As I stood there in the brutal midday sun, I had a decision to make. Should I go back inside and leave the man trying to repair our air conditioning unit to do his work in silence? Or would it be more respectful to stand there and suffer with him? In the end, I stayed. He seemed happy to have the company. And I was, too.
When strangers come to the house, it’s usually to fix something. That’s true for lots of people these days. Aside from the people delivering mail and packages, who need to rush off as soon as possible, almost no one comes by anymore. It doesn’t make sense to sell things that way if almost no one is willing to open their doors.
Because I live in the Sonoran Desert, where summertime temperatures regularly exceed 40 degrees, there were never many people going door-to-door at this time of year. But we used to get a lot of them during the cooler months, selling everything from screens to landscaping work to Girl Scout Cookies. I didn’t realise how much I would miss the five-minute conversation their visits made possible until they had stopped happening.
Even Halloween, which used to be the one time when we could count on lots of strangers coming to our door, has become depressingly devoid of human contact. Parents feel more comfortable taking their younger children to events sponsored by various community organisations. And teenagers, no longer drawn by the promise of treats, seem to prefer parties.
Social media do provide ample opportunity for interacting with strangers, whether from nearby or thousands of miles away. The impulse to socialise hasn’t disappeared. It has just been redirected to the comparative safety of the internet, where the prospect of danger or discomfort has become less visceral. As a daily user of this technology, I’m hardly one who should be waxing nostalgic about the days when the pressure to communicate with individuals from different walks of life was much greater than it is today.
But the longer I talked with our repairman, the more I realised that the decreasing number of situations in which we talk with strangers in person – as opposed to interactions mediated by technology – is having a deleterious effect on the way we think about politics. While I remain suspicious of any ideology that promotes conversation for its own sake, I also worry that we need more opportunities to interact with individuals who do not share our background our beliefs.
Although, human nature has never been as natural or constant as most of us are inclined to think, it still seems to be the case that we behave differently when we come face to face with other human beings. To be sure, the more of them who are nearby, the less pronounced this effect becomes. People will do things when they are in crowds that they would never dare without the safety of numbers. But when it’s just two individuals, particularly when the screens of their mobile devices don’t come between them, something special can happen. The impulse to avoid conflict often becomes so strong that the interlocutors will go out of their way to find common ground.
As the repairman eased into our conversation, alternating between commentary on the state of our air conditioning unit and the state of American society, I couldn’t help but reflect on the difference between this form of communication and the sort that predominates on social media. Although there are individuals who purposefully seek out conflict on Facebook and Twitter, the vast majority of people who use those platforms prefer to spend most of their time within the safety of their own political bubble.
To the extent that they do get into ideological debates, it is usually with family or friends from their youth, because most other social bonds are too tenuous to withstand that kind of stress. If you have the time to talk to someone you don’t know well face to face, however, there is a much better chance that you will find ways to bridge the differences between you long enough to become better acquainted with each other’s positions in a spirit of provisional fellowship.
Because of my intellectual tendencies – which were present, to be honest, long before I started professional training to become an intellectual – it’s rare for me to have a conversation without also reflecting on its deeper implications. Sometimes the voice inside my head muses on the content of the conversation, trying to connect it with related subjects that have preoccupied me in the past. But when I’m talking to a total stranger, as was the case with this repairman, that voice often focuses on the form that the conversation takes. What is my interlocutor trying to communicate? What do I wish to communicate in turn? How far can we proceed down a path of mutual exchange before we reach a point of no return, whether personally or politically?
Although Jürgen Habermas’s account of how communication is supposed to work has been forcefully critiqued for its idealism, it provides useful insights that more pessimistic arguments overlook. By starting with the presupposition that “other forms of social action – for example, conflict, competition, strategic action in general – are derivatives of action oriented to reaching understanding,” he gives us a basis for determining which conversational situations are able to help in that endeavour and which ones likely to hinder it. When talking to another human being is perceived primarily as a way to manipulate that person for personal advantage, the pursuit of understanding usually ends up functioning as a ruse. But it is possible to bracket self-interest in those cases if we try hard enough.
Historically, political and cultural institutions have played a significant role in facilitating such bracketing. While internalised codes of behaviour shape the way people express themselves, they tend to be too inconsistent to make the “ideal speech situation” Habermas delineates a realistic goal unless external pressure prioritises some forms of self-expression over others. Unfortunately, the increasing polarisation of American society – largely the result of neoliberal policies, whether directly or indirectly – has tended to leave the institutions that used to provide this pressure too weak to play that role. Much of the time, the only way to achieve civility in a conversation is for its participants to summon an ideal of mutual understanding from within. In order to do that, though, they need to give each other the benefit of the doubt.
