There Is No Such Thing as Us vs Them. We’re All in This Together

Since the 2016 election, Democrats have been doing a lot of soul-searching to determine what happened and how the party can move forward going into the future. A lot of that has been focused on what policies to embrace that might appeal to a broader audience.

My tendency is to dig a little deeper and identify the values that inform those policies and how they differ from what is animating Republicans these days. Recently I suggested that this quote from Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. is a great distillation of the liberal message.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.

Because Democrats also happen to be the party that believes in science these days, it is interesting to note that, since MLK wrote that in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” both the biological sciences and the new physics have validated that his words are true. Life is, in fact, a network of mutuality.

On the other hand, Republicans have embraced just the opposite for decades now. They have placed their bets on playing a zero sum game defined by “us against them” ever since they adopted the Southern Strategy. That was followed by the use of wedge issues to divide and conquer, culminating in Karl Rove’s base strategy in the 2004 election. Donald Trump has taken that to the extreme and all but abandoned any attempt to even speak to anyone beyond his hardcore base. His entire life has been devoted to the idea of defining enemies and defeating them.

Ron Brownstein has provided a great example of how these two value systems play out when it comes to a policy issue in a fascinating article titled “Trump’s Immigration Agenda Makes a Fundamental Miscalculation.” To explain the situation, he takes us back to the time he first predicted a growing battle between “the gray and the brown.” In a way that mirrors the Republican focus on a zero sum game, he talked about the imminent competition for resources between the graying Baby Boomers vs the more diverse millennials. Here are the demographics:

Today, kids of color represent nearly half of Americans 19 years old and younger and exactly half of the under-10 population…

Whites, meanwhile, compose almost four-fifths of all Americans age 65 and older and over two-thirds of the population age 45 to 64. Put another way, while nearly half of all whites today are 45 or older, nearly half of all non-whites are 30 or younger.

Brownstein goes on to point out that Trump treats these two groups as competitors in a zero sum game—and then looks for ways to advantage the gray.

One of the ways this plays out in terms of policies is Trump’s recent support for a bill that would cut the number of legal immigrants (i.e., more brown people) in half.

On these fronts and others, Trump’s policies fail to recognize the interdependence of the brown and gray. Rather than fundamentally competing with younger America, older America needs it to succeed.

With the number of young whites shrinking, the kaleidoscopically diverse Millennials and post-Millennials—as well as the potential legal immigrants who might join them—constitute much of the nation’s future workers, consumers, and taxpayers. The country’s mostly white older population needs a growing workforce that propels more young people into the middle class to generate the payroll taxes that sustain Social Security and Medicare. Though political divides obscure the link, there is no financial security for the gray without economic opportunity for the brown.

In other words, older (predominately white) baby boomers are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality with (predominantly brown) young people. What affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Sooner or later baby boomers are going to figure that out. To the extent that it is sooner could depend on Democrats finding a way to relay the message. They’re certainly not going to hear it from Trump or other Republicans.

This is why liberals must always explore the way that the inescapable network of mutuality affects whatever policy positions we propose. It is simply a matter of science that what affects one directly, affects all indirectly. That makes our job a lot harder because it means we can’t rely on easily constructed arguments about us vs. them that inflame fear and anger.

The truth is that there is no such thing as us and them—we’re all in this together. That is a foundational value that distinguishes liberals from conservatives.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.