Date Tags Politics

Echoing Robert Stavins, I have only a narrow area of expertise,1 and it does not include political science. I know that some of the following turns on empirical questions that can be answered with data and rigorous analysis, and that there are researchers trying to do just this. I should, and will, acquaint myself with the knowledge they have produced; but that will be a gradual project.

In the meantime, I and others need to make decisions about how to get by in a world that seems, suddenly, different from the one some thought we lived in. We each make our hasty guesses and generalizations about what exists, and why; how things could change, and what our role might be in that change. Many people have less time, training, and resources than I do to access the academic literature and update our assumptions—but still the sense of agency, however limited, resulting from these thoughts is important to our well-being.

Two busy days on social media

It's been a comfort this week to have thoughtful and nuanced conversations with my colleagues, and to see people, even Canadians back home, process their emotions openly, yet with maturity and respect. I won't link to every example, but there have been many.

I want to try to tie together four things I've seen that appear to be in tension:

  1. Mirroring the aftermath of the Brexit referendum—there has been an uptick in reports of hate crimes in the past couple of days, targeting all the unfortunate groups one would expect.
  2. I have heard pained stories from friends and colleagues who grew up outside of the Northeast, and have rural, white family members and childhood friends who voted for Donald Trump. Their lives, as described, are worse than those of anyone I've known closely.2 My friends—with more cause for disappointment and anger than most—swear that their relatives would not commit hate crimes; I believe them.
  3. Many people have shared articles like this one explaining how “economic anxiety” or disenfranchisment of rural, white Americans led them to not vote, or vote for Trump. Almost every time, someone offers the rebuttal, citing exit polls, that voters in the lowest income brackets went for Clinton, and higher earners for Trump.
  4. Finally, I've seen both calls for empathy and understanding (I made one myself), and on the other hand statements that there is no empathizing with anyone who is filled with hatred, and that we should not reward displays of hate (i.e., a Trump vote) with attention.

Morally satisfying vs. effective responses

We know that identity politics was successful in this election. We also know that social media, designed to show us as many ads as possible, encourages us to construct filter bubbles around ourselves, within which we interact only with the like-minded.3 This long, thorough reflection explains how we find it easier to experience a rich and vivid dislike for an outgroup that's close enough for us to recognize.

So would not be easy to even meet Trump voters, for those who would choose to do so, much less come to empathize with them. In my post yesterday, I didn't mean to suggest this would be easy. Nor—I can't stress this enough—do I mean to say that anyone should be subject to hate or misogyny. Every human should be safe from these things. And we each must choose how much effort we devote to keeping people safe, versus reaching for members of outgroups.

I will borrow an idea from ecomodernists who, convincingly, point out that a strong stance against nuclear power is a self-imposed handicap in the fight against climate change—an uninformed and unnecessary one.

In the current context, I think to write off people as prima facie irredeemable xenopobhes, racists, misogynists, Islamophobes, anti-Semites, etc., necessarily handicaps the response to Trumpism. Without doubt, the worst examples of each of these joined the Trump camp, were emboldened by him, and are among his noisiest supporters, especially online.

“Shy” Trump voters were not stopped by these displays. It is, obviously, satisfying or comforting to many to condemn their vote by saying it endorses those deplorable views. I can't disagree that it does; but people vote for a mix of many reasons, so I also cannot agree that it should be viewed only as such an endorsement.

More importantly, will it be possible to build a society that protects everyone whom progressives care about, without turning some of these shy voters away from Trump and his ilk? To this, I can't help but answer, no.

Per #4 above, I know that it seems wildly unjust and dissatisfying to some people to reward a Trump vote with compassion; but I think the distinction should be made between a response which provides us with a comforting feeling of righteousness in the short term, and one which stands a chance of doing durable good for more people in the long term.

Trust and leadership

How would that work? My leadership education emphasized the importance trust between a leader and those led. The metaphor of a bank account was often used: certain actions by the leader build up trust; and it is drawn down when one asks others to follow.

Little to no trust exists between strangers; indeed, one could argue, members of an outgroup start with a negative 'balance' in their account. For people to entertain different or new political ideas requires effort and cognitive dissonance. It is an ask; it requires trust.4 Asking people to stand and endure condemnation, even if it is just and deserved condemnation, also requires a balance in the account.

Anyone who might want to lead some small fraction of Tuesday's 59 million—so that they might stop voting for Trump, and become allies of progress—needs to build trust. I don't think that would be easy; it would require a lot of patient listening to words that might sometimes echo the worst propaganda of Fox News or Breitbart. One would need to hear these things in silence, listening for the person underneath the canned lines. If the hearer felt compelled by conscience to interrupt, for instance to object to a direct call for violence against minorities, then she or he must; but this necessarily would slow the accumulation of trust.

This is not work for politicians, I think. That kind of trust can't be developed by speaking to people, or in groups of more than two or three, or even by listening for an hour or a day (though that's a start). It would require people to go, sit with, and come to closely know other individuals who have just voted for policies that will hurt the people they care most about.

If done on a large enough scale, I believe it would work. At the same time, I won't be surprised if few want to do it.

  1. Certainly, narrower than Stavins'! 

  2. I am not saying that there are not others—gays, people of colour, the undocumented, etc.—who have it worse. 

  3. Think of the people you interact with on social media with whom you have substantive disagreements. They are likely to be people you know from "meatspace." (Disagreement with anonymous trolls is rarely substantive.) Anyone you've befriended online is apt to be like-minded. 

  4. The converse explains why filter bubbles are durable: an emphatic statement of something you already believe is a tasty morsel that goes down easy. It requires little effort to consume—you can do it over and over again. 


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