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By Bob Rakoff
Nothing could be more American than the politics of grievance. Just think of the Declaration of Independence! A laundry list of grievances against the British king and his minions. Enough grievances to start a war.
More recently we have Donald Trump, who built a presidential campaign and administration on little more than the harnessing of grievances against foreigners, people of color, liberals, coastal elites, women . . . you know the drill. His rhetoric combines the evocation of a lost Golden Age with a commitment to avenge the disrespect he, and his followers, have suffered. Vicious attacks against his enemies are central to his appeal. Trump revived and legitimated the politics of grievance, and our politics will never be the same.
And this election season, the politics of grievance is coloring the discourse among candidates for the Amherst Town Council. Candidates for the Council, especially for the hotly contested at-large seats, are offering two competing narratives of what’s at stake in the election.
On the one hand, the two incumbents are defending their efforts over the past three years and describing in some detail the projects and policies that they hope to continue working on, building for the future. Their language is practical, technical, all about the details of capital budgets, zoning changes, planning processes. This is a typical strategy for incumbents.
Some challengers, on the other hand, speak the language of grievance. They speak of being disrespected, forgotten, dismissed, in large part because of racism. While they state their opposition to the projects and policies of the current Council – especially the library expansion – their focus is less on specific policies than on their lived experience of disrespect and marginalization. This is an important message for all voters to hear.
For some of the challengers, however, this central focus seems to demand and justify harsh language and personal attacks. A strong current of revenge has crept into the challengers’ campaign discourse, amplified by the reliance on social media in this virtual campaign. As with Trump, it’s easy to attack and demean your opponents on Twitter or Facebook since you never have to meet them face-to-face. In this atmosphere, it’s no surprise that someone has been circulating anonymous flyers attacking the incumbents as being “in the pocket of developers” and that old allies have been publicly shunned.
This is a sorry turn in Amherst politics. The powerful language of grievance has become abusive. When personal grudges dominate campaign discourse, we all suffer. It hurts to be attacked personally and publicly. Nobody witnessing such attacks wants to be the next target. The fear of retaliation isolates the target of attacks and intimidates others from responding. And it’s very bad for democratic participation: the more it happens, the less inclined new people are to engage in civic matters at all. “Why don’t more people serve on boards, run for office or just let their voice be heard?” This is a big reason. Why would people risk being subjected to this kind of vicious treatment? I know that I have stayed out of local government for over 25 years now because the culture of nastiness and pettiness makes it not worth the effort.
Look, I know politics can be rough. And I know that there are sharp divisions in town. But local governance depends on collaborating with folks you disagree with, finding compromises when possible, moving on to new issues whether you’ve won or lost. The more we let a politics of vengeance shape our public life, the closer we will get to the day when Trump comes to town.