The New York Times recently ran a story on what many inside the Republican establishment are describing as a disconnect between the world views of the voting and financial bases of the party.
The article summarizes the worldview of the major donors as supporting tax cuts for upper-income households, loosened regulation on industry, expanded trade with other nations and a supply-side approach to economics that argues that the more corporations and wealthy investors have available to invest, the more jobs they’ll create.
The voting base described in the article is made up predominantly of white blue-collar workers. These individuals and families feel particularly harmed or at-risk from the loss of manufacturing jobs to other nations and job cuts due to corporate mergers. They have become increasingly suspicious of the donors and the elected officials who advocate donor-supported policies as they have watched the wealthy become wealthier and corporate profits recover much more quickly than their own bank accounts and job prospects.
Like the division between Northern liberals and Southern conservatives that tore the Democratic Party apart in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, this rift in the fabric of the Republican Party is now expanding rapidly. The blade ripping it open is the putative standard bearer, Donald Trump, himself a beneficiary of a system that rewards the wealthy. But he has styled himself the champion of the voter base of the Republican Party against its big-money supporters.
Every time those moneyed interests cast their mantle over one of his opponents, he destroys that opponent at the polls.
More accurately, the voter base of the party roars into full-throated rage, turns out in large numbers, and demolishes the “establishment” candidate’s chances.
The analysis provides additional perspective on a remarkable year unfolding in national politics. But it also reminds all public servants, whether elected or appointed, about what is required to serve one’s constituents effectively.
To be candid, I’m not sure that Donald Trump has “listened.” It appears, from a long history of his comments, that his own thinking on many of the issues of central contention within Republican ranks places him closer to the voters than to the financiers. If that’s a fair assessment, then it’s all about timing, not listening.
But the best leaders listen, all the time, to all sorts of constituencies. They don’t sit cocooned with like-minded and like-experienced folks unaware of the potential tsunami of public unrest that will soon overwhelm them. Instead, they feel the first warning temblors and take action. And they can take action because, long before there were even temblors, they knew where the points of greatest friction were and were working to address them.
It’s hard to listen. It’s even can be hard to find the people to whom we need to listen. Too often, as one begins to gain power and influence, one finds oneself surrounded by new “friends” who want your ear so they can sing your praises in it while they pick your political pocket. Every time I ask a group of elected officials if they suddenly found that they had a bunch of new “friends” when they were elected, people who praised their wisdom, or courage, or integrity, and then had just a small favor they wanted done, nearly all respond with wry nods and hands shooting up in the air.
So it can be very hard to listen because it can be hard to get where we can hear the people we need to hear. But we ourselves bear some responsibility for making it happen. We need to assume that, no, we don’t know how someone feels, or thinks, or what their life is like. We need invite them to share those feelings, thoughts and experiences with us. And we need to listen intently, not so that we can refute them or defend ourselves, but so that we can grasp their view of life and the world fully, appreciate its foundations and its implications, and discern what it means for serving the public good.
Because there’s something else we can learn from this season of conflict and political surprises.
If we don’t listen, we lose.