Columns

Esemplare ’18: The failure of progressivism

By
Staff Columnist
Thursday, December 1, 2016

In the aftermath of a historic and surprising election outcome, Americans have come forth with a plethora of explanations for the seemingly inexplicable, many of which focus on the electorate’s latent sexism or former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s perceived shortcomings. But while these issues likely played a role in her ultimate defeat, there is another seldom-discussed factor that I find particularly interesting here at Brown. While many on our campus have used the election result as an excuse to further denigrate President-Elect Donald Trump’s voter base, it is necessary to acknowledge the culpability of the progressive movement as it currently stands.

In the election’s wake, there has been much talk of “Trump’s America.” One apparent consensus among pundits is that Trump’s core demographic — white, working-class Americans — rallied around him because of a belief that traditional politicians had forgotten about them. As Dan Hopkins of FiveThirtyEight poignantly put it, people felt “like strangers in their own country.” Many students on Brown’s campus dismiss such sentiments as standard xenophobia or bigotry. I think we’re smarter than that.

Students at Brown and other elite universities across the country have forgotten that progressivism is about changing minds. At its best, it represents the slow and steady march toward a set of ideals. Social change is never sweeping, nor dramatic; it is incremental almost by rule because changing the closely held beliefs of others is never easy. But on Brown’s campus and in similar communities across the country, this is not what progressivism looks like. Instead, it has devolved into a self-righteous and unaccepting movement with little regard for the people it purportedly seeks to convert.

We have forgotten that changing minds is hard. Ivy League students preach of binaries and spectrums that many Americans can’t even begin to understand. Instead of a spoonful of sugar, we accompany our message with a judgmental glare. Progressivism failed in this election because it has become not only unpalatable but incomprehensible to many Americans.

A far cry from any ideal of tolerance, social justice activism on Brown’s campus often looks more like the venting of pent-up anger than any real attempt to persuade the other side. Yelling “check your privilege” may feel good, but it inspires strikingly few to engage in the desired action. Anger is certainly warranted in the face of the many injustices students on this campus see, but that doesn’t make it strategic. The phrase “check your privilege” calls for deep and difficult introspection, but it is so often accompanied by disdain and judgment that it is more likely to alienate than convince. This form of activism predictably fails to cause change. At the extreme, progressivism can devolve into an elite and exclusive movement that rarely stoops so low as to engage with the other side. It is a trap that anyone seeking to effect change would do well to avoid.

In challenging the efficacy of judgmental progressivism, I call heavily on my own experience. When I came to Brown, I possessed an incomplete knowledge of many social issues discussed on campus. I did not oppose them; I was simply unaware of them. When I attempted to engage in conversation on these issues to improve my understanding, I was frequently lambasted for my ignorance. In circles of ‘tolerance,’ my inexperience made me complicit.

Brown students, with our disdainful and insulated brand of progressivism, are among those culpable for the rise of Trump. We have given up trying to teach others about our message because judging is easier than educating. We fight with each other over the moral high ground without acknowledging that our tolerance has become intolerance and that our fights don’t make sense to those outside of our own community. We insulate ourselves on campuses in which almost everyone agrees with us and then begin to disagree with each other. Students at elite universities so often squabble about inaccessible theories while coal workers in Middle America worry about buying groceries. It’s no wonder they felt forgotten. We forgot them. We found an Ivy League bubble and got lost within it; we directed our message at 6,000 students instead of 320 million Americans.

Nicholas Esemplare ’18 can be reached at nicholas_esemplare@brown.edu.

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