American society and its challenges are exceedingly complex

To bridge the ‘social chasm’ that divides American society we must recognize the need for complexity and thoughtful solutions while understanding the anger and frustration many of us feel

I had a conversation recently about one of the rising problems in American politics. My friend and I were discussing the reflexive distrust that many have towards certain types of people. During this conversation, my friend pointed me to a recent column by David Brooks that addresses part of the issue.

Brooks’ column dealt in part with Republican attitudes toward those perceived as “elites.” He wrote that many Republicans view America as being run (poorly) by a group of coastal elites who are corrupt and only look out for themselves. Brooks recognized the core truth in this belief — which is that there is a lot of overlap between elite institutions in government, media, education and some corporate leadership. There is some truth in the idea that many of our decisions are made by a small group of people with a particular background, connected to particular organizations, located in particular places. However, many holding this belief take it a step too far as they equate what Brooks describes as a “social chasm” with a conspiracy against much of America.

I believe Brooks correctly characterizes this mindset. As Republicans, especially in the American heartland, it is easy to see the decisions made elsewhere and feel as if we are being left behind. We see people disconnected with our way of life making decisions with little apparent understanding of, or interest in, the way such decisions will impact the lives of those outside of their particular circle.

This is certainly valid grounds for anger and protest. However, I am reminded of an old maxim: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.” While I would not necessarily describe the decisions made as “stupid,” I would describe many of them as ignorant. Simply put, most of these decisions are not made out of malice towards the people of middle America. Instead, because of the echo chamber the elite institutions foster, the decisions are made without an understanding of the values and desires of those outside the world of the decision makers, or the impact those decisions have on us.

The solution lies in leadership. We need leaders who can bridge the gap between thoughtful nuance and the shared experience of many of us in “middle America.” We need leaders who recognize the value of complexity and the need for solutions while understanding the anger and frustration that many of us feel.

This is a big thing to ask of those in leadership. It is not an easy path. There are many who would rather exploit the division for their personal gain. Anger and fear are more compelling motivators than patience and nuance, and much easier to wield. However, patience, nuance, and above all, courage are what we need most from our leaders.

I do not believe that the elites wish to destroy middle America. When I was in law school, I got a glimpse of the world of the elites. As a smalltown Wyomingite at Harvard Law School, I was certainly in the minority. Many of my classmates came from wealthy backgrounds, had gone to elite undergraduate colleges, and were destined for prestigious jobs at international law firms, corporations and the heights of government. Nevertheless, I cannot recall any that had ill-will toward middle America. They may have thought those of us in the heartland were a little backwards or behind the times, but I believe the most common attitude was simply not to think about us much at all.

Above all, we need leaders that can build the trust necessary to bridge the “social chasm.” Both nuance and understanding are necessary if we are going to build a successful future.

Cheyenne attorney Khale Lenhart is a former chairman of the Laramie County Republican Party. He can be reached at [email protected] More by Khale Lenhart