The Impermanence of Progress

Hunter Hampton '19
Guest Columnist

Still reeling from a loss we never saw coming, progressives are grasping for an explanation: Why? Here’s one answer: Progressives lost because our message was directed towards an America we wanted to exist, rather than the America that does exist. 

Although many great successes have been achieved over the last eight years, the march to full equality is never complete. It’s a sad fact of life that no victory is ever fully won, but it’s the truth, and there’s a grave danger in pretending that the promise of America has ever been fully achieved for anyone. Progress isn’t permanent. It can decay, which is exactly what is happening in America’s forgotten Heartland. 

Now, the present situation of blue-collar white Americans is not as dire as that of African-Americans in the time of the Jim Crow laws. It’s not as dire as that of Asian-Americans during the Chinese Exclusion Act or Japanese internment during World War II. It’s not as dire as that of the millions of law-abiding, but undocumented, Latino immigrants who came to this country because to them, America still embodies the promise of freedom and opportunity. No. Theirs was, and is, a worse lot. The problem is that, rightly or wrongly, blue-collar white Americans fear that they are headed in the same direction. Donald Trump won because he—crudely, coarsely, racist-ly—tapped into those fears. But this does not mean that his supporters are crude, coarse, racists. Rather, it means that they are scared of what the future holds for them, and it means that no one else was acknowledging that fear. This is precisely where we progressives dropped the ball. Our blindness to the impermanence of progress cost us this election.

November 8th made one thing clear: progressives can’t just stand up for those who are already the victims of oppression and disadvantage. We must also stand up for those who fear oppression and disadvantage, whether or not they have yet to be oppressed or disadvantaged. Don’t scoff. You might think that this is ridiculous, that progressives would obviously never oppress blue-collar white folks. But that thinking is not only wrong-headed, it’s dangerous. To ignore the fears and grievances of one group of Americans may not be active oppression, but it is passive oppression. It is condescending and patronizing to an entire group of people to say that we know better, and that they have nothing to worry about. This, despite the fact that cities, towns, and rural areas all across the Rust Belt and Appalachia are shedding jobs in the thousands while a drug epidemic sweeps in to fill the void left by a lack of opportunity, a future, and a voice for change. 

Here’s an oft-forgotten fact: it was not until 1856 that all white men could vote. Before this, many states required property ownership before you could cast a ballot. Rich white people have never been oppressed in the United States, but poor white people have. It was just a lot longer ago than we tend to remember. In this election, we operated under the assumption that the fullness of liberty and opportunity had already been extended to all white people, conclusively and permanently. But as it turns out, many of them felt the promise of America slipping away. 

In advocating our vision for the future, we can never take for granted the progress achieved long ago. Now, in the shambles of our defeat, we need to reach out beyond our liberal bastions, where the victory already seemed won, to the Americans who were rolling their eyes at our own smug blindness. Because in their towns, our victorious mindset seemed hopelessly out of touch.