The small firms that do a lot of the repair work in the Tucson area usually send out older white men to suburban neighbourhoods like ours. Whether it’s because they tend to live nearby, because it’s a more conservative part of town, or just because the people likely to have the training for that kind of work derive disproportionately from that demographic, we’ve never had a service call here from a person of colour. And that means, given both national and local trends, that these ones we do see are likely to be supporters of Donald Trump.
Progressives from places like New York City and the San Francisco Bay Area like to argue, reflecting back on the 2016 presidential election, that Trump’s strongest backers were relatively well-to-do suburban voters. While that may be true from a strictly statistical standpoint, they overlook the fact that this demographic includes blue-collar workers old enough to have made it into the middle class before international trade agreements and other factors had devastated the labour movement. Many are already retired. Others, like the man fixing my air conditioner, are nearing retirement. Although they may be “well off” compared to younger Americans from a similar background – most notably their own children – they retain enough vestiges of class-consciousness to perceive themselves in a position of precarity.
So I brace myself, wondering how I will handle the “Trump moment” in our conversation if it comes. I want to be respectful, both because I try to get along with people I don’t know for as long as possible and because it is in my own self-interest to do so. When your air conditioner isn’t working on a day when the high is supposed to be almost 110 degrees Fahrenheit, you want the person fixing it to be favourably disposed towards you!
Imagine my surprise, then, when this particular individual, though the sort of mustachioed, leather-skinned man in his fifties I see around town in pickup trucks festooned with M.A.G.A. and NRA decals, directs our conversation into an increasingly abstract discussion of the plight of working Americans without making any reference to the president or his opponents. Even though he is covering some of the same bullet points that Steve Bannon’s team focused on during the 2016 campaign, he studiously avoids framing them in the terms favoured by Fox News.
The longer he talks, the more apparent it becomes that he has a remarkable gift for rhetoric. Even when he makes claims I’m inclined to regard with suspicion, the soft-spoken reasonableness of his delivery makes me want to go along with his argument. I keep telling myself that I’ll intervene if he crosses any of the limits I’ve established in my mind. But every time he seems to be approaching one, he deftly sidesteps it and heads off in another direction.
I keep expecting him to complain about overregulation. Even otherwise liberal people who work for small businesses tend to bemoan the way that government interferes with their livelihoods. And I know a little bit about the impact that environmental rules have been having in his industry. To my great surprise, though, he acknowledges that global warming is real without any equivocation, then doubles down on that assertion by discussing how it will make much of the planet unlivable.
The hysteria East Coast liberals often exhibit where climate change is concerned doesn’t play well in Arizona. Yes, it’s a little hotter than it used to be, on average. And, yes, that change is exacerbating the longer-term drought that has been affecting the American Southwest for decades. Still, it’s not like brutally hot summers are a new development in these parts. That’s why locals tend to make fun of friends and relatives who hear about our annual June heatwaves and act like they’re a sign of imminent apocalypse. I wouldn’t blame the repairman for joining in. But he goes out of his way to validate their concerns.
Occasionally, he verges on the sort of arguments Noam Chomsky liked to make in the course my daughter took with him this past winter. More often, he drifts towards a more diffuse populism, identifying always with the ordinary people who see little direct benefit from the stock market. But the most striking aspect of his speech, still interspersed with insightful comments about our now-antiquated air conditioner, is his confident invocation of the first-person plural.
“The only places where we can make enough to live well are places where almost no one can afford to live. I read that cities in the Bay Area are having to make it legal again for people to live in mobile homes because that’s the only way a lot of workers can make it. Eventually, that’ll start happening all over the country. But we’ll find a way. We’ll go live on the land and return to farming. They can tell us that it’s unsafe, that we need to buy our food from the big corporations that can afford to get the licenses necessary to sell it legally. But we won’t care. We’ll grow our own food and sell what we can to each other, without worrying about the government. And what we can’t sell, we’ll share, because that’s how we’ll survive.”
