We have the Open versus Closed dichotomy – so elegantly laid out by Peter Franklin in his series of articles – in America too. We just call it something different. As Hillary Clinton, rather less elegantly, put it when comparing herself with Donald Trump, it is the “Forward versus Backward” split.
On both sides of the Atlantic, though, the argument is identical: the views of the educated, urban few represent “the future”, while the less-educated, rural or town-based many are pining for the past. It is standard political framing designed to marginalise one’s political adversaries.
Why the Open vs Closed debate is so deplorable
The positioning presumes the primacy of a certain set of values: those belonging to the Open. To be Open is to be ‘open-minded’. It is to be open towards new places, new cultures, and new experiences that are not part of the American tradition. It is to be open to ethnic cuisine, say, or valuing foreign travel over domestic tourism.
It is broadly accepting of free trade or large-scale immigration. And most contentiously – more so in America than in Britain – it refers to valuing non-traditional sexual partnerships, behaviours, or identities as highly as the marital, man-woman relationship. To be for these things is to be Open; to be suspicious or opposed to them is to be Closed.
But how do things look from the other side of the fence? How do things look to those deemed to have Closed minds (those thought to be on the wrong side of the argument)?
Well, the defenders of traditional sexual behaviour say that they, in fact, are the ones who are Open – Open to real human flourishing. They are Closed only to the social challenges of unwed motherhood, to the creation of broken families through divorce, and to the declining birthrates that social subsidy and the honouring of non-traditional norms often bring.
Similarly, those suspicious of mass migration could also say they are Open – Open to strong communities built on shared values; they are Closed only to the dissolution of such communities and Closed to the local authorities’ insistence they suppress their values or safety in order to make the newcomers feel more secure. To not treat their concerns as having equal weight is to be Closed to them. It’s hard to get more Closed than to call these people “deplorables” as Mrs Clinton did.
Where the hypocrisy of the Opens is particularly clear, is on the subject of religion. Traditional Christianity is one of the things most strongly disfavoured by the Open few in America. Non-belief is much higher among people who live in large metropolitan areas, especially in places like Seattle and San Franciscowhich are home to the industries touted as the archetypes of the “new economy”. This non-belief is not neutral in its politics: over two-thirdsof those who practice no religion voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
These voters hold a remarkably cold view of traditional Christians. The cross-partisan Voter Study Group’ Summer 2017 pollasked respondents to rate how they feel about selected groups on a 100-point scale, 0 being “very cold” and 100 being “very warm”. There were 42% of Clinton voters who rated “evangelical Christians” between 0 and 24; the total rose to 46% of people who said they were “very liberal”.
This is 60% higher than the number of Trump voters who gave “immigrants” or “gays and lesbians” similar scores, and more than four times higher than the number of Trump voters who said they felt this coldly towards blacks or Hispanics.
Yet it is the Trump voters who are labelled as racist, homophobic, bigoted, and sexist, while the Clinton voters are Open to “moving forward”.
Tens of millions of Americans think going forward into Clinton’s future would push them backwards. Traditional Christians wonder whether they would be allowed to practice their faith, or even express their views on sexual morality in public. Factory workers wonder if there will be any good jobs left as manufacturing goes overseas or is made unprofitable by climate change-focused regulations and practices.
These people have heard nothing yet to suggest that those on the Open side of the debate are Open to their views of the good life. Inevitably, these voters are increasingly proving Closed to Clinton and her ilk and very Open to anyone who vocally takes their side – hence, Trump.
That’s the trouble with such binary political classifications and rhetoric. They can exaggerate and intensify honest disagreements.
Winston Churchill famously over-reached with incendiary words in 1945, when he said Labour would have to set up “some form of Gestapo”, if it won the election. Politicians ratchet up the rhetoric and leave no room for nuance. Anything to win the argument. But it’s precisely that refusal to understand human motivation that has brought us to this political precipice.
Open vs Closed, Forward vs Backward – both are merely one side’s partisan characterisation of our current political debate. What is really at stake, though, is the type of society we will built together, and what place (if any) traditional values, social roles, and jobs will have in it.
Those who genuinely desire an “open” system should think deeply about these questions, rather than presuming that theirs are the values, jobs, and preferences which are the only ones worth empowering and honoring. For it is by being closed to other possibilities that they are opening the door to something else that could be much worse.