and we need to figure out how to listen and work together.” ((Hirsi, I. 2016. How Muslims in Minnesota are reacting to Donald Trump’s presidential win [Online]. MinnPost. Available: [Accessed November 14 2016].))
That’s the task ahead.
Care ethics pioneer Joan Tronto is professor of political science at University of Minnesota and holds an honorary doctorate at the University of Humanistic Studies. She is the author of Moral Boundaries: A Political Argument for an Ethic of Care and Caring Democracy.