People who express a desire for returning to an agrarian lifestyle are often deeply nostalgic. Not this man, though. The farms he has in mind are not suffused with the light of a Golden Age. Rather, he describes them as our best hope to slow down the progress of climate change. He gives the example of someone who had purchased a small orchard at a low price because its trees had stopped bearing sufficient fruit. The new owner and his partner bought chickens and pigs, then gave them room to roam around one small section of the orchard for a year. Sure enough, the addition of rich fertiliser made the trees there start to flower more. By the end of five years, with the animals moving around from section to section each year, the whole orchard would be productive again. And that, he declares, is how we should be dealing with many of our biggest environmental problems: focusing on small changes that can add up to something bigger.
A few weeks ago, I was driving a rental car with satellite radio and tuned into a live concert on the Bruce Springsteen channel at a point when he was telling one of the stories he uses to introduce his songs. He was making a point about down-to-earth people struggling to get by, then transitioned into a celebration of John Ford’s film The Grapes of Wrath. It got me thinking about the complexity of populism. Right now, we are witnessing a disturbing resurgence in the reactionary sort that dominated the headlines during the Depression. Yet, just as there were strong progressive counter-currents back then, the past decade has witnessed a rise in populist movements that regard themselves as an antidote to potential fascism.
From Occupy Wall Street to the grassroots campaigns on behalf of candidates who repudiate the lesser-of-two-evils strategy that the Democratic Party leadership has been cynically deploying for decades, there is ample evidence that populist sentiments can be mobilised against the Right as well as for it. And here in my backyard, I have seemingly come face to face with one of the Left’s most dearly held dreams, the idea that working-class culture can foster the development of organic intellectuals who will arrive at progressive political positions all by themselves. The repairman knew NAFTA was a bad deal from the get-go, but acknowledges the importance of promoting international trade. He is opposed to regulations that lead to inefficiency, but has no desire to privatise the basic functions of government. He isn’t going to give in to the extreme pessimism of many environmentalists, but believes firmly in climate change.
I start to wonder what cues I have unwittingly given to this repairman, convincing him that he can safely make such bold statements without risking a heated exchange. I haven’t said very much. Our house is neither big nor fancy. He hasn’t been inside to see all the books that strangers inevitably used to comment upon. And I’m in a kind of class-concealing camouflage, wearing my usual Dickies work pants with the long-sleeve fisherman’s shirt and hat that I use to avoid getting sunburnt. How could he tell, considering the Republican-dominated suburb in which I live, that I wouldn’t take offence at him voicing ideas that the average Arizona conservative would surely deem “socialist”? It’s enough to make me paranoid, both for his sake and for mine.
That’s when the “Trump moment” comes: when I’m least expecting it. At first, because of the repairman’s circuitous way of speaking, I don’t even recognise it. I think he is finally bringing up the president so that we can band together in a moment of shared contempt. After all, he has just spent the past twenty minutes making it clear how firmly he believes that the wealthy and powerful go out of their way to exploit ordinary Americans. He has even underscored the irony in people voting for politicians who pander to the working classes and then screw them over. Something advises me to refrain from pointing these contradictions out, though, until he arrives at his next point.
“I don’t love Trump the way some people do. My brother spends all day every day listening to those out-there radio programs, with all their conspiracy theories. He’s a retired postal worker up in Mesa. I’m not like that. But I do admire Trump. All the other politicians will say what they think people want to hear. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t need you to like him. He just needs you to submit. Everything is a negotiation and he knows that the only way he’s going to get an advantage – the only way we are going to get an advantage, now that he’s in the White House – is if we stop conceding ground before we even start.”
One of my limits has been crossed. Yet because the conversation up until this point has been so unexpected and enjoyable, I decide to keep saying as little as possible for a while in order to see where this paean to the president’s bargaining skills is going to end up. Although I have some ideas about how to connect the dots between the progressive sentiments I thought I’d been hearing and this seeming declaration of support for reactionary populism, I don’t want to rush to a conclusion.
“It’s like when you’re a kid and you get in trouble,” the repairman continues. “Your mother says ‘Wait till your father gets home!’ and you worry about how bad it’s going to be. Then he comes in, talks to her, and tells you he’s going to get the baseball bat. But ten minutes later, when he returns, he’s carrying a flyswatter instead. That’s how Trump keeps acting in all these negotiations. The North Koreans start to play games, he tells them we’re backing out of the talks. Then they give in and they sit down to work things out.”
I shudder at this invocation of a baseball bat. What kind of monster would even threaten to use that potentially deadly weapon on a child? But I also realise that the repairman may have unintentionally conflated two trains of thought. After all, President Theodore Roosevelt – a hero for many independent-minded conservatives in western states – had famously declared his intention to “speak softly and carry a big stick” when dealing with difficult matters of foreign policy. Maybe the repairman, himself a soft speaker, was thinking of this idea when he described this disturbing family drama.
