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Disagreeing About Politics

How not to hate people who disagree with you.

I am often struck by the degree to which people who disagree about politics can attack and marginalize people who don’t share their opinions. It’s almost as if we demand complete validation, complete agreement in order to have a discussion.

Let me give you an example of two short conversations I had a number of years ago. I told one man that I believed that we should have a ban on assault weapons—a position that an overwhelming majority of Americans agreed with. He said, “Bob, are you a communist? You want to take private property from people?” A few weeks later I was discussing health care (this was 12 years ago—before Obama). I said that I didn’t think that a national socialized medical plan was the right way to go, but that I preferred a combination of private and public health care (what we have under Obama-care). He said, “I can’t believe you, Bob. You sound like a fascist. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

So, in the course of a few weeks I had covered the entire political spectrum—from communist to fascist.

Let me once again disclose that I had been against Trump from the moment he announced his candidacy. So, I share the sadness and anger about this election. But I also want to learn from it and be able to maintain friendships and family relationships. This has become more difficult in the age of polarization.

Who Are These Trump People?

Now, as I listen to people after the election, I hear people describing the 59 million people who voted for Trump in the most extreme terms. These people say that the Trump voters are bigoted, ignorant, uneducated, vicious, racist, sexist, homophobic, fascists or Nazis. People say that ,“I won’t be able to talk to anyone who voted for him”. People burn flags, hang Trump in effigy, and threaten to leave the country and move to Canada or Iceland. People say, “We live in a racist country”, as if 325 million people are racist.

I feel as disappointed as most of these people who are understandably upset with the results. In a sense their anger and sadness comes from a good place—they care about social justice, decency and the future of this country. If they were indifferent or had only cynical values, they would have no feelings about this. That makes sense and those feelings could be used constructively to pursue social justice, to help educate people who may not see things your way, to work to protect the environment. Certainly, Trump does not seem to be that kind of leader, but that doesn’t mean that your options are closed.

But what I want to talk about is our tendency to characterize people who disagree with us as awful, inferior, flawed, stupid, racist, and sexist. Does this make sense?

I agree that there is a lot of work that we need to do to address bigotry of all kinds. But there is no question that America has made considerable progress in the last 50 years in all areas. We now have gay rights guaranteed by the Supreme Court, African Americans see that the President is the same color as they are, and women have more rights now than ever before. Yes, we have more to do and we should pursue those values, but we are not living in the dark ages of the past. I often wonder what it means to say, “This is a racist country”, as if 325 million people are racist. It just doesn’t make sense. Yes, there may be institutional and individual racist attitudes that some people have, but it makes more sense to differentiate the vast range of opinions and values that people in this country hold.

The Trump voter is not some mentally limited character out of Deliverance with a Confederate Flag and a picture of Adolf Hitler. Yes, there may be a few KKK people who endorsed Trump, but this simplistic view of people who disagree with us is entirely irrational. There are many different reasons people voted for Trump. Let’s take a look.

  • The Forgotten American

The forgotten American includes the millions of people who believe that their interests have been overlooked by both parties. This is why Bernie Sanders was popular—people believed that he represented their concerns. And much of that was economic. The forgotten American believed that the elites that control the government and the media have overlooked them.

It is common for people on the East Coast and West Coast to think about “middle America” as “fly-over America.” Simplistic stereotypes of people who are not in our political and geographic camp add to the biased and contemptuous perspective that many people have of those who voted the other way. And people who feel forgotten also feel that they are the objects of contempt. Trump represented a chance to strike back—and be heard. We should listen. Many of those voters would have voted for Sanders.

  • The Ventilation and Validation Candidate

Trump was the ventilation and validation candidate for a vast number of people. People who were interviewed said, “He says what I am thinking”. When there is anger and frustration and people feel overlooked, they are drawn to this kind of message. I personally found a lot of what he said to be revolting, but I can understand that many people felt that they had not been heard.

  • The Candidate of Change

Trump represented change for millions of voters—maybe not the kind of change that I would want, but that was the major issue for people. Change. And Clinton represented stability and continuity—something that was the opposite of Obama’s campaign message in 2008. Stability doesn’t generate much emotion, but change—especially change linked with anger—motivates people.

  • Party Loyalty

Some people voted for Trump because they are Republicans—which is always the case for both parties in any election. You can count on 80 percent to 95 percent of registered voters to go along with their party's candidate.

  • Fear of Immigration

Some people feared immigration—with Trump playing up the issue of crime, drugs, and lost jobs. Although many of these concerns are over-dramatized, that was a concern that appealed to people. Those of us who may be viewed as enjoying some privilege may have difficulty understanding how an economically marginalized person views immigrants taking jobs that they could have had. We seldom put ourselves in the shoes of these people. This was one of the appeals of Brexit that the people in the media and government overlooked.

  • Second-Rate Power

Some people believed that America had become a second-rate power and that we were being pushed around and humiliated, both in trade-deals and in military prowess. That’s not my view, but that was a major issue for many people. Boasting, shouting, being tough appealed to the darker side of patriotic zeal—but it was a real concern for many people who felt like we were losing our edge.

  • Problems With Obama-Care

Some people were dissatisfied with how Obamacare worked out—that they were not able to keep their doctor and that their premiums were going to rise another 22 percent in the coming year—with some states expecting rises of over 100 percent. They were angry about that. And many people believed that they had been sold a bad deal. This made a lot of middle-Americans angry—and anxious about their future ability to pay healthcare bills.

Some people distrusted Hillary Clinton because of her use of a private email server, her exorbitant speaker fees from questionable elites, and the porous nature of contributions and favors with the Clinton Foundation and Secretary of State. So those voters were voting on distrust. She never was able to lift the veil on this issue, even though she was cleared by the FBI.

What’s Wrong With Those People Who Don’t Think Like I Do?

I know that it is easy for people to label people who disagree with them as idiots, racists, sexists, bigots, homophobic and terrible people. Maybe some of those people have those qualities. But I think that if those of us who voted for Clinton look at the other half of the American people and label them then we will never be able to convince anyone of the value of what we believe in. No one says, “I think you have a point. I am an idiot and a racist. Thank you for pointing this out.”

Trying to make people feel guilty or ashamed for their political beliefs will only lead to further alienation. Labeling other people so that we can feel morally self-righteous will undermine the credibility of your message. If you are only able to talk with people who completely agree with you, then you will become marginalized and uninformed and you will lose all the elections in the future.

Rather than hating people who voted the other way, we can try to understand the many reasons that people have for disagreeing with us. We are not the superior group with God on our side. We are not the better person. We pursued our beliefs and other people pursued theirs. And there were many different reasons people voted for Trump.

I agree with Hillary Clinton and President Obama. We must learn to work together and live together. Burning images in effigy and castigating people who disagree with us only leads to further marginalization.

If we are to reach the forgotten Americans we must listen to them.

More from Robert L. Leahy Ph.D.
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