Fellow Democrats, we are not listening, and it could cost us the election
Fellow Hillary supporters: our solid, well prepared, articulate, experienced, reasonable candidate has been polling uncomfortably close to that dangerous clown, Donald Trump.
Bewildering, no? How can our fellow Americans be so willfully ignorant, so backward, so evil? Or perhaps this is a bad dream, and the world will snap back to its predictable order, with Hillary winning in a landslide?
I was bewildered, too. Then I decided to make a serious effort to understand how people might oppose Hillary. In just a few days, this project has transformed my perspective. Things that were incomprehensible before make sense now. Now, I’m worried that Hillary will lose, and it will be our fault.
The official campaign’s fault, the media’s, but also ours — the voters'. Through what we share and talk about, especially on social media, we help set the tone and define the candidates. I fear we are messing it up.
Like everyone else, we experience what psychologists call naïve realism — the belief that our thoughts and opinions reflect objective reality. Naïve realism affects how people judge and interact with others who disagree with them. If you see things as they really are, then any rational person should see things the same way. If others see things differently, they must not be rational.
So it is with the election. To us, voting for Hillary is obviously right, and we can’t fathom how any reasonable person could see things differently.
We have lots of explanations for why the other side is irrational and wrong. Consider the many social phenomena and unconscious forces buffeting the Hillary haters’ poor psyches. Unconscious prejudice: misogyny, racism, islamophobia, xenophobia. Privilege. Confirmation bias. The lure of crazy conspiracy theories.
These explanations may all be correct, but they do not illuminate how people capable of free, rational thought could dislike Hillary. And the people who dislike Hillary do see themselves as free and rational. In other words: we may be explaining them, but we’re not listening to them.
When we fail to listen, I believe we are hurting Hillary’s campaign, in at least two ways.
First, we are outright denying the validity of many voters’ perspectives. Take one of the themes of the Democratic convention, much applauded in media coverage: “America is already great.” Well, is it? It’s great for me. It’s great for the Obamas. The facts and figures say it’s great for many people, at least when we consider the state of things eight years ago.
It’s not great for everyone, though. If it were, why would “Make America Great Again" have resonated in the first place? How would Bernie Sanders' “revolution” have gained so much support?
We should be nailing it with voters who don’t feel America is great! Democrats — the party of progress, of social justice, of compassion — should have something to offer to people who are struggling, something better than ugly divisiveness.
Basically, Trump is saying, “Terrorists and immigrants are to blame for your problems” — and our answer is, “Nah, you don’t have any problems.” Surely we can do better.
Instead, we’ve allowed Trump to be the only candidate many voters see as even recognizing their problems, which makes Hillary (ironically) the power-hungry narcissist, and the Democrats the party of stasis. Despite Hillary’s much praised listening skills, voters see her as out of touch. We don’t get it. We’re not listening.
That’s the first way naïve realism hurts the campaign. Second, we not only dismiss Hillary’s detractors, but we also constantly insult and alienate them—while congratulating ourselves for being clever.
Maybe Hillary’s opponents really are all bigoted, stupid, misinformed, or otherwise irrational. (I’m not going to take a position on that.) They definitely do not see themselves that way. Like us, they believe that they are rational, unbiased, free-thinking individuals in touch with reality.
Which campaign is treating them as rational and free-thinking? Trump's. Which one is laughing, sneering, scoffing at its opponents? Hillary’s.
Trump may be “going low” when he mocks and slanders politicians and journalists, but he doesn’t talk to voters that way. Instead, he invites voters to mock these “elites” together with him. (“Sad.”) We smug Democrats, in contrast, insult both Trump and his supporters.
Almost every primetime DNC speaker literally laughed while talking about Trump — and not just the man himself, but the things he stands for. Even Hillary herself (in an otherwise classy, substantive, and respectful speech) let out that giggle after “I believe in science.” I too wish this belief were not controversial. But what is that giggle communicating? If you even remotely side with Trump on issues related to science, you’re a laughable idiot. I’m not sure this is going to win us many new friends.
Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if we were not also dismissing the concerns of non-Hillary voters. But we are. We’re gaslighting them and mocking them.
We are doing this although we know that many voters feel unheard and condescended to by the establishment and the elites. We’re proving those voters right. The same thing happened with the UK’s Brexit, and we know how that turned out.
It is not easy to respect people who, from our perspective, are dead wrong. Do those people — those blinded by privilege, bias, misinformation — have an obligation to acknowledge their errors and educate themselves? Of course. But that may take longer than November. We have an election to win.
Let’s avoid high-minded moral positions that hurt Hillary’s chances of winning (the very same thing we scold Bernie diehards for doing). Let’s focus less on congratulating one another for being right, smart, awesome, clever, and on the right side of history, and more on keeping Trump out of the White House.
We’re being snarky assholes. And we all have friends or family who are thinking of voting for Trump or Johnson or Stein, or staying home. We need to stop alienating those people.
So, please: stop. And start listening. Consider spending one whole week just trying your best to understand where people who dislike Hillary are coming from, and why they’re right, not why they’re wrong.
Find the strongest arguments, not the weakest ones. Look for soundness and clarity, not bias and flawed logic. Learn about what feels not-great right now for Americans of all kinds, and what feels threatening to them about a Clinton presidency. And cultivate empathy.
There are fourteen weeks until November 8 — take just one week off from trying to influence people. Afterward, you’ll probably be better at it, anyway. (And consider taking a fourteen-week break from gleeful, humiliating snark.)
To prevent a Trump presidency, we have to get over our naïve realism and realize that what feels definitive, delightful, and triumphant to us may hurt us with those who are not with us yet.
After all, this should be an easy victory for Hillary. Hopefully, if enough of us start to listen, empathize, and understand the common ground, it will be.