The Root of All Empathy

What the 2016 Election Revealed About Who We Care About and Why

Graphic source: https://open.buffer.com/empathy/

Before Donald Trump got the Republican nomination, I had an intuition that he’d get far in the race. People were angry, and it’s easy to deal with anger by blaming people you don’t know. It’s comforting to put faith in someone that looks a bit like you, but has things you aspire to (like billionaire status and a young, model wife). That’s how I predicted Brexit. People who were frustrated at their situation just wanted to take it out on someone, and it was easy to blame immigrants. If politicians provide an outlet for people they’ll take it. From what little I understood about human beings this all made sense.

But it works the other way too. Most liberals blamed Trump’s success on racist, sexist, irrational people who THEY didn’t know. And because they didn’t know who these people were they assumed Trump supporters were a minority who couldn’t sway the election. I kept telling my friends and family they did not have an accurate picture of what the US really looks like. But to be honest, at a certain point, I didn’t mind being isolated from Trump supporters either. They just seemed “beyond repair”.

After the election I, like many of you, went through an accelerated version of the five stages of grief. But during that process I realized something — my attitude was part of the problem. I couldn’t just be angry at over 47% of the American public — as depressed as their outlook made me. For so long I’d been disgusted by the lack of empathy Trump supporters showed towards sexual assault survivors, minorities, immigrants… but didn’t they deserve empathy too?

In the end, was it possible that I was indirectly perpetuating the very social divisions I wanted to disavow?

1.The Race Factor

58% of white voters voted for Trump, and 88% black voters voted for Clinton .This discrepancy cannot be accounted for by education or class. In fact, more white college educated voters voted for Trump than any other candidate — 49%, and the vote was split almost evenly across almost all income brackets.

The election results reflect more about racial tensions and divisions in this country than we want to admit.

75 percent of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence.” Just shy of two-thirds of black Americans don’t have any non-black friends. Today’s average white student attends a school that is 75% white. White students tend to haveless exposure to students of other races and ethnicities than their non-white counterparts.

People just aren’t having meaningful interactions with people that seem different — and we’re all suffering as a result.

Donald Trump may have opened up the flood gates for racism, sexism and anti-Muslim sentiment, but at the end of the day he’s not the one committing hate crimes right now. Should we really be surprised that people are able to dehumanize people they don’t know?

2. The “Class Culture Gap”

“For months, the only thing that’s surprised me about Donald Trump is my friends’ astonishment at his success. What’s driving it is the class culture gap. One little-known element of that gap is that the white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich. Class migrants (white-collar professionals born to blue-collar families) report that “professional people were generally suspect” and that managers are college kids ‘who don’t know shit about how to do anything but are full of ideas about how I have to do my job,’ said Alfred Lubrano in Limbo….Michèle Lamont, in The Dignity of Working Men, also found resentment of professionals — but not of the rich. “[I] can’t knock anyone for succeeding,’ a laborer told her. ‘There’s a lot of people out there who are wealthy and I’m sure they worked darned hard for every cent they have,’ chimed in a receiving clerk. Why the difference? For one thing, most blue-collar workers have little direct contact with the rich outside of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. But professionals order them around every day. The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable — just with more money.

That is exactly what Trump represents. If professionals are not befriending working class people, and the rich are not even interacting with them, can we really expect anything different?

Beyond that, mainstream liberals, including many professionals, conveniently forgot about white, working class people from the traditionally blue states of Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. NAFTA might have made the price of consumer products you purchase go down — but there were industrial workers in these states who really did lose jobs. A lot of us forgot about them. Michael Moore predicted at the beginning of the campaign that this is why Clinton would lose the election.

3. “The Last Stand of the Angry White Man”

Outside of his insight on the rustbelt states, Michael Moore predicted Trump would win due to “The Last Stand of the Angry White Man”.

“There is a sense that the power has slipped out of their hands, that their way of doing things is no longer how things are done. This monster, the “Feminazi,”the thing that as Trump says, “bleeds through her eyes or wherever she bleeds,” has conquered us — and now, after having had to endure eight years of a black man telling us what to do, we’re supposed to just sit back and take eight years of a woman bossing us around? After that it’ll be eight years of the gays in the White House! Then the transgenders! “

You have to admit that if someone has spent his whole life being taught he’s the top of the food chain then he’s going to find it difficult to give that position up. People lust for power — most will fight to keep it.

It’s hard to empathize with a sex offender, I get it. But a lot of people were brought up thinking that joking about grabbing women unconsensually really is just “locker room talk” . They observed how humiliating and dehumanizing women, whether at pageants or on flights, made men seem more masculine. Many men and women were socialized this way. Many more were socialized to turn a blind eye.

Have you ever sat back and thought about how Donald Trump must have been raised to become as sexist, racist and hateful as he is? Have you considered how insecure a person he must be to take every opportunity possible to demean others in order to promote himself? Well, if you haven’t, you should — because there are plenty of other “angry, white men” like him out there. And as hard as it is, we’re going to need to figure out what’s going on with them.

4. “The Big Sort”

In 2008, the Economist published a piece in which they described the growing trend of Americans moving into neighborhoods and regions with people of similar political affiliation — “The Big Sort”.

In this election, approximately 60% of Americans lived in landslide counties — where the winning candidate won by 20 percentage points or more. Income is not predictive of the divisions we see. That is a 10% higher proportion of the electorate than in 2012. We don’t even want to live near people from other political parties (though many are struggling with such divisions in their own home)!

At TedX Seattle this weekend Celeste Headlee talked about the incredible lack of empathy in America today, and how the election put a spot light on on the deep divisions among us. She told the audience that tolerance is no longer sufficient — and she is right.

It’s time to move beyond tolerance towards empathy and engagement.

Look at your daily interactions and social circles and be honest about whether or not they are more homogenous in terms of race, ethnicity, culture or class than they should be. Push yourself out of your comfort zone to make new connections. For those of us who are building teams, raising families, framing policies or implementing programs — let’s take it upon ourselves to create opportunities for meaningful interaction between people of diverse backgrounds in neighborhoods, public spaces, schools and offices. It’s never too late.

Thank you to Padmaja Surendranath for sharing your like minded thoughts in casual conversation, and to Celeste Headlee for echoing them as well at TedX . Hearing two phenomenal women on the same wavelength made me more confident that this was worth writing.

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