Although I decide not to push back against the hypothetical scenario, I do think it it is time for me to indicate my dislike for the president. To do otherwise would be disingenuous. Not to mention that for a conversation like this to serve a useful purpose, there are going to have to be points we disagree on. But because I don’t wish to disrupt the ease of our conversation, I try to delineate my political position with humour rather than hostility. “I just think it’s ironic,” I tell him, “that so many people have concluded that they can trust Donald Trump because he doesn’t even try to tell the truth. Politicians who speak like lawyers know that they can’t be caught in an outright lie, so they rely on spin instead. But he just doesn’t seem to care whether there is any evidence to support his claims.”
The repairman laughed. “I do wish he’d stay off Twitter. But you’re right: people like him because he speaks the way they do. Other politicians make them feel inferior, even if they are impressed by them. Trump is on their level.” Another line has been crossed. I can’t hold back. “He’s a billionaire who has never had to hold a ‘real’ job. How can he be on their level? Still, I will admit that he does a good job of pretending to be like his working-class supporters.”
“You know how he learned to talk that way?” The repairman pauses and cranes his neck to look me in the face. Throughout the conversation, I’ve been thinking about what I can do to facilitate the exchange of ideas. But now it suddenly becomes apparent to me that he is working every bit as hard as I am to achieve that end. He recognises that the ideological distance between us has become explicit and is trying to find a way to prevent it from widening. “He learned to talk that way because he spent so much time around the mafia. Those guys aren’t going to bother making nice. They say what they mean and they stand by it.” The repairman has to know that Trump’s detractors make a point of emphasising his unsavoury associations, the fact that his businesses have never seemed entirely legitimate.
Although I’m pretty sure he is making an effort to please me, I can’t help but think of the artists and intellectuals who depicted Mussolini, Hitler, and Franco as de facto mob bosses. To them, it was a damning characterisation. Yet a lot of ordinary people were drawn to precisely the behaviour that critics found so repulsive. Even if Trump will never become a full-fledged fascist leader, he certainly seems to inspire similar insights. But I don’t feel that this is a point I can make without bringing our conversation to an end. So, since there is still work for him to do, I keep my mouth shut.
Now he turns back to the air conditioner, which has passed the preliminary tests he conducted after making a repair. I go inside to switch it back on, then return to find him staring intently at one of the meters he is using. “It’s getting cooler, but the level of refrigerant is low. It could use a topping up.” He proceeds to explain that our unit requires an older kind of refrigerant, R22, otherwise known as freon, that started being phased out in 2010 and will be illegal to manufacture or import after 2020, “because it’s very bad for the ozone layer,” adding that the price of the remaining supply has skyrocketed as a consequence.
“I have some in my truck,” he continues, noting that we will probably have to replace our unit completely in the next few years since it can’t be modified to use the newer kind of refrigerant. I inform him I will gladly pay $100 for something that used to cost $10 and walk around the house with him to fetch the canister. When I explain the huge bill we’ve just had to pay for my ailing father’s care at a rehabilitation facility, he scratches his head, remarking that it’s yet another example of the way in which the American healthcare system is hopelessly broken: “For that much money, you could have just bought a new air conditioner.”
When we get back to the side of the house where the air conditioner is located, he describes the special training he completed in order to be certified to dispense R22, since even the release of a tiny amount into the air can do real damage to the environment. He also explains why air conditioning in cars lags behind other kinds, from an environmental standpoint, since safety concerns make it hard to use some newer refrigerants. And then he informs me that one of the problems with the Paris climate accords that Trump had pulled out of was directly related to his line of work.
“See, they wanted to ban the refrigerant that we started using when they decided that R22 needed to be phased out. We’ve only been using it for a little over a decade, but they say it’s still not good enough. Maybe it isn’t. But the problem is that we don’t have an obvious substitute that’s affordable. Most of those countries in Europe don’t need air conditioning the way we do here, though, so they aren’t going to invest in developing something better. They want us to do that work for them, then spread it to the rest of the world’s hotter places. It’s like that with so many things they make international regulations about. We’re the ones who end up paying the price to implement them, then they get the benefit of our R&D.”
