After Trump announced America’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords on June 1, fear and concern dominated my social media newsfeeds. Many Stanford students shared New York Times articles warning of the dangers of climate change, and how Trump’s decision to pull out threatened the future of the planet. On the day of Trump’s announcement, the Times’ top four or five articles dealt with the ramifications of the deal. Such warnings were predictable, and as a regular Times reader myself, I initially shared similar sentiments. Other liberal news outlets followed suit.
So, I was shocked when, upon venturing to Fox News’ website, I was confronted with a very different headline: “US aircraft carriers join Japanese forces off North Korean coast for military training.” There were no fancy infographics about the melting Antarctic ice shelf — only a photo of naval warships conducting military exercises. In fact, you couldn’t find any mention of the Paris Accords until you scrolled down the homepage.
Upon further perusal of conservative-leaning news sites — from Breitbart to the National Review — I found coverage of Paris to be nowhere near the magnitude of the New York Times’. Yet in the few articles that did cover the event, I found no hint of the warming denialism that liberals seem to believe of every conservative in the country. Instead, I found much more reasoned analyses of the situation than the Huffington Post’s “TRUMP TO PLANET: DROP DEAD” headline, laughably complemented with a photo of planet Earth being consumed by flames.
Considering that the global market towards renewables is becoming more and more competitive, coupled with China and India rapidly adopting cleaning energy economies that would have met the Paris standards regardless of the agreement itself, many conservatives don’t treat warming as the big issue. Instead, they see the violation of US sovereignty as the biggest issue in the climate agreement. I read convincing arguments that the Paris Accords placed an undue burden on America, forcing us to stifle economic growth in exchange for only a marginal reduction in US pollution.
Not for the first time, I found it was the right who had covered the issue fairly and reasonably, while the left leaned towards sensationalism.
Though Stanford students like to think of themselves as critical thinkers — and deride Trump’s tens of millions of supporters as hopelessly brainwashed — our reaction to Paris suggests we should restrain our condescension.
The values of liberal ideology — treating global warming as a moral absolute, global citizenry and cosmopolitanism, and intellectual superiority — prevented and blinded us from seeing the Paris pullout as the rest of America did. For most US citizens, patriotism, national integrity, and financial stability matter more than transborder commitments to environmental morals.
These Americans rightly saw Paris not as a crucial fight against global warming, but as an agreement that hurt the country to no global gain.
Of course, differences in values can be healthy: when acknowledge and treated seriously, they can lead to important dialogue over pressing public policy issues. Yet in 2017, we have reached a new and dangerous extreme: we have become so convicted in the truth of liberalism that we’ve become unable to recognize such differing values. Instead of identifying and evaluating the drastically different approaches to the Paris Deal, we jumped to condemnations of the stupid, uneducated conservative — a group of warming deniers who are supposedly anti-science and anti-progress.
Stanford’s conviction in liberal ideology as ultimate truth — and of any alternative value system as backwards or bigoted — blinds us. Perhaps if the populist right were a minority with rapidly disappearing relevance on the national stage, such blindness wouldn’t matter. Yet they are precisely the opposite — Trump conservatives control our country now, and they have a vision for America that fundamentally conflicts with our way of life.
This is not going to be another plea for empathy for flyover-country conservatives. The entire debate over whether to condemn or empathize with these voters is part of the problem. We continue to treat Trump supporters as a species to be analyzed behind the walls of academia. They are, to us, harmless: poor, backwards, white-lashing, and hopelessly brainwashed.
Situated at Stanford, we believe that we are at the forefront of change, pushing the boundaries of science, technology, activism, and public service. In our naive hope for a world rid of dying white racists and brimming with artificial intelligence and automation, most of us see the recent populist surge as only a temporary setback. After all, the demographics of the electorate are inevitably shifting in the Democrats’ favor — right?
What we fail to see, however, is that we are no longer revolutionaries at the forefront of history. As we sip our Coupa chai and engage in intellectual banter about feminism, we see ourselves as progressives debating ideas that are far ahead of our time — ideas that will become an American, and eventually a global reality.
But maybe it is the Trump-loving middle Americas that are the true revolutionaries.
In a recent op-ed for the New Republic, Michael Tomasky spoke of today’s conservative movement as “vanguardist.” It is certainly acting like one. They first seized an election that was supposed to mark the culmination of liberal hegemony. Now, they are amazingly taking back the intellectual monopoly that the educated elite has on contemporary discourse. Everyday Americans are no longer turning to the Paul Krugmans of the world for commentary on politics and policy. Instead, they turn to “anti-intellectual intellectuals” like Steve Bannon, Curtis Yarvin, and Milo Yiannopoulos.
And the vanguard is expanding its ranks with zest — pulling away millions of establishment Obama supporters toward populism, and coaxing in disaffected liberals from Irving Kristol to David Mamet.
Meanwhile, we liberal anti-vanguards have, in the words of Tomasky, become “defensive and distrustful.” In response to the 2016 election, we clung ever more closely to political correctness, feminism, and intersectionality — ideas that are no longer products of the grassroots resistance, but rather products of a disaffected ivory-tower academia, adopted by the elite Left that the rest of the country increasingly despises.
Such ideas are not hated because conservatives are bigoted and backwards. Instead, they are hated because they are taught from within the classrooms of Horace Mann and Harker, of Stanford and the Ivies. They are hated because they do not emerge from organic experience. Rather, they are only accessible to the families that pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for their children to receive an elite education.
I am not saying we should give away these values to accommodate a vision of America that we oppose. However, it is time for us to recognize that we are no longer the revolutionaries. We are instead the reactionaries, struggling to adapt to, and even recognize, a country that is very much fighting against the establishment citizenry of which we are all very much a part. We can no longer dismiss Trump’s America with scorn or pity them as basket cases. Instead, we must recognize the true danger they pose, and widen the appeal of our vision of America.
The narrative of an out-of-touch elite growing increasingly defensive amidst an increasingly insurgent and upset populace is one that we should all be familiar with: it has sparked the world’s greatest political revolutions. We are, hopefully, far from this. Yet a shift in our frame of reference is long overdue.