2020 Election Insights: A Lot of Gray and Purple

The 2020 election showed us how morally complicated Americans are.

Posted Nov 22, 2020

Purple States of America/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License
Source: Purple States of America/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

For many of us, the 2020 American elections felt like an emotional roller coaster. In the days following Nov. 3, I had several in-depth conversations with my students in an effort to support and help them process this event. A few Republican students voiced their concern that my classroom environment did not feel welcoming and inclusive for them, and that as a professor I was not doing a good job of facilitating meaningful learning experiences. In response, I gave a version of this statement to my Introductory Psychology class on Nov. 12.

Some Republican students contacted me after last week’s discussion about the election. The gist is that they feel ostracized, marginalized, devalued, and rejected by their liberal peers. They feel that a conservative or Republican viewpoint is unwelcome in our class. I take these concerns seriously, and I reflected on them for a few days. I am strongly committed to viewpoint diversity. I am a member of Heterodox Academy, which is dedicated to promoting critical thinking, constructive disagreement, and diversity of thought in academic spaces. I want to remind everyone that as long as you are in my classroom, I want you to feel included and accepted.

My hypothesis for why Republican students feel alienated is because their viewpoints are in the minority. We are a classroom within a university that is dominated by left-of-center politics in the student body, and that can make it uncomfortable for anyone to express a viewpoint if they just feel outnumbered.

Even though I want all my students to feel included, perhaps in some ways there’s a silver lining to having this experience, because it may in fact promote greater understanding about how other minority groups have been feeling for a very long time. I’m talking about students of color, religious minorities, sexual and gender minorities, people with disabilities, and women. They too have felt invisible, unwelcome, marginalized, threatened, and rejected both in the classroom and the wider world. And we desperately need to change that. So, if you’re a student who voted for President Trump, and you’re feeling like you don’t belong, then I think you need to sit with that idea for a little bit. Because this is exactly how many of your peers have been feeling, and a lot of that feeling has been driven by some of the things that President Trump has said and done over the years.

Given this painful dynamic, it makes Trump’s recent actions even more agonizing for many. I think that reasonable people can have constructive disagreements about things like tax policy, healthcare policy, foreign policy, and so on. But what we’re seeing President Trump doing right now goes way beyond normal political disagreements. Trump lost the election, but he is refusing to concede or to facilitate the peaceful transition of power. In addition, he is lying to the public about voter fraud in the election. 

Now, if you were a Biden supporter in this election, you might be feeling a mixture of emotions, including joy, as we saw celebrations in major cities over the weekend, and unease, as we see President Trump refusing to cooperate with the democratic process. But there’s another reality that we need to contend with in the aftermath of the election, which is that President Trump did better, in terms of his share of minority votes, than he did in 2016

There has been a narrative in liberal news media and cultural commentary that has dominated political conversations, which is that President Trump rose to power by riding a wave of white nationalism. Much of this has been informed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies, but it has extended to voters as well. Some claim that a large group of Trump supporters pretended to have legitimate economic concerns but were actually driven by racial resentment.

But the available data from voting patterns and political attitudes suggest something much more complicated, because some of the very people who are ostensibly targets and victims of Trump’s bigotry were in fact gravitating toward him more than in the previous election. According to election day exit polls, approximately one-third of Hispanic voters went for Trump, as did approximately one-third of Muslim voters, nearly 20 percent of African American men, and approximately 25 percent of the non-White vote combined. Trump also doubled his support among LGBTQ+ folks, getting 28% of their votes. This should give us pause. I think we need to sit with this information for a while and reflect.

Even if you are skeptical about the quality of exit poll data, the county-level vote data tell the same story, and this is clearly part of a larger historical trend going back to at least the 2004 election. Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Muslim voters have all been increasingly likely to vote Republican over the past 10-15 years. How is this possible, if we accept the premise that Trump’s success is due to prejudice against those groups?

Insights may come by looking at the issues that most Americans traditionally care about when voting, including the strength of our economy (and the effects of COVID lockdowns that Trump has opposed), the Supreme Court, and foreign policy, to name a few. Those were among the issues weighing on voters’ minds in 2020. But this is in contrast to the beliefs that many liberals have about the average Trump supporter. If you ask them, Trump voters are primarily (if not solely) motivated by various forms of bigotry. In light of this, I’ve asked liberal colleagues and friends to explain why so many people in minority groups voted for Trump, and their answers were startling. Many talked about these folks as “brainwashed,” “indoctrinated,” or “uneducated.”

I'm very concerned about dismissing the viewpoints of marginalized people who disagree with us. I don't think they're brainwashed, stupid, or distracted. I think they're voting their conscience.

Not to mention all of the white voters who had previously cast votes for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. I find it hard to believe that a white person who voted for Obama twice, and then voted for Trump, was motivated by racial prejudice.

If there’s one takeaway from this election, it’s that people are complicated. Politics is not black-and-white. There are a lot of moral gray areas. And American states aren’t blue or red. They’re purple.

I heard John Oliver say that more than 70 million people who voted for Trump were voting for “everything that he has ever said and stands for.” But do we apply that same logic to ourselves? We would never say that folks who voted for Biden or Hillary Clinton agreed with everything they ever said or did. Did I vote for those Democratic candidates because I like the fact that they supported the Iraq War? Or mandatory minimum sentencing? Or the Defense of Marriage Act? No! Millions voted for those candidates while holding their noses, and acknowledging that their preferred candidate is at least somewhat morally blemished. We also know that Trump voters are doing this too. In 2016, even though Donald Trump won the election, he was the most unfavorable Presidential candidate in polling history, and in nationally representative polling, 50% of Republicans agreed with the statement, “Donald Trump is a flawed person.”  

I am disheartened when I hear people say that they’ve cut friends or family out of their lives just because of the singular fact that they voted for Donald Trump. It’s not, “I stopped talking to my friend because they’re racist.” It’s, “I stopped talking to my friend because they voted for Trump.”

My question is this: How are we ever going to come together to have a functioning society if you refuse to even be in the same room or share the same space with other people for no other reason than that they voted for a different political candidate? I’m very concerned for the future of our democracy. It won’t work if all we’re concerned about is whether our team won a political victory. It won’t work if your goal in all of this struggle is just to dunk on Republicans.

If you believe that the average Trump supporter is an irredeemable bigot, then you are probably too online. And I know that we’re all probably a bit too online now because of COVID, but this was a problem even before this year. If you are, as I am, deeply concerned about bigotry becoming more normalized, the last thing we should be doing is creating more social distance between us and other Americans. Doing that will only make the problem worse!

Perhaps our most important lesson is that we have to do a better job at understanding the needs and concerns of average American voters, especially Black and Brown voters, or any voters in marginalized or underserved communities. Matt Yglesias, a liberal Hispanic writer, just wrote an article for Vox entitled “Trump’s gains with Hispanic voters should prompt some progressive rethinking.” This sentiment is echoed by academics like Musa al-Gharbi as well. We need to do better, especially those who are trying to be good allies. We’ve got a lot of work to do and a long road ahead of us. Let’s start it in our classroom and on our campus.