Four days ago, a good friend of mine posted what I felt was an insightful comment on Facebook about the aftermath of the election that I thought was worth sharing. They gave me permission to share it on twitter, under the condition of anonymity, which I did. As of this writing, that tweet has been retweeted 17,000 times and liked 23,000 times more. Clearly my friend really struck a chord with many people.
The original FB post is as follows:
Now, that 17,000 RTs doesn’t actually tally comments that people made to me. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Unsurprisingly, after so many comments, a number of common notions and misconceptions arose. I also feel like I have a bit more, personally, to elaborate on the ideas given above. So I thought I would write a brief FAQ (frequently asked questions) to answer some of the things that I’ve had said to me, again and again and again.
One preliminary disclaimer: everything that I say here is my statement, and my own interpretations of my friend’s words. My friend spoke for themselves in the post above, and they will no doubt share more thoughts if they so desire.
With that out of the way… the questions, as summarized by me.
We shouldn’t understand our political opponents? You’re so anti-intellectual! This seems like the most common misunderstanding among people, most of whom seem to not get that there are several senses of the word “understand.” When I am sympathizing with a friend, and trying to offer them emotional support, I might tell them “I understand.” It’s an empathetic response. When as a scientist I figure out how a physical phenomenon works, I say “I understand” in an intellectual sense.
I thought it was pretty clear that my friend was talking about the emotional sense; hence the use of the word “compassion.” Empathy takes energy and effort and, as I said in another tweet, you should take care that it isn’t weaponized against you.
Also: it’s pretty clear that the above strategy wasn’t intended to refer to everyone who supports Trump. Phrases like “core right wing” and “hard right wing” and “people who want what Trump want” suggests we’re talking about the fanatics. They are the ones who are appearing on television, telling us that it’s time to come together, that we need to understand the aggrieved Republican base. But they’re not really talking about what Trump voters want; they’re talking about themselves. They pretend to represent all of America, even though they are really trying to advance their own interests. They want you to be conflicted about this, so you don’t question it.
By all means, go ahead and try and understand the Trump coalition, to sway some of them for future elections. But keep in mind one thing, the fundamental point of the post above, IMHO: the election is over. The next major election is in two years. In the meantime, vulnerable people are going to be hurt in a Trump administration. Look out for them. Help them. Fight those who would hurt them.
You’re an idiot. If you don’t try and understand your opponents, you’re going to lose elections. This is, of course, related to the above. As I’ve said, go wild in trying to understand how to get back some of the people who voted Obama in 2012 who voted Trump this time.
However, it is a little oversimplistic, and possibly harmful, to assume that this is the most important thing to do. Somewhere around 50% of registered voters didn’t vote in this election. That is twice as many people as voted for either Trump or Clinton. Perhaps reaching out to these people should be our biggest priority? Also: Clinton won the popular vote in the country, and the GOP lost ground in both the House and Senate. At best, this election might be regarded as a “meh” result from the electorate: a coin-toss decision that happened to flip Trump’s way.
This is still a problem, but the media and the GOP are basically grading Trump on a curve here. He does not lead a “revolution,” he does not have a “mandate.” There’s lots of work for the Democrats to do to improve their appeal, but things aren’t as dire as alleged. We shouldn’t throw away our values in order to win over people who are vehemently opposed to those values.
I’m reminded of CNN’s attempt over the last decade to turn itself into FOX News-lite, which hasn’t helped its ratings at all. The problem is: why would people go for the lite version of FOX, when they have access to the full thing? Similarly, trying to peel off Trump voters may simply not work, if the things they are excited about (racismcoughracism) aren’t things that the Democrats can provide. Also reminded of a story about composer George Gershwin, who went to the famed Maurice Ravel for training. Ravel told him, “Why become a second-rate Ravel when you’re already a first-rate Gershwin?”
Empathy is not a zero sum game — I can be empathetic to both Trump supporters and vulnerable people! Actually, sometimes empathy is a zero sum game. When you’re trying to empathize with multiple independent suffering groups, you can have empathy for all of them. But when one group is actively hurting another group, any empathy you show for the oppressors is a clear sign to the oppressed that you don’t care about them.
There is a recent perfect example of this. Several weeks back, when an office of the North Carolina GOP was firebombed, a group of Democrats started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money, and raised $13k in 40 minutes. Seems nice at first glance, right, very sporting? That is, until you realize that the NC GOP passed HB2, the hateful anti-trans bill, and has engaged in overtly racist voter suppression tactics. Minorities and LGBT people fairly felt like they had been screwed over — that money could have gone to trans suicide hotlines, to voter registration drives, to so many other things. This isn’t a game to them.
Unless Democrats were actually advocating for violence, or actually committed the crimes themselves, they should have felt no obligation to help people who are trying to hurt them. But they helped anyway, and made groups of allies feel like they were thrown under the bus. And the NC GOP doesn’t really give a shit that the Democrats donated to their office. This goes back to my friend’s original point.
It’s because you called Trump supporters racists that you lost the election! Of course, this one comes from Trump supporters. Two answers here. First, this seems like a bit of a false narrative: I don’t recall spending a lot of time saying that all Trump supporters are racists; I recall spending a lot of time saying that a lot of actual proud racists support Trump. Of course, there are comments like Clinton’s “deplorables” statement, which didn’t help, but was of the same vein: there are horrible fucking people that love Trump’s racism. So I don’t think that there were that many people saying everyone who likes Trump is a racist. I am, however, saying that more often now. Because many of those racists have screamed at me on twitter after the election.
Second: assuming the argument in question is true, these voters must have the emotional capabilities of a toddler. No stable human being would and should ever say, “You called me a name so I’m going to elect a fascist for president to spite you.” This returns us to the point above about winning elections: maybe such people aren’t the sort of voters we want to rely upon. But I really, really doubt that there were many people swayed by “you is a racist!” arguments. This is an argument that the racists make in order to trick Democrats into not talking about racism.
If we adopt their tactics we become as bad as them, so you’re a bad person. This is, in my opinion, the sort of feel-good horseshit that actually does cause us to lose elections. First of all, nothing in the original post says that we should adopt the burn-it-to-the-ground tactics of the GOP; the post simply points out that they do not play nice.
However, the Democrats need to learn to fight harder and adopt some harsher political tactics, especially in the face of the incredible harm that the GOP is planning to do to Americans. You see, morality is not determined by tactics alone, but by outcomes. A police officer who shoots a man on a shooting spree in a shopping mall is clearly trying to save lives, while the person performing the shooting spree is not. They’re both shooting people — same tactics — but clearly only one is on the side of good.
In a perfect world, our democracy would be a bunch of politicians working together in good faith for the benefit of all Americans. But the GOP wants to hurt blacks, Latinos, Muslims, women, LGBT folks, people with disabilities — and it will be truly immoral if we don’t do everything we can politically to stop them. Filibuster, delay, obstruct, call out their injustice, dishonesty and racism. That is a cause that we should be fighting for.
Comments closed on this post because I’m sick of people’s bullshit.