Lessons from the American Election for non-Americans (and Americans too)

The results of the recent American election were largely unexpected, shocking many of us. The natural reaction to this shock has ranged from fear to anger to frustration to blame in many people. I want to constructively address this shock by focussing on what we can learn from the results of the election as well as what effective actions can be taken to counter the spread of similar movements.

A Note on Redefining Racism

Many of the immediate reactions to the results were knee-jerk demonizations of Trump supporters. Many called Trump voters racist, and cited that as a reason to treat them as less than human. And, while I can empathize with the frustration, I doubt the efficacy of those actions.

A lot of my doubt stems from the flexibility of the word ‘racist’: a word that is used in a range of different ways by many different people. At any given moment it can take any of a half dozen meanings (e.g. one can justifiably be called a racist for both supporting and fighting affirmative action). As with many amorphous terms, ‘racist’ seems to have evolved into more a political weapon than a tool for progress—an evolution I want to fight. Isolating the meanings with the biggest implications, I can come up with two definitions for racist: one that focuses on the victim, and another that focuses on the perpetrator.

Regarding victims, I think something is racist if it overtly or covertly impedes members of a particular racial group* (call this type 1). This is similar to what I suspect most people in academia use (perhaps they use ‘oppression’ instead). Modern examples of this include stereotypes, voter suppression, and discrimination. This definition is useful for when considering the harm of a racist act and how to organize against it, while it also provides a valuable framework for understanding our biases and the social context of a particular group. There are lots of ways to go with this definition (e.g. subcategories like self-fulfilling bigotry, as well as arguments for shifting burden from a more impeded group to a privileged group), but I’ll forego that for now because this is definition is irrelevant when trying to understand the perpetrator.

To help understand the perpetrator—and this is crucial to combatting the problem—I would say someone is (type 2) racist if they fundamentally value one race’s happiness less than another’s. (Note that this doesn’t say anything about the evilness of their actions, just their motivation.) This is useful because it let’s us know how salvageable someone is. If someone perpetrates type 1 racists acts, but doesn’t fundamentally believe that one race is less deserving, then their actions are likely based off perceptions that people of that race are somehow violating their other values (say threatening their country, or ruining the economy). If this is the case, calling them racist is shutting down genuine concerns. On the other hand, if you can empathetically present relevant information, you have a chance to change their minds. However, if someone is type 2 racist, the only line of attack with the slightest hope is to humanize individuals of that race.

How many Americans fall into the second camp of racists is a difficult question that I’d like to see research into, as I’ve heard anecdotes both for and against. I personally believe that most Americans fall outside of type 2 racists. Indeed, while the alt-right may support many policies with type 1 racist effects (and it’s worth noting the alt-right is a truly miniscule movement in american politics), it seems like even its members tell themselves that no race is more deserving than another—however, it’s a valid question whether their principle that “some degree of separation between peoples is necessary for a culture to be preserved” is an actual belief of theirs or a post-hoc rationalization.

The Problem

Forgetting Trump’s unusual candidacy, there were two things about this election that struck me as strange:

  1. how difficult it was to see Trump winning in everything from polls to media reaction
  2. how Trump won with such tepid support from the conservative elite (with many conservative politicians and journalists supporting Clinton or supporting Trump with great reluctance)

A lot has been written about what these two points say about our evolving cultural and political landscape, but I want to take a look at what these tell us about the environment that we live in and what we can do to prevent the rise of Trump-like figures elsewhere.

Lack of Poll Support

There are a couple reasons why the polls might’ve been wrong: either the tried and tested mechanics behind polling failed, or eventual Trump voters were reluctant to share their position. Given many polls had a Trump win at around 10% odds or less , I suspect it’s a lot of both. Regardless of whether you think people should feel comfortable voting for Trump, that they seek to hide it is problematic for two reasons. Firstly, it lets the support for Trump to grow beyond our awareness, leaving us unlikely to seriously address it. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it creates the false impression of unity that leads to the exclusion of values held by a significant portion of the country from of mainstream discussion. Not only does this drive people to alternative and less reputable news sources (reinforcing the divide), this is also damaging because issues that aren’t discussed will attract more misinformed and less refined views.

Lack of Elite Support

Now Trump’s victory despite lack of support from elites could mean either of two things (if we ignore the possibility of blind rejection of elite opinions).

  • The values of conservative elites are not representative of the values of contemporary conservative voters
  • Conservative elites have more nuanced views than the average conservative voter (possibly due to more political discussion, or being better informed)

The first case is troubling, because it means that an entire demographic of values has been locked out of elite status. This would contribute to the problem of a lack of focus on issues that matter to a large segment of voters. The second case would be indicative of a communication gap between the elite and their constituents and/or a lack of earnest political discussion amongst some conservative demographics.

What can we do about it?

While there are likely many other interpretations of the unpredictability of a Trump victory—and I’d love to hear any interpretations you may have—the alienation of Trump voters makes a compelling case that corroborates with my own personal impression. This is by no means confirmation, but I find it reassuring enough to focus on how to counter it.

Talk across the aisle

The easiest way to fight the alienation of voters is to engage with them. However, hostile engagement will only worsen the problem; it is essential that we make the alienated voter feel comfortable earnestly expressing their concerns no matter how uncomfortable their views make us. If someone is not comfortable when discussing their views, they’ll always be on the defensive and productive discussion will be impossible. You don’t have to agree with their position, but if you can empathize with the underlying emotion—fear, insecurity, idealism—then you can break down the bipartisanship of the conversation and the door is open to changing their mind.

My prototypical example of talking across the aisle would have to be Van Jones on The Messy Truth.

Encourage viewpoint diversity among elite institutions

To tackle the problem on a larger scale, it is important that we encourage viewpoint diversity among elite institutions. An easy example of this is on academic campuses, but another example of this is in the media. During the election I searched for media outlets that gave sober, balanced analysis of the candidates rather than reactionary pieces (I’m still looking if you have recommendations!), and while I came across a few left wing outlets, I had difficulty finding a single conservative outlet that presented sober analysis, and that in the form of long essays that challenge attention spans.

This is crucial because if a portion of the electorate is concerned about the effect accepting refugees will have on their community then that ought to be investigated by someone who genuinely believes that that is extremely relevant. I expect most left wing sociology professors share my stance that the cultural impact of refugees is largely irrelevant to their position on refugees, but that’s not going to change someone’s mind to whom this is relevant. Rather, they will be forced to base their beliefs on bias/intuition and other less investigative sources.

As a rather average liberal, it’s difficult to contribute to viewpoint diversity, but nevertheless, there are things we can do. The first thing that comes to mind is to stop chasing easy targets. There are a lot of examples of schadenfreude on both sides of the political spectrum that favour easy political points, but by focussing on the worst examples of republicans, we only push everyone who associates with republicans away from us. Rather, if you can find a conservative outlet you can respect, draw attention to them, cite their arguments in discussions (“While I don’t support gun rights, XYZ makes a compelling point that…”). By engaging in this manner, you not only raise the quality of discourse—lord knows there’s room this—but you also remove a fair amount of emotion and partisanship from the conversation.

Share your thoughts

There are many ways to achieve change; these are merely the two I saw as the most crucial strategies to ensuring similar politics doesn’t spread to other places. If you think there are other priorities that are important to this end, I personally would love to hear them.

Disclaimer: Neglect critical thinking at your own risk; I am no expert. I welcome the opportunity to learn more through corrections and any disagreements you may have.

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