Geographies of the conservative Other

In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, I’ve been thinking, reading and writing a lot about the rural, conservative places I grew up. I’ve been looking through data on my hometowns. And I’ve been remembering my friends and former neighbors. I’ve been doing this mostly in a personal fashion but I’m also going to take it forward academically.

See below my call for a special session at the annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers in Boston in April 2017. This is a “late-breaking news” session, so the deadline is only 29 November.

CFP: Geographies of the conservative Other

Following the outcome of the 2016 U.S. elections, disbelief and shock still reverberate around late-night television, liberal newspaper opinion pages, dinner tables, college classrooms, water coolers, streets of protest and social media soapboxes. The success of Donald Trump’s campaign, often fueled by bigotry and outlandishly discriminatory proposals, has left many progressives feeling like “they’ve woken up in another country” (Davis 2016). Surprise has given way to sadness — that so many Americans could vote this way — and legitimate fear about lasting, future material effects — laws rescinded, judges appointed and renewed race, class, gender and other marginalizations.

Progressive denunciations of Trump’s brand of conservative politics are at once shows of strength and admirable cautions that intolerance must not be normalized. These reactions call for solidarity among a “we” who did not support Trump’s campaign as opposed to a “them,” backwards, hateful or regressive Trump voters. In the extreme, this discourse risks marshaling and inscribing a logic of intellectual and moral superiority by progressives over conservatives. Conservatives who voted for Trump are rendered irrational, even irredeemable, in the grips of false consciousness or possessed of impossible-to-change bigotries. Such a logic is potentially Othering — the process by which a group is repeatedly described or defined as deviant and positioned outside or marginal to a normal, acceptable center (Mount 2009). This demarcation of the Other has been routinely deployed by colonial and neo-colonial powers (c.f. Said 1978; Gregory 2004) to justify domination. Othering also overlaps Schmitt’s distinction of the political enemy as “the other, the stranger… existentially something different and alien, so that in the extreme case conflicts with him are possible.” Today, vehement progressive political discourse — especially the kind that lacks nuance — drifts toward an abstract of the conservative Other as a rural, white, male, bigoted enemy.

Few, however, would argue that the politics to which progressives now respond — manifested in the “surprise” win by Trump — are somehow new. They finds roots in myriad multi-generational forces: disparate effects of globalization, precarity brought on by neoliberal policy, uneven development, mutually constitutive relationships between urban and rural, campaign finance run amok, the historical legacies of slavery, cultural narratives of loss and more (Davis 2004, 2016; Frank 2004; Hochschild 2016; Wolin 2008). U.S. political division has a material spatial quality from the level of red and blue states down to red and blue neighborhoods (Bishop 2007). Of course, Othering of many groups occurs simultaneously in countervailing directions. Minorities have long been Othered throughout U.S. history and Trump himself reinforced an Othering discourse about U.S. “inner cities.” The Other is also complicated as categories slip and break: For example, rural America is neither exclusively conservative nor lily white. In effect, the political Other may be written into the messy landscape and history of multiple Americas, generating what Hochschild suggests are impossibly tall “empathy walls.”

This special “late-breaking” session seeks reflections and research that engage the subject position of progressive scholars and grapple with the geography of the conservative Other. What kinds of scholarship are needed to address the potential for conservative Othering by progressives? How might progressive scholars avoid or deactivate an Othering of a conservative “them” that “we” fear or even disdain? And how do “we” do so while still condemning expressions of hate or fascism?

The format of the session remains flexible, depending on interest and availability. Participation need not be limited to a traditional paper, but “submissions” might include:

  • Examinations of the process of Othering specifically in the 2016 elections (e.g. novel social media uses, Facebook algorithms, tenor of late-night comedy)
  • Deep dives on voting returns, polling or other types of electoral data
  • New or exploratory research post-election on political division or reinterpretation of old research in the context of the 2016 results
  • Reflections on the implications of “empathy walls” when progressive scholars study conservative communities
  • Methodological innovation/renovation (autobiography, autoethnography, “returning home,” etc.) for transcending “empathy walls”
  • Research specifically on cases (practices, movements, sites, experiments) that bridge or challenge political divides
  • Reactions or disagreements with the suggestion of a colonial logic of Othering conservatives or such categories/divisions.

References:

Bishop, B (2008) The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Davis, M (2004) “Losing West Virginia” Socialist Review.

Davis, M (2016) “Not a Revolution – Yet” Verso Books Blog.

Frank, T (2004) What’s the Matter with Kansas?: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Metropolitan Books.

Gregory, D (2004) The Colonial Present: Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Wiley.

Hochschild, A (2016) Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right. New Press.

Mount, A (2009) “The Other” in Gallaher, C et al. eds. Key Concepts in Political Geography. Sage.

Said, E (1978) Orientalism. Pantheon.

Schmitt, C (1996) The Concept of the Political. University of Chicago Press.

Wolin, S (2008) Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton University Press.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,