Shock of Trump’s Election Gives Right and Left a Chance to Fix Themselves

Derek Monson“Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened” -Walter Cronkite

In the wake of a presidential election cycle that stunned the political and intellectual right in the primaries and their counterparts on the left in the general election, there is practical wisdom to be gleaned from these words from one of America’s foremost journalists. However, instead of holding up a mirror on events for the public’s sake, the political and intellectual sectors need to hold up a mirror to themselves for the benefit of America, as well as for the sake of their own values and principles.

A few honest souls in political media have begun such a self-assessment and are seeking to renew their profession. It remains to be seen if their political and intellectual colleagues will follow suit, or if they will compartmentalize Trump’s election and avoid the discomfort that it should be giving them about their thinking and politics.

Trump’s election, which is setting off alarm bells for progressives, should point to a failed political approach grounded in flawed intellectual assumptions. For years, the intellectual left has disturbingly embraced a smug intolerance toward the intellectual “other,” despite claims that equality is at the core of their system of thought. In the progressive intellectual mindset, anything other than progressive/liberal thought has become an expression of some form of racism, sexism, and/or homophobia. Instead of seeking to understand those with differing political perspectives, too many people have found it acceptable to simply stereotype those who choose intellectual diversity as a cancer on society.

This has fed into progressive politics. No matter how reasonable or extreme the political statements or policy positions of those running for office as conservatives, the progressive political line was to label their opponents as running on racism, sexism and homophobia. When one considers that this meant the same political attacks against John McCain, Mitt Romney, and Donald Trump, it is no surprise that progressive politics failed in 2016. Either progressives really didn’t see Mitt Romney and Donald Trump as political equivalents and are untrustworthy for perpetuating lies for political gain – or they did see them as being the same, and thus are untrustworthy for being so out of touch with reality.

In any case, the conclusion is that progressive intellectuals need to subscribe to a version of equality that applies to intellectual tribes other than their own, and progressive political operatives need to embrace a more inclusive and tolerant politics.

For conservatives, Trump’s election presents an altogether different problem. They will have to fix their intellectual and political flaws despite the possible complacency created by a Republican political victory. This may prove more difficult than the self-assessment needed by America’s progressives.

Conservative intellectuals must come to grips with the fact that they have allowed their principles to become abstract ideals. Their ideas have become detached from the reality that millions of Americans have lost their access to the American Dream under conservative economic policies, and it should come as no surprise that working-class Americans have rejected conservative views on issues like trade. In other words, conservative intellectuals have lost the virtue of prudence, captured eloquently in the words of Edmund Burke in his 1792 speech on the petition of the Unitarian Society: “A statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.”

This lack of prudence has also fed into conservative politics. The conservative political movement has struggled to accept practical political realities and their implications, such as same-sex marriage and the need for a functional economic safety net outside of family and charity. As a result, they have pursued religious freedom laws that lack any balancing measures toward LGBT equality, and they have fought against welfare expansion instead of for welfare reform. The predictable result of this imprudence has been a public backlash and political failure. The election of a Republican to the White House does not change these fundamental realities, which, it is hoped, conservatives will not have to learn about the hard way.

If progressives will embrace equality for those they disagree with in addition to their own, and if conservatives can regain the wisdom of Edmund Burke, then both will have hope for redemption and renewal. More importantly, America will have hope for an elevated political dialogue that produces an unexpected agreement, community-driven solutions, and practical results for them and their families.

Derek Monson is director of public policy at Sutherland Institute, a conservative think tank that advocates for a free market economy, civil society, and community-driven solutions.