Most policy approaches can be divided into two broad categories: those that address institutions and root causes, and those that focus on individuals and effects. For instance, in the context of criminal justice, the modern American left encourages de-emphasizing the latter, moving away from a model that views justice as the carceral punishment of an individual perpetrator, and instead disrupting and dismantling the larger systems that produce crime.
Michelle Alexander’s influential book The New Jim Crow, for example, carefully delineates how the War on Drugs created a criminal legal system that unjustly incarcerates an extraordinarily high number of black Americans. She rejects the argument that crime is a primarily individual or cultural failure. In fact, the selective focus on individuals underpins our collective acceptance of mass incarceration, and partially explains why America has not yet recognized the moral urgency of massively overhauling the criminal justice system:
mass incarceration is predicated on the notion that an extraordinary number of African Americans (but not all) have freely chosen a life of crime and thus belong behind bars. A belief that all blacks belong in jail would be incompatible with the social consensus that we have “moved beyond” race and that race is no longer relevant. But a widespread belief that a majority of black and brown men unfortunately belong in jail is compatible with the new American creed, provided that their imprisonment can be interpreted as their own fault. If the prison label imposed on them can be blamed on their culture, poor work ethic, or even their families, then society is absolved of responsibility to do anything about their condition.
The left applies an institutional lens to a number of other policy areas as well. If conservatives want to reduce the number of abortions, the left says that we should focus on addressing the root causes of unwanted pregnancy, and expand sex education and access to contraceptives. If we want to reduce illegal immigration, we should recognize how systems of violence and poverty in many Latin American countries, influenced by US foreign policy, have created conditions that individuals risk their lives to escape.
As someone on the left, I generally consider this institutional approach more humane than a hyper-focus on the flaws of individuals. Our circumstances play a huge role in determining who we are, what we believe and how we view the world, and, for the most part, the systems that produce us are outside of our control as individuals. One helpful tool in considering this is John Rawls’ famous veil of ignorance thought experiment, outlined in Α Theory of Justice, in which
no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status, nor does anyone know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence, strength, and the like. I shall even assume that the parties do not know their conceptions of the good or their special psychological propensities. The principles of justice are chosen behind a veil of ignorance.
The veil of ignorance demands that we create institutions that would help the worst off members of society, without regard to their circumstances at birth. It asks us to approach intrapersonal morality with an awareness of these varied circumstances, and how they may influence our actions. We should hold people morally accountable, but recognize the broken societal systems that may have caused them to make certain choices.
But while the left successfully adopts this veil of ignorance for many different policy issues, we all too often abandon it when considering our ideological opponents.
This is perhaps best exemplified by the left’s treatment of Trump supporters, to whom we often react with visceral disgust or anger—even when the supporter is a friend or family member. To us, voting for Trump is an indictment of bigotry and racism, a fundamentally immoral act.
This reaction is, in many ways, justified. Trump’s policies and rhetoric are racist, cruel and often morally abhorrent, and supporting him, at the very least, means condoning this behavior. Given the injustices he has created and perpetuated, we cannot fathom how a decent, moral person could possibly support such a man.
However, when we judge Trump supporters in this way, we miss a larger point. Even if Trump supporters hold racist attitudes, by judging them as individuals, we ignore the social and economic factors that may have produced their racism. This is not to excuse racism, or the abhorrent policies of the Trump administration, but to encourage the left to think more critically about the causes and context of our opponents’ beliefs.
The largest demographic propelling Trump to victory was the white working class, especially those without a college degree. This demographic is concentrated in rural areas and regions like the Rust Belt. They lack education and opportunities, and feel left behind by recent cultural and economic shifts. They are largely alienated, disaffected and deeply angry. If I adopt a veil of ignorance and imagine being raised in rural, white America today, instead of in a middle-class, educated, urban household, I imagine I would be angry too.
Conservative politicians have exploited this anger for political gain, directing it towards immigrants and minorities, as well as towards the liberal elite. From Bacon’s Rebellion to the Civil War, economic elites have promoted racial division among the working class to further their own interests. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that race itself, at least in America, was artificially constructed to safeguard oligarchic economic control.
This implies that today’s racism is not necessarily maintained by widespread racial bigotry, which has been declining for years, but by structural and economic factors, such as income inequality and criminal justice. Thus, to address racism, we need to have honest conversations about race and treat the white working class and Trump supporters with empathy instead of demonizing them. We should take their anger and fear seriously and actually address their concerns.
What we shouldn’t do is mock them with epithets like redneck or deride their way of life. As theologian Tex Sample writes:
Stack these things up: calling people by a racist slur, telling them how privileged they are, failing even to notice the realities of class in the white working-class world and its long history of oppression and exploitation, speaking out of a cultural setting they do not share and being ignorant of the traditional oral culture white working people not only embody but value, and then expecting them to talk about the “social issue” of race. Why would not these things alone make it difficult?
Consider the left’s position on criminal justice. An increasingly popular alternative to the punishment model is an approach called restorative justice. As practitioner sujatha baliga explains:
Restorative justice brings those who have harmed, their victims, and affected families and communities into processes that repair the harm and rebuild relationships. This can take several forms, such as peacemaking circles and conferencing models. Restorative justice can help resolve nearly any kind of wrongdoing or conflict, including serious harms such as robbery, burglary, assault—even sexual and intimate partner violence, and even murder.
Restorative justice grants a chance at redemption, growth and mercy to everyone. It does not define people by the worst thing they have done and avoids labeling people as fundamentally immoral. How can we on the left extend empathy towards people who may have committed murder, but not to those who have voted for Trump?
We may feel that it would be morally wrong not to judge Trump supporters them. It is true that neutrality in situations of oppression means siding with the oppressor. Displaying your anger towards those who support an administration that has perpetuated innumerable egregious acts of oppression may feel morally necessary.
However, when we do this, we forget the purpose of the work we are engaged in. Instead, we should create policies that work for all Americans, including those we don’t agree with. This might entail moving past today’s identity-based politics, and instead adopting what political scientist Mark Lilla defines as a post-identity liberalism:
We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.
The liberal project has always fought for institutions that create less suffering, more prosperity and a brighter future for everyone. Promoting a liberalism that consciously adopts this system-based framework would avoid alienating opponents, and, more importantly, would make it easier to address some of the root causes of bigotry and racism, such as poverty, education and criminal justice.
Besides being more strategic, an institutional approach is more empathetic. Those whom we see as our political opponents are suffering too, largely because of factors outside their control. While holding them accountable for harmful actions, we should take inspiration from restorative justice to avoid labeling them as inherently immoral human beings. We should have meaningful conversations with those on the right, without condescending towards them or mocking their values. Ultimately, we should focus on dismantling the dysfunctional institutions that produce individuals who may do wrong things, rather than mistake those individuals for the larger system.