Dear liberal America,
The result of the American presidential elections has caught a lot of us by surprise. Much has been written about the reasons behind the rise of President-elect Donald Trump, spanning the spectrum from the sober to the delirious. I would like to share some of my thoughts on the way forward with those who value a pluralistic and inclusive America. We have rightly been terrified by the divisive language of Trump’s campaign, the wide support he received despite the racially charged and seemingly misogynistic attitudes displayed, and the possible impact of his campaign promises, if they are implemented, on millions of Americans and foreign residents.
There is a real danger to American institutions and to the significant achievements of generations of hard-working and brave Americans. That is why, regardless of one’s political leanings, complacency cannot be an option. However, principled opposition needs sound leadership and careful planning so that both our efforts today and the achievements of the past are not undermined in the name of resistance. The energy and idealism of the youth must be guided by the wisdom of the experienced but not tamed by it. We therefore must have serious discussions about the path ahead. Importantly, it all starts locally. We tend to overemphasize presidential elections, and national elections generally, at the expense of what occurs in our own backyard. We also tend to focus on short-term solutions at the expense of more lasting long-term ones. The short-term is important and the national elections are important but not nearly as vital as a slow progression towards a just and equitable social order. It takes hard work and patience to engage those around you on a consistent basis. It means listening, sharing, finding common ground, creating compromises, and building a narrative of “us” together. This is not what has been happening and liberals are as guilty as conservatives for leading us to failure on that front.
The world is changing very fast. There are new realities in our country today whether one likes it or not. The demographics have changed and will continue to change, intensifying racial, ethnic, and religious tensions. The international order has also shifted and its impact is challenging us and will continue to test us in ways that are different from what we experienced in older times. All of this has pushed many of our fellow citizens, whose hitherto privileged social position has been slowly eroding, to look back with nostalgia to an ideal past that in many respects never existed. Such an attitude is understandable at some levels but is also dangerous and arguably destructive. We never needed to make America great again, we always needed to strive to make America greater. Today, we do not need to return to the past; we need to make sure that our present is paving the way for a better future. The results of the recent elections and the way that the campaign season unfolded seem to indicate that we are far from that forward-looking kind of mindset.
However, we cannot let our focus on the recent elections blind us to the fact that just 8 years ago, we put the first African-American president in the White House. Liberals rightly celebrated that amazing achievement and they also celebrated other important victories, first among them the legalization of gay marriage. The problem however is that in their drive to create a new order, liberals built a frame of inclusiveness and diversity that is superficial. What is misleadingly called “political correctness” ended up doing more harm than good. There is in that frame a serious tension for while it seeks to protect minorities from abuse, it also helps keep prejudiced views hidden and unchallenged. Significantly, it ends up silencing dissent as well even when a dissenting stance is warranted. As someone of Muslim background who also studies religion for a living, I have witnessed this tension in so many instances. I regularly see people mixing the act of defending Muslims as individuals, which is extremely important, with the act of censoring the critique of particular “Islamic” ideas, views, or doctrines that ought to be open to debate, even among Muslims themselves.
More importantly, what this superficial diversity frame ultimately did is exclude a large number of people from being equal participants in the shaping of a new national narrative. Conservative people were often simplistically labeled bigots and painted with a broad brush whenever some of them dared to criticize the social changes that they publicly deemed contrary to their beliefs or values (regardless of whether some couched personal interests in the language of “beliefs”). This state of affairs indirectly encouraged adherence to an older exclusivist narrative. Furthermore, it played in the hands of many ideologues on the right who used their platforms to push the grievances to more extreme positions and deepen the social divide for political gains.
I am certainly not proposing here a comprehensive analysis of the situation, there are many other factors, especially economic ones that have a crucial impact on our country; in addition, we have a documented and complex history of institutionalized racism and sexism. Nevertheless, it troubles me that in most post-election conversations, very few liberals seemed to understand the power of narratives in creating an “us” or destroying an “us.” Many of my liberal friends appear to think that they did not owe anything to those who voted for Trump and who, by doing so, showed their alleged true colors. I strongly disagree. If you claim to be against prejudice and for inclusiveness, you must have enough compassion and courage to engage others in meaningful conversation. While the extreme fringes on both right and left will shun any dialogue, there is a lot of ground for finding commonality if we stay away from counterproductive shouting matches.
So, here is my humble message to my fellow liberals: let’s use all our resources wisely to resist any policies of the new administration that might harm various communities or jeopardize our cherished institutions; but let’s never forget that the long-term cure to our social ills resides in creating multiple spaces of inclusive and meaningful conversation and that it starts locally. That’s how we can make America greater.
A human being who happens to be a liberal American of immigrant and Muslim background and humanist perspective