Clearly, the two interlocking strands of our conversation, politics and air conditioning, have converged. “Now you mark my words. Just like Trump made it seem like he was pulling out of the North Korea talks, then ended up going, we’re going to return to the Paris accords. But we’re going to wait until there’s enough pressure to get them rewritten so that they don’t put so much of the burden on us. We’ve been paying for far too much around the world. We can’t afford to keep spending this money on defence and environmental safety and who-knows-what. Something has to change.”
The canister of R22 was empty now and his meters were telling him that our air conditioner was working properly. “It’ll take hours for it to get back down to a reasonable temperature, though. When temperatures are this high, even a few degrees of cooling takes a massive amount of energy. Be patient.” This strikes me as an apt allegory for the state of contemporary politics. I badly want to share this thought with him, to allude to the energy we’ve both expended keeping our own conversation cool. But I can’t figure out a way of expressing my point clearly. Instead, I help him carry his tools back out to the truck and wait while he writes our invoice.
He’s not quite done talking yet. Earlier, he described to me how his Trump-loving brother had been watching Alex Jones and other conspiracy mongers. “I told him to turn that shit off. It does no good for your brain. The other day he called me, practically crying because he was all worked up that Hillary isn’t going to jail. I talked him down. Afterwards, though, I thought I might send him a bill. Therapists make good money.” Maybe this just seemed like an amusing story to him, something to make a stranger laugh. Over an hour into our conversation, though, it also seems like a clever way of acknowledging the work he puts in keeping things from getting overheated.
This supposition is reinforced by the final points he makes as we stand in front of his truck. He is keen to demonstrate that he has never bought into the “birther” theory that Barack Obama isn’t really an American. “The first time I heard him speak during the 2008 campaign, I told everybody I knew: this man is going to be president. When you make people feel better about themselves, while also making them feel that you’re better than they are, that’s a powerful combination.” I want to ask him how that compares with what Donald Trump does. Once again, I hold my tongue. The contrast in leadership styles is important to me. But ending our conversation on a positive note is more important. So I express my admiration for his spot-on characterisation of Obama.
I can tell from the way he is speaking now that he is just as invested as I am in concluding this conversation with the feeling that we’ve done something worthwhile. “I’ve always said that the only way to learn anything useful in this world is to expose yourself to people who aren’t like you. The more time we spend travelling or talking to people who do; the more we talk with folks from other countries; the more we take the time to actually listen, the smarter we’re going to be. Anything you do to prevent that is just going to make matters harder. And we don’t have a lot of time to spare. It’s all going to fall apart real soon unless we start working together.”
These sentiments communicate an attitude that most Americans used to take for granted. Times have changed, though, and it now seems necessary to state what used to be obvious. Even many of the highly educated acquaintances in my social media feed have been arguing that it is no longer possible to seek compromise in the current political environment. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s recent decisions and with the prospect of a more dramatic rightward shift now imminent, they have been advocating that progressives abandon the attempt to collaborate with centrists in the Democratic Party, much less the Republican majority. According to their way of thinking, if the Nancy Pelosis and Chuck Shumers of this world aren’t willing to stand up for bedrock liberal principles, simply because they hope to regain seats in the midterm elections, then it should be incumbent upon the Left to battle them at every turn.
I have no love for mainstream Democrats myself. I was perfectly happy to let the repairman know that I only voted for Hillary Clinton because I was convinced that Donald Trump was even worse. At the same time, I wonder whether the insistence that every interaction be subject to partisan calculation isn’t going to do even more damage in the end. When every situation is reduced to the distinction between friends and enemies that the brilliant but deeply problematic Carl Schmitt described as the essence of politics, then it becomes impossible to have the sort of conversations that sustain society, proceeding from the conviction that, no matter how far apart we may be on the issues, we still have the capacity to come together when it really counts.
The man fixing my air conditioner did not persuade me that Donald Trump was a strong leader who is impervious to the opinions of others. I did not, in turn, persuade him that supporting the President constitutes a betrayal of the working Americans he claims to champion. Even if there were points of agreement between us, we never truly arrived at an understanding about any of the controversial topics we discussed. And yet it matters that we were trying so hard to avoid the conclusion that we have nothing meaningful in common.
But this effort can’t be one-sided. The only way a conversation can come anywhere near the ideal that Habermas has in mind is if everybody involved seeks to bridge the ideological distance between them. That’s much easier said than done. I’m certain, though, that if we consciously look for situations in which that goal can be achieved, the outcome is more likely to be favourable than if we decide in advance that the task is hopeless.
Photograph courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.