A Nation Divided By “Deep Stories”: Reflections on the U.S. presidential debate
"The deep story is a story stripped of judgements, stripped of facts, it's the story as it feels to be true," said American sociologist Arlie Hochschild. "[All peoples] have deep stories." The deep stories of different groups in America are more visible than ever in this election.
The first presidential debate was Monday, September 26 at Hofstra University in New York. Hosted by NBC's Lester Holt, this was to be the first time Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican candidate Donald Trump went head-to-head since they announced their presidential bid in April and June 2015, respectively.
The main issues in the debate were police and race relations, nuclear proliferation, foreign diplomacy and cyber terrorism. Between the jabs and banter, Clinton hit Trump with a punctuated critique at the end of the debate: "He called [former Miss Universe winner] Miss Piggy, then he called her Miss Housekeeping because she was Latina. Donald, she has a name… her name is Alicia Machado".
Grand slam on the intersection of sexism, racism and fat-shaming, this was the perfect finale for composed Clinton against tempestuous Trump… or was it? Surely by now, all women supporters of Trump understand how much of a vile sexist pig he is! Won’t all overweight Americans feel alienated by his objectifying comments?
Not so much. Clinton's campaign has failed to connect with white, working-class Americans. Just a few weeks ago, Hillary called half of Trump supporters a "basket of deplorables." Presumably, referring to David Duke (of the KKK) and his affiliates who connect to Trump's inflammatory racial comments. She has since apologized.
But the contempt toward white, working-class Americans evinced in this statement is shared by others. In March, conservative contributor Kevin Williamson wrote in the National Review, "the truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible … Donald Trump’s speeches make them feel good. So does OxyContin."
Who are Trump's supporters? According to Pew Research Centre, Trump surpasses Hillary by 26 points with white, working-class men, particularly over the age of 50. Many of these Americans have not been voting in past elections.
The Appalachian region— where 84% of people are white, the majority white and working-class— has the lowest voter turnout rates in America. Trump is the first candidate in decades to address their concerns about disappearing jobs and low wages in once high-demand industries, such as coal mining and manufacturing; the recovery from the 2008 recession is sluggish.
So why doesn't Hillary reach out to this disenfranchised demographic? Hillary appears to be out for a different vote.
Hochschild tells the story of the divide between Trump and Hillary supporters. In her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, she tells the story based on four years of interviewing working class Americans. She seeks to explain the predicament that white, working-class Americans in southern states face:
"You're standing in line that's going uphill, the top of which is the American dream. You've been waiting patiently for a long time and the line actually isn't moving. And then you see someone ahead of you someone ahead of you cutting in line... That might be an affirmative action black or woman who would like a job not available to [themselves]... Then you see immigrants that have had very difficult experiences, or refugees cutting ahead. And then, in this deep story that feels to be true: you see Barack Obama waving to the line cutters. Oh, he is their president, he's helping them, but he's not helping me, he's not my president.
"[...]Then, you see someone ahead of you turning back and saying 'oh, you southerners, you racist, you redneck,' and this is insult to injury. There comes a moment where you feel this isn't even your country, you are a stranger in your own land, and you look for alternatives, you look to be heard, to be recognized, and you don't see it. This is the set up for Donald Trump.”
Political Scientist Charles Murray compares whites of different classes. In 1960, blue collar white men and white collar white men equally enjoyed time with their families, church and community activities. By 2010, the poorest third of whites are working more, spending less time with their families, sleeping more and watching more TV.
"They've lost their morale, they're depressed, they don't see a future... White men see kind of a bleak future ahead, they don't think globalization is good for them, and they're right about that," Hochschild remarks. She interviewed a 63 year old man who recalled of his last place of work that, “for the first 5 years he was given 1 week off a year, sick time and vacation time together. So if he got a cold, he had no vacation time. The next 5 years he got 2 weeks off. That's a decade of life, with no raise, with almost no vacation."
Echoing the sentiment, lawyer J. D. Vance believes his professional success is by fluke. “Many people in my community began to believe that the modern American meritocracy was not built for them,” comments Vance to The Atlantic, relating his memoir, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis on growing up in southwestern Ohio.
No wonder, perhaps, that the already-alienated "basket of deplorables" are not swayed by Hillary's critique of Trump's sexism. Is Hillary going to take white, working-class votes from Trump because of his racist and sexist comments? The poor white demographic vote have no love lost for the people Trump calls fat, ugly or pathetic, particularly women and immigrants "cutting in line", so to speak.
The question may not specifically be, how do we please or put more stock into demographic (A) than demographic (B)? Instead, it may be, how do we heal a divided nation? Hochschild’s approach offers an answer: sit down and listen to a story. "We all have deep stories," she says. "We need to get a conversation going: deep story to deep story, with some empathy for those who differ from you." After all is said and done and a president is announced, there are very human problems that will need to be addressed, that involves Americans as one people, regardless of race and class.