Things to leave behind
I was in Amman, Jordan, when I woke up to the news of our next president.
The day before, I’d been walking in the dust of the largest refugee camp in the Middle East. A hundred thousand people crammed into a small space in a vast desert. The collected refuse of somebody’s bombs.
It was tempting to judge the relative merits of my pain against theirs, in order to size mine smaller. But contesting who’s got it worse doesn’t make you feel better. There was no contest, and I still felt shitty.
At some point, I saw that the refugees in the camp weren't a contrast, but an extension of us. I was looking into the Syrian face of what happens when a megalomaniac wields power by pitting the weak against the weaker. That’s not a contrast with us. It’s the logical extreme of Trump’s strategy: a stronger brew of the same poison.
We Americans have indulged in the ultimate luxury: the belief you can burn it all down, and you’ll still be all right. And, feeling righteously judgmental, from the dusty distance of the Jordanian desert, I dwelled on whether I had more contempt for Trump voters, or for those who didn’t get off their asses to vote at all. I didn’t have to choose. It’s dead easy to feel superior to both.
That superiority is as cheap as my grief is real. We (progressive) Americans are incensed that this human Molotov cocktail should be visited upon us without the popular vote. Less than 30% of Americans voted for the outrageous orange ogre. But less than 30% voted for Hillary, too.
So let’s deploy the mirror before the megaphone.
(It may feel too soon to say that. We are wounded and grieving, still wailing from the blow. Isn't it inhumane to render a report card on the battered? But our battering *was* the report card. My bruises will only heal by moving forward.)
I don’t mean we lost. I mean we failed. We failed to energize the majority of Americans. What we proposed – our candidate, policy, message and image – did not inspire. It may have been righteous and just, it may have been love versus hate, it may have been thoughtful and smart and good in the depths of its soul. But it did not move us – Americans, as a people – to action.
We have to acknowledge the unsettling truth that more than 70% of our fellow citizens did not vote for our candidate or our ideas. The plurality voted for no-one at all.
To be clear: This is not a diatribe against the non-voting. This is about us. We failed to bring the country with us.
Democracy, after all, is a popularity contest. It is also noble and glorious and it has changed the world. But at core, it’s a popularity contest: the popularity of policies, ideas, candidates, images, messages.
While we are incensed and dispirited and butt-hurt and soul-sore about Trump’s win, we seem mostly to have missed that neither of the options presented to America was popular. Which, sadly, also means ours wasn’t popular.
In our pain, we don’t seem to be focused on the blunt truth of an overwhelming majority: all the people who didn’t come to the party we invited them to. We were left standing by a full punch-bowl with our dorky friends in a mostly empty room. The best people in the world, our beautiful, dorky friends. But it was a total bust of a party.
We have failed to inspire anyone other than ourselves. We can call it a movement, or we can call it a 26% minority. And, if we’re brutally, horrifically, crushingly honest, that number is soft. A bunch of people are in there with us only because they were repelled by the alternative. In the future, we won’t have the luxury of an opponent who’s a trash-fire insult to intelligence and decency.
So. Now. What?
Well, I’m still working through my disappointment and anxiety. But here’s what I’ve got so far: There are a few things I think I need to leave behind
I have felt very judge-y, this week. This moment seems to have invited us to judge everyone. We are indignant that more people should agree with us – and that those who don’t are assholes.
We are incensed that racists, sexists, xenophobes and climate deniers elected a racist, sexist, xenophobic climate denier. They are haters and buffoons.
We, by contrast, are lovers.
It doesn’t look like love, to me, when we cherry-pick the worst of Trump and apply it to those who voted for him. Yes, they were willing to back someone odious who represents things we can’t stomach. But that doesn’t automatically mean they are odious and support the things we can’t stomach. That’s flawed logic as well as flawed love.
We know that many who voted for Hillary did it begrudgingly, holding their noses as they punched the ballot. So why isn’t that as likely to be true about Trump voters?
Don’t mistake me. I see racism. I see misogyny. I see homophobia. I see intolerance and fear of every flavor and stripe. I see these things in America, and not just in the election.
But while I see those things, I don't presume that 26% of Americans voted Trump because they are those things. The people who dislike my candidate should not be reduced to the cartoon characteristics of their candidate.
The phrase “working-class white men” is already reductionist enough. It has become pundit short-hand for “poor white trash.” But the shoe doesn't fit. Trump voters were slightly better off than average. And talk to me about the black men and the Latino men who voted for Trump in greater numbers than for Mitt Romney.
By now, we are all tired of analyses trying to dissect “the Trump voter”. I am ready to seek the humanity and the divine in the 70% of America that disagreed with me this week. I am not ready to presume I know them. And I should not be judging those I don’t know. I am not ready to write them off.
We don’t get to wave “Stronger Together” signs and wear “Love trumps hate” t-shirts while rejecting our fellow Americans as sexist, racist, homophobic fascists. Not without looking like hypocritical bigots ourselves. There are bad people out there. I just don’t see them everywhere. And I’m sure I need to work on myself.
