I am a liberal from West Virginia. That didn’t used to be unusual. I remember when the people of the state were liberal, and what liberalism meant for their lives.
In 2016 a majority of West Virginia’s voters supported Donald J. Trump, and many expressed outright hatred of Barack Obama. But when I was last active in the state’s politics, in 1960, the state was a leader in desegregating schools in response to the Brown v. Board of Education decision. John F. Kennedy won the state by a wide margin, and I was one of an overwhelming majority of Democrats elected to the state’s House of Delegates — along with a handful of Republicans. Today that tiny minority is the majority.
So how did we get from there to here?
The year 1960 was part of what I call the Roosevelt era, a period that lasted roughly from 1933 until 1965. It was characterized by a politics and an ethos of generosity. It began with individual acts of generosity during the Depression where mothers, barely among the haves themselves, fed the hungry men who came to their kitchen doors. It flowered as Americans supported a government that gave both jobs and hope to the down and out and enacted New Deal laws that helped make incomes more equal than they had ever been.
The average man was respected, even a cultural hero. Will Rogers, one of the nation’s most-beloved figures at the beginning of this era, called himself an old country boy. My father, a lawyer, called himself a common man, as did many of his friends. The result was that progress toward income equality was accompanied by significant progress toward racial and religious equality. Widespread anti-Semitism as the era began greatly diminished by 1965, and anti-Catholicism, meaning anti-Irish and anti-Italian prejudice, almost totally disappeared. The greatest advances in legal equality for blacks since Reconstruction culminated in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
But when the average American feels looked down on, his interests minimized or ignored, he can not only become less generous, he can also sometimes become downright ugly.
Nineteen sixty-five was the year everything began to change. First, there was Vietnam. Opposition to the war tended to divide the country along class lines, with the college-educated elite avoiding service and the fighting and dying left to the average man.
When the average American feels looked down on, his interests minimized or ignored, he can not only become less generous, he can also sometimes become downright ugly.
I was against the war but worried about the class division. It seemed to me that too many members of the educated elite not only felt they were morally superior to those who supported the war but even began to feel a snobbish disdain toward the less sophisticated in matters ranging from not attending the right schools to not knowing about wine or, horror of horrors, wearing polyester suits.
Though many Trump voters are, like West Virginia’s coal miners, economically distressed members of the working class, there are also a large number who are comfortably fixed but may not have attended the right schools. The one thing that unites the two groups is resentment of the elite’s snobbery and moral superiority, which they define as political correctness. Many rich republican and libertarian members of the elite are also snobs, but Rush Limbaugh and Fox News have convinced Trump voters that the snobs are all from the liberal elite.
In the late 1960s, the civil rights movement turned in part from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s appeal to the golden rule to a more aggressive, fist-shaking assertion of black power — “If America don’t come around,” the activist H. Rap Brown declared, “we’re going to burn it down” — that scared the average white American. And when those same whites saw the education of their children affected by what they regarded as the social experiment of busing, inflicted on them by the liberal elite, you could see them beginning to move toward conservatism and a reawakening of the prejudice that Dr. King’s nonviolence had made so much progress toward overcoming.
This growing cultural antagonism was heightened by the gun control movement that grew in the late 1960s in the wake of the assassinations of Dr. King and the Kennedy brothers — a liberal push that came just as violent crime was increasing and many people felt the need to arm themselves to defend their homes, a fear that was not widely acknowledged by the liberal elite. Similarly, when the anti-abortion movement arose in response to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, liberals were reluctant to acknowledge the moral choice involved in abortion. As the years went on, the same liberals who scorned the failure of climate-change deniers to accept scientific evidence were themselves reluctant to face the scientific evidence of the early viability of a fetus.
In each of these cases, the liberal position is on the whole the right one, but the failure to understand the legitimate concerns of the other side causes anger and resentment.
For me, the most maddening failure of the liberal elite was that too many of its members became indifferent to the declining share of corporate income devoted to wages. By the early 1980s, you could see clear evidence of their growing interest in accumulating wealth for themselves, of their focus on corporate profits that would pay them dividends and increase the value of their stocks; “Wall Street Week” soared to popularity on PBS — it was the “Downton Abbey” of its time. Profits have increased since 1980, yet wages have stagnated.
It is not going to be easy for liberals to win back red states like West Virginia. Rush Limbaugh, Fox News and Donald Trump have been too successful in encouraging ugly feelings like the senseless hatred of Barack Obama. But liberals can start on the road back if they stop wounding themselves, advocate fair play for all, and instead of looking down on Trump voters as a bunch of boobs and bigots, listen to their concerns. If we don’t listen, how can we persuade?
Charles Peters, the founding editor of The Washington Monthly, is the author of “We Do Our Part: Toward a Fairer and More Equal America.” He wrote this for The New York Times.