The Way Forward — healing divisions under a Trump presidency

by Xander Snyder

We all need to cultivate a healthy dose of compassion. If we can’t do this, it will be extraordinarily difficult to heal the current divide.

Many of Trump’s supporters have been described as racist, misogynistic, anti-Muslim, anti-Hispanic, and pro-white supremacy. This is true for many of his supporters, but not all. Instead of focusing on bigotry itself — which I think is often a symptom and not a cause itself — I try to look at the world today and consider it the context of history. With that in mind, it’s often useful to consider our global society from the perspective of structural pressures that force human action in one direction or another.

As an example, someone asked me the other night “Do you think humans are intrinsically good or bad?” I said “Neither. We’re animals, we have social tendencies that can be observed, and, on average, those tendencies repeat in some form or another if people are subjected to similar circumstances.” If you were white, blond, and not Jewish in 1930s Germany, you’d very likely be a Nazi, regardless of your current ethics or politics. Why? Because if you didn’t they’d kill your family. This, in an extreme sense, is what I mean by “structural pressures that force human action.”

Structural pressures have driven a lot of people to vote for Trump, a man that many consider extremely dangerous. Life has become harder for them, and they see few leaders willing to do anything about it. They are suffering.When a large group of people suffer — which frequently stems from economic difficulties — their anger and frustration manifests itself as hatred. Why? Because it’s human nature to seek out a pariah that’s responsible for their pain. It’s easy to demonize “the other,” which heightens in-group / out-group divisiveness and transforms into what we colloquially call racism or bigotry.

We need to firmly denounce and reject ideologies that direct violence towards people of color, women, immigrants, LGBT folks, or really anyone who’s “different.”

My point here is, obviously, not to justify racism or bigotry: we need to firmly denounce and reject ideologies that direct violence towards people of color, women, immigrants, LGBT folks, or really anyone who’s “different.” We need to actively fight back against misogyny, white supremacy, anti-immigrant and religious discrimination, and xenophobia. Hopefully, we can win this battle in the realm of ideas, which will require us to seek out new rhetoric that more effectively changes people’s minds.

What I am saying is if you were to switch places with someone who supported Trump then you, too, would be very likely to vote for him. Human nature responds to pressures in ways that are not entirely predictable but are also not totally random, and the hatred we’re seeing isn’t random. We must address the root causes of hate-inducing discontent. Otherwise we’re fighting a losing battle.

Remember also: many Trump supporters are not hateful or bigoted. Many are intelligent, kind, caring individuals who find themselves in dire straits or believe that the current system is broken. Their discontent manifests differently but nonetheless in a way that, in their mind, justifies the gamble that Trump represents relative to the status quo.

Viewed through the lens of Prospect Theory, a vote for Trump makes a fair amount of sense for many. Quick summary of Prospect Theory: people are more averse to losing stuff than they are to gaining the same amount. Therefore, if you have a lot of stuff, you will be less likely to take risks. However, if you have very little, you will be increasingly willing to make bigger gambles since you have less to lose. A lot of people in America see few opportunities ahead of them, and believe that the existing regime — embodied by Hillary Clinton in part — has failed them and caused their suffering. Therefore, to them Trump is worth the risk, even if the risk breaks the current system.

So what do we do about it? We need to recognize that people are suffering and take steps to address the cause of that suffering. This will require detaching people’s ideology opinion from the mere recognition that they are suffering. Realistically, this will be an impossible task for many people since, logically, despite the dire economic straits a white supremacist may find themselves in it would make absolutely no sense for a person of color to sympathize with them. Nevertheless, we need create new ways of thinking about one another that recognizes — despite increasingly extreme ideological differences — that suffering is a universal human experience worth avoiding.

From here, we can attempt to cultivate empathy in an environment increasingly scarred by division and hatred. It will require progressives in cities to listen to the cries for help of a certain portion of the population that they infrequently — or never — interact with. It will require conservatives to restrain their demonization of the left and to loudly denounce extreme rhetoric and violence rather than simply look away and toe the party line. Above all, while we begin to recognize that people in urban or rural environments are human just like us, we need to continue to speak out against and prevent racial and political violenceThis is a precedent that cannot be set in modern day America.

Lamenting outcomes on Facebook will not save you or your friends.

Muslims, black Americans, Latinos, members of LGBT, women, and other minorities, all risk serious set backs in the arduous but real advances we’ve made in extending civil rights to more people. This is a grave danger, and will require strong voices and stronger minds to engage and form political coalitions that can fight back against retrocession. Lamenting outcomes on Facebook will not save you or your friends.

Our conception of “American” needs to evolve. Instead of demonizing people with different political perspectives — which has become a norm in this country — we need to recognize one another as neighbors and as fellow Americans.

Policy wise, we can talk about job training programs that we need to support those who face structural unemployment that sometimes follows trade deals and is becoming a core aspect of technological advancement. Or the desperate need to reform our system of closed primaries that encourages radical candidates. However, if we cannot cultivate a sense of empathy for one another it will be increasingly difficult to address the structural issues that have brought us to this point. Without dialogue, effective policy will be impossible to implement, and without compassion generative dialogue will never occur.

In a way, the system’s working. An enormous amount of people are expressing their discontent at current trends, and it’s a wake up call for those who didn’t realize how bad it was. Now that we’re all on the same page there is no longer an excuse to be disengaged from the backbreaking but necessary effort it will take to heal our country. Democracies are crafted, in part, to send signals, and this election has sent an extraordinarily strong one.

Without dialogue, effective policy will be impossible to implement, and without compassion generative dialogue will never occur.

An inevitable part of this effort will require striking down the taboo of political discussion in polite settings. However, if we open ourselves up to a greater variety of perspectives we need to find ways to listen that don’t result in tense conversations that put everyone on the offensive and ruin the social mood of the evening, which is counterproductive. This will only be possible if we learn to detach our views of others from our interpretations of their opinions, while at the same time learning to be both proponents for and skeptics of our own views. This is not an easy balance to strike. But it needs to happen.

For some, it will be enough to be more open to discussing differing views of the world and — critically — listening to conflicting ones with an open mind. For others there is now a greater responsibility to become actively engaged in the political process itself. Chances are you know who you are. But if you don’t, think about this:

An old parable says that people who fear the responsibility of power are generally those who should assume leadership positions, and people who do crave power should be kept as far away from it as possible. If you find yourself in the former category — somewhere who recoils at the thought of holding elected office or getting involved with the meat-grinder that is the political process — this probably means that you need to think more seriously about engaging in the political process itself or even running for office. I’ve shared this thought with many friends who frequently respond, “I can’t do that, I don’t know the first thing about politics.” If there’s one thing this election made crystal clear is that that requirement is no longer a reasonable excuse.

The only way through these rocky straits is to find new ways to listen to each other. We need to stop seeing each other as enemies and recognize that, as Americans, on some level we’re all on the same team. Doing this while at the same time preventing the spread of hateful ideology and political violence will be challenging. But, while America is by no means a perfect nation and has made egregious errors in its past, if there’s one thing The United States is good at is rising to a challenge and overcoming it. I have faith in our ability to work through these difficult times.

Note: This piece is obviously directed towards a “left-leaning” reader, or at least someone who did not vote for Trump. This is, in part, because I recognize my own biases create a particular type of echo chamber in my social media accounts, so certain people are more likely to read this article than others.

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.