By Tricia Ross
'You think you're better than us now?"
These were the first words out of a cousin's mouth at a recent family reunion. They left me stunned.
The only time I felt more uncomfortable in a conversation was while chit-chatting at my Ivy League university orientation. What had each person been doing just before arriving? One student chilled in the Caribbean, another traveled around the world on her family's dime. I laughed nervously, "I simultaneously juggled a couple of jobs, including one as a cleaning lady."
I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and left. The recent election results magnified the divide that is my life: between the blue, coastal, mostly well-educated "Establishment" elite and the red, rural, mostly white and less-educated America.
That's why the election tore me up inside. It wasn't just because I was appalled by chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, and violence (as all moral persons should be). It wasn't just the prospect so unappealing to so many voters of having either an unqualified occupant of the White House or an occupant with credibility issues. It's because the whole thing reflected my life between the Establishment and the non-elite.
It's said pundits and pollsters failed us because they are out of touch with "real" America and "real" Americans.
But it takes two to talk. As someone who navigates between these worlds, I know it's hard. There's mutual incomprehension, even suspicion.
But as someone perched on the divide, I know brilliant, hilarious, creative, kind, compassionate people in rural America and in the Establishment. So I start there and hope.
To the Establishment: life in rural America is beautiful but economically brutal. Some people there grow vegetables you pay too much for at Whole Foods just so they can eat. Where I grew up, one of the few growing industries is drugs - to dull the pain. A few years ago, discarded needles started to appear along the secluded dirt road where I run when I'm back. Heroin. A school-principal friend has students reporting their parents for operating meth labs in the garage.
Not everyone there is ignorant. I knew someone who won a National Merit Scholarship that he turned down to stay and help his family. He, like many people there, is caring and hard-working.
The nearly insurmountable barriers to advancement and the sense that a climber will never be good enough undergirded the vote on Nov. 8. The assumption that Establishment ideas and policies are better and that victory was assured created a condescending tone that inspired people where I grew up to knock the Establishment down a few notches.
To rural America: This vote makes sympathy hard. I know many are generous and compassionate and appalled by the president-elect's (lack of) morals. They are also desperate for a change. Most are not racists. But all the good and all the struggle are obscured by a vote that compromised the truth that chauvinism, racism, xenophobia, violence, and disregard for the law are unacceptable.
It didn't just voice frustration with the barriers a smug Establishment sets. It didn't just express distrust of Hillary Clinton or disagreement with certain policies. The man who won openly ran on hate; he channeled it, welcomed it and is setting about normalizing it. This vote sanctioned that.
It was easy to buy a master sales pitch, saying the man understood economic frustration and could fix it. That he's not Establishment (he is, and he's empowering the despised Establishment). I've seen people desperate for hope embrace a comforting lie that clashed with other values before.
For both the Establishment and the non-elite, it's hard to imagine lives that look different, lives that you never actually encounter. It's easy to assume they share nothing with you, that the worst of any group marks everyone in it. It takes courage and compassion to get to know people, and to recognize there's a difference between a way of life and a moral principle.
There is a difference and we must recognize it. If that happens we can honestly debate the failures in us and our system. This must be based on the non-negotiable principle that all matter, a principle we must defend. Only then can we discuss our common good and future.