My original intent for the inaugural post here was to write a short taxonomy of the Trump victory. The goal was to outline the various ways in which we could interpret Trump’s election (e.g., demographically, socioeconomically, ideologically, etc.)
Then two things happened: first, I realized I’m simply not very good at concocting posts from scratch. I really enjoy responding to other media out there. I’ve decided this will be my usual modus operandi from this point onwards. Second, I listened to a ton of podcasts today (I will be linking to them at the bottom.) They all included the expected post-election autopsy but, more surprisingly, virtually all of them agreed that American society and the political establishment had to do a better job of listening.
Perhaps it’s not that surprising to most people but this is a practice I think is woefully lacking in all sorts of dialogue, especially in politics. While that’s not a unique feeling, the reason why I have a weirdly heightened awareness of it is because I moderate a subreddit called /r/changemyview. I decided early on that I didn’t want to use this blog as a big plug for that project; however, given the landscape of conversation following so quickly on the heels of Election 2016, I’ve decided to allow room for some exploration of its purpose.
The bedrock principle of Change My View is to keep an open mind. You can only post your view if you genuinely want it challenged. People aren’t allowed to accuse original posters of bad faith. No one is allowed to be rude or hostile to other users. Posters are required to challenge the view; they cannot enter a thread simply to reinforce the original poster’s perspective. Consequently, the format changes from something that is adversarial to something that is conversational.
I started posting there while studying for the bar as a way to practice writing for a non-legal audience. It was very easy for me to explain something to an attorney where I could assume some basic knowledge about the law, and even within that context, such assumptions are a no-no. Knowing I had to improve on it, Change My View seemed like the sort of environment that was moderated tightly enough that I could engage with people who would consider what I said instead of waiting for their chance to speak.
I learned several lessons that I believe are applicable to this election:
A big takeaway from this election was that a class of voters – working class white people – felt ignored by the political establishment. I won’t say “disenfranchised” because I didn’t get a sense of political powerlessness so much as economic ambivalence and anxiety. On the contrary, I think most of this demographic had a lot of faith in the democratic process, hence why their turnout seemed both purposeful and enthusiastic.
It’s tempting to look back on this whirlwind of social advancement and view these people as lashing out specifically against that change, i.e., that they actively dislike or at least do not care much about the condition of typically marginalized groups. I think this is a factor which I will get to in a moment. What I want to highlight here is the biggest bruise, right now, appears to be that in this moment of change, seemingly no one bothered to acknowledge their place in this burgeoning new society, or how it impacted their relationship with others. We – and by “we” I mostly mean liberal folks who tend to occupy urban and/or coastal areas – were quick to ignore and dismiss this presence as wholly malicious.
The above does not absolve this demographic of their complicity in electing a candidate who explicitly normalized a brutal conversation about people of color, people with disabilities, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and so forth. The majority of people who voted for Trump made a value judgment that said “My economic anxiety is more important than your status and, in many cases, physical well-being.”
I don’t think the Clinton campaign did a good job of humanizing the effect this language would have on real, live people the way Donald Trump did a very good job of humanizing the economic trade-offs of a global economy. The net result is that now groups who are malicious and do genuinely believe in tenets of white nationalism feel like they have permission to come above ground and mainstream these ideas. This is something to which Trump voters should be held to account even if we attempt to understand what motivated them to support Trump in the first place.
If Democrats and, more broadly, liberals, want to engage with this demographic in the future, they’re going to have to do a better job of acknowledging they exist and that their fears feel real even if, going by the numbers, most Americans are better off (and most Trump supporters are well off.) This is basically a necessity if the Democrats have a future in the electoral map. Coastal urban “elites” are all concentrated in states that will not win them elections in the future.
The second lesson I learned was that it’s incredibly important to expose yourself to people from different walks of life. I think it is way, way too simple to say you need only expose yourself to people with different points of view. That helps, but it’s doesn’t balance the equation. I’d encourage everyone to read this series of tweets from Patrick Thornton.
I’m from the rural midwest. All of this talk about coastal elites needing to understand more of America has it backwards.
Absolutely. Exposure is a two way street. Much like my previous point, interacting with real, live human beings takes us away from the abstract and academic conversations we have to contemplating the more intimate ramifications our preferred policies can have on other people.
Similarly, and I think more importantly, people provide hidden and unforeseen insight into the same premise. This is a lesson I learned on the internet, generally, and not just Change My View. Not only have many of my friends come from the other side of the political aisle (Side? Kitty corner? Third dimension?), but I’ve lost track of how many times I thought “I never thought of it that way,” and the basis for the insight wasn’t a paragraph I missed in a textbook, but rather a series of experiences they had — experiences I would never have as a black man (because I’m not black and I’m not a man) or a Muslim (because I was raised Catholic) or a veteran (because I’ve never served) or someone in poverty (because I’ve never had to worry about helping my parents feed my siblings.)
Likewise, if we’re going to further troubleshoot this election, we need to consider why so many shifts in the past four years seemed more like elite machinations to those in the Rustbelt. It’s a lot harder to envision the disproportionate impact on and practical realities of x-demographics when they simply don’t occupy your town. These people aren’t stupid, dumb or shallow. I’ve lived and worked in parts of rural upstate NY. You just don’t (usually) get the same daily interactions with people that contextualize their demands for reform. It’s, in my experience, homogenized.
I don’t mean this condescendingly. I mean it to call them to account; I don’t want this post-mortem of the election to absolve people in small towns from the obligation to understand the rest of their country any more than I think America needs to do a better job of acknowledging their very real fears.
There’s a lot more to unpack here, and I don’t want this post to get too long or rambling. I can see myself revisiting this more in the future when I’ve had more time to grapple with the various strains of thought making their way through my head. I simply felt like it was a worthwhile jumping off point because I have spent so much of the past few years trying to understand what galvanizes people to have civil conversations and keep an open-mind, as well as develop processes that facilitate that (usually in the form of rules one must follow when posting in the subreddit.)
Suffice to say, the fact that I have heard this in just about every podcast autopsy thus far means that I believe this point of view has a place in figuring out what happens next. We have to consider that facts are just one part of changing someone’s view. Going out of your way to really figure out what’s motivating another’s conclusion gives you the ability to couch those facts in a narrative that acknowledges their aspirations, fears, or whatever. Being an encyclopedic knowledge of policy might make you technically correct but that won’t matter if you can’t demonstrate why that might be meaningful to your audience.
Referenced podcasts. Bolded are the ones I lean on and recommend the most.
- “How Trump Broke Campaign Norms But Still Won” by NPR’s Fresh Air
- “President Trump 11/9/16” by FiveThirtyEight Elections
- “The ‘Even Longer National Nightmare’ Edition” by Slate’s Political Gabfest
- “The Morning After” by Slate’s Trumpcast
- “Now What?” by On the Media
- “Denial. Anger. Now Acceptance” by The Run-Up
- “Donald Trump Elected President” by NPR Politics Podcast
- “A Muslim and A Mexican Walk Into A Bar” by NPR’s Code Switch
- “Trumpocalypse” by Vox’s The Weeds