By Hadas Aron and Emily Holland
Those of us currently on the academic job market while trying to finish dissertations could comfortably be classified as suffering from high levels of stress. Our day-to-day consists of writing, applying, paying Interfolio, and banging our heads against computer keyboards. For the authors of this piece, our main source of relief comes in the form of the best Pilates class in the world. Every Thursday morning we lie down and work on our cores amongst the elderly ladies of the Upper West Side. Recently, our instructor, a former Broadway dancer, said in her magnificent husky voice: “Choose your own stretch ladies, this is a democratic Pilates” to which one of our class compatriots replied: “It’s safe to be democratic here, it’s the Upper West Side!”
Given the current political climate in American politics, with Donald Trump threatening to jail Hillary Clinton for example, the notion that it is unsafe to let “the masses” decide has become more prevalent. Sadly, it is not unique to these elections and has had appeal for certain actors on several occasions in history. This elite sense of entitlement is objectionable, unproductive and even dangerous. First, no one group in society has the power to grant suffrage. Wealthy and educated urban elites are no longer suffrage gatekeepers, and when they were, US politics was certainly not better or even necessarily more liberal.
Donald Trump characterizes inner cities as “hell”, and liberal elites often imagine Middle America as rural church-goers with limited access to dental care. Both characterizations are misinformed and offensive. If liberals want to include minorities in the American story, they cannot pick and choose only those minorities they find easiest to co-opt. That is not how multiculturalism works. Instead, the process requires including those groups you find most challenging to engage with. Over the Jewish Yom Kippur holiday several rabbis expressed disgust from these presidential elections, and admitted they felt dirty by participating in the political discussion. Many congregation members nodded in agreement. The current political discourse left many feeling sullied. But while Trump alone is responsible for the dirty words and deeds, he does not have a monopoly over dirty sentiments.
The type of exclusive liberalism that has surfaced during these elections is quite common in Europe, and is failing badly. Across Europe, urban elites are increasingly losing their hold on political power to the rise of populist parties. Amidst the challenges of globalization and immigration, liberals have not yet come up with convincing solutions. Populists do not have the answers either, but at the very least they tend not to patronize those who feel most threatened by a changing world. It is impossible to fight populism with elitism.. There were moments in this campaign that Hillary Clinton managed to reach out to those beyond her base. Her supporters and media should to do the same.
Anti-democratic ideas have been tossed around with alarming prevalence during this campaign. The most recent example is of course Trump’s gross threat to lock-up his opponent if he wins the election, but there is a pervasive perception that the other side, Democrat or Republican, is fundamentally un-American, and perhaps not deserving of a voice. This discourse is dangerous and damaging to American democracy. We live in an anti-democratic time with regimes around the world curtailing once-common liberal rights. Politically correct discourse has been abandoned in favor of hate speech. Democracy needs to be protected, not by limiting rights and restricting suffrage (or even lamenting universal suffrage), but by an honest attempt to increase social ties across groups and cleavages. Even on the Upper West Side.