My intellectual arrogance.
The stink of intellectual condescension has been wafting about a bit, this election.
Many of us – perhaps only semi-consciously – spent the campaign looking down on the under-educated, pitying them not having a clue what they were voting for. Our progressive friends dismissed Trump voters as ignorant. OK. How’s that high horse working out for us?
This election was the death of many things.
One, I believe, was our comfort in the fundamentals of the educated liberal consensus.
Dead is our underlying hypothesis that people are mostly rational actors. Dead is our implicitly Cartesian idea that people will think things through – based on principles and ideals and rights and economics – and vote based on their conclusions. Dead is the idea that better thinking, better policies and better philosophies will win in the end.
Of course, progressives know that you need to move people in their guts, not just their brains. We’re just not good enough at it. And we tend to think that what moves us will move the masses. We believe that our better ideas and good intentions can even move people enough to make them see past a weak candidate. Like Al Gore. Like John Kerry.
Like Hillary Clinton.
Don’t hate on me. We knew. We knew from 2008. And we knew from very, very early in this campaign that her like-ability numbers were little better than Trump’s.
As with Al Gore and John Kerry before her, Hillary was qualified and talented and tireless, outstanding in so many ways. And like them, she was a weak candidate. She didn’t spark a fire in most people’s hearts. Folks didn’t feel her in their guts.
People formally trained to value head-centered, deductive, rational analysis tipped to Hillary. College-educated voters weighed the pros and cons and backed her. But only just: not by overwhelming majorities. And many, many stayed home.
Rational solutions to rationally framed problems are essential. They just aren’t persuasive. Neuro-scientists have mountains of evidence that we first arrive at how we feel, and only then apply post-hoc rationales to fit. Everything else is just confirmation bias – the pervasive human drive to interpret all new evidence as proof of our pre-existing views.
Sure, we have to have better ideas. But we also have to make people give a shit about having ideas at all. Smart, on its own, doesn’t win. Few people judge a movie by how smart it is. They judge it by how it makes them feel and whether they want to tell their friends. We like action-adventures, horror films, rom-coms. All implausible, all emotionally invigorating.
When we compared the candidates’ like-ability numbers, we came to the wrong conclusion. Since neither candidate was liked, at least Clinton wasn’t at a disadvantage. Or so we thought. Our mistake was to confuse like-ability with charisma. Neither candidate was like-able. One had charisma.
He was a TV star the media loved to cover, who made people feel things. He got a dismissed class of people off the couch, and then played to the crowd.
Assume for a moment that progressives’ policies are perfect. Assume our message is competitive. Assume the imagery is appealing. That’s not nothing. It’s all hard and essential. And insufficient.
We must, must, must run candidates who intrinsically resonate with enough Americans to energize an election. We must seek them, we must develop them, we must prioritize them. We can never again be seduced by the wonk-appeal of the idea that a charisma deficit can be overcome by talent, depth, deservingness, strategy, organization or ground-game.
Our rightness doesn’t matter unless we can spark a fire in people who aren’t yet moved.
For eight years, we excoriated the right wing because they had such deep contempt for Barrack Obama that they refused to accept him as their President, claimed he was the devil and called him names.
Now, look at us.
Mm-mmm. My people, my people.
Oh, I feel it, right enough. I am in a rage.
But our angers, theirs then and mine now, are no different. So, I refuse to be who they were. Where they went low, I mean to go high.
I will do so while taking great solace in this: Democracy worked. It didn’t work out the way I wanted, but it worked.
I began the election cycle as a Citizens United cynic. I would have told you Democracy had been ripped from the hands of the people, and placed in the moist laps of the moneyed.
I was wrong. On the right, the rivers of super-PAC money rushed down a drainpipe. And on the left, while Bernie didn’t win, he emerged a power-broker and his movement pushed the Democratic platform farther to the left than it’s been in my life-time.
The hypothesis that billionaires and corporations could simply buy elections was disproved. (Trump, after all, didn’t spend his billions.) The quaint idea that pissed-off masses can rise up and rattle the halls of power turned out to be more than a populist fantasy. I may hate the outcome, but democracy, it turns out, still has some kick in her.
Unless someone can prove to me that Russians hacked the voting machines, I plan to double-down on democracy. That means accepting I lost, turning my rage into fuel, putting my helmet back on, and getting my ass out on the field. It’s not time to abandon the sport. It’s time to bring better game.
There is rightful space for anger and fear and mourning, for our spirits to sob or wail or roar. I don’t know how long it'll be before I feel renewed.
In the meantime, I shall hold my grief. I shall sit with my anxieties. I shall comfort my friends. I shall keep my ideals. I shall stoke my passion for justice. I shall suit-up for the fight.
And I shall leave a few things behind.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Matt Rourke