How to Talk about a Changing America

After the election revealed the central demographic problem the GOP faces—it is emphatically the party of white people in a country that grows more diverse by the day—there was some triumphalism among liberals about this state of affairs. But the always humane and thoughtful Harold Pollack reminds us that we should reserve some sympathy for the people who feel unsettled by the rapid pace of change in 21st century America:

These are good people, mostly older and white, who are unsettled and scared by the pace of social change in America. Same-sex marriage, legalized marijuana, talk of legalized status for undocumented immigrants—that's a lot of change to accept within just a few years. I met some others, too. Consider the liberal Jews of my parents' generation who sense—accurately, I think–that the coming generation of liberal politicians can read from the hymnal but don't sway with the music about Israel the way the generation of 1967 and 1973 once did.

It's an irony of recent history that the conciliatory and calm Barack Obama exemplifies in his person some inexorable and potentially scary political and demographic trends. Some would exploit the accompanying anxieties by challenging the President's birth certificate. Most people fear the "otherness" of our coming 21st-century America, not the alleged inauthenticity of our president's initial paperwork fifty years ago. Whatever your ideological stance, however you might disdain birthers such as Donald Trump, you'd have to be tone deaf not to sympathize at some person-to-person level with millions of people who feel left behind and a little lost. We liberals would be wise to reach out, not in a spirit of triumphalism but in a more embracing and human way, to simply reassure people that the planet will still rotate despite all the changes we see in American society. Many of our best values and most important interests are being advanced, not undermined, by the coming of a more liberal and inclusive society.

That's good advice on both a personal and political level. Consider the success of gay marriage initiatives in Maryland, Maine, and Washington in 2012. It happened because the marriage equality forces crafted a campaign aimed at persuading people uncomfortable with same-sex marriage that they shared values with the gay couple down the block, values like family and commitment. Instead of saying, "You're just being bigoted," that campaign acknowledged those voters' misgivings and essentially led them on a path from opposition to support of marriage equality.

Something similar may be possible on issues like immigration. When Democrats are arguing for immigration reform, for instance, they can say, we understand that it can be disorienting to walk into a store and hear everyone speaking Spanish. And it's true that America is changing. But America has always changed, and one of the things that is remarkable about this country we share is its ability to take each new generation of immigrants, weave them into the American story, and emerge with our values not only intact but strengthened. That message would be not only true but politically effective, and if the other party offers fear and resentment as an alternative, they'll lose.

But maybe they won't offer fear and resentment. Maybe they'll offer something that helps people feel better about the evolution of our society. If they do it well, perhaps the enormous advantage that Democrats now enjoy among young people, non-white people, and secular people will be weakened. That might end up being good for everybody.

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