Shadow of two people arguing

An Electoral Theory

I would like to apologize before you attempt to read this. I’m naturally pretty verbose, but this got out of hand even by my lofty standards. I’ve attempted to trim it back some, but, it remains quite the slog. I, personally, think it’s worth it. I’m also pretty biased.

I would like to begin with a few postulates—a few things that we can assume to be true for the sake of argument. I’m not trying to play any rhetorical games here, so I’ll attempt to show my work as I introduce each postulate (after a few up top that I hope to be relatively uncontested).

Postulate 1: At least part of Trump’s campaign message was one of general intolerance toward Muslims, Mexicans, immigrants, women, the disabled, and numerous individuals and groups.

Postulate 2: The message of intolerance did not constitute the entirety of Trump’s message; there were additional items he addressed such as income inequalities, trade agreements, other candidates’ insidership, corruption, etc.

Let’s assume for a moment that amongst the 60 million people that voted for Trump, not all of them voted because of his campaign of hate. We can assume, though, based on the events of the last few days that some of them absolutely did vote for his message of hate. That seems fairly straightforward.

Postulate 3: Many people that voted for Trump did so based primarily on or mostly on his message of intolerance.

Let us also assume, for the moment, that 60 million voters aren’t all skinheads and clansmen. It’s not a reach to say that there had to be quite a few people who were not sold on his anti-Muslim, anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant, or anti-women stances, but were instead sold on some other aspect of his policy or persona. Again, just basing this on anecdata from my own life alone, I know numerous Trump supporters that I wouldn’t consider to be overtly racist (far more than I think are overtly racist). I can comfortably assume, for the sake of argument, that most Trump voters weren’t voting for his message of hate, but for some other reason.

Postulate 4: Many, or even a majority, of those that voted for Trump voted for reasons other than his message of intolerance, possibly even despite it.

It is no secret that I, and tons of other people that are like me, consider Trump’s message of hate to be utterly and completely unacceptable. It, alone, would be more than enough to not vote for him even if the entirety of the rest of his platform was inspired genius. It is, as they say, a dealbreaker.

Postulate 5: Many, possibly a majority, of those that voted against Trump find his message of intolerance completely unacceptable at virtually any cost.

Now, I promise you that I’m going somewhere with this, but the next few postulates have to meander a bit so that I can get things in line to make a point. Please indulge me…

It is fairly safe to say that most people that voted at all want the US to remain a single, unbroken nation. They want it to be safe, prosperous, secure, happy, healthy, and other positive adjectives. I’ll even go so far as to assume that most of the voters on both “sides” think that they are making decisions with the best interests of the nation in mind.

Postulate 6: Most voters are acting in what they perceive to be the best interests of the nation and would like to see the nation prosper.

That having been said, I think that I would be accurate in my guess that numerous people that voted for Trump, perhaps all of the people discussed in Postulate 4, consider there to be things that are more important to their lives than his message of hate or than preventing the spread of his hate. They don’t consider themselves to have the luxury of worrying about social justice over other things that more directly affect them, or they consider social justice to include topics closer to home.

Postulate 7: Most or all of the voters from Postulate 4 consider there to be some policy-level decisions that are more important than Trump’s message of intolerance.

This brings me to my final assumption, which is simply that most of the people that voted for Trump that weren’t voting for his message of hate were doing so because they felt he better represented an exit from whatever struggle they’re currently dealing with. Trump did far better than Clinton in areas where incomes were lowest, it stands at least as much to reason that the low income was the reason as it does that ignorance was.

Postulate 8: Many Trump voters so voted because they thought he would alleviate whatever pain that they are currently in.

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So this all leads to a series of hypotheses, beginning with…

Hypothesis 1: Some people are going to respond to their immediate discomfort before they’ll respond to pain in others.

If people are struggling with health care costs, or they’re struggling with job loss, or they’re struggling with their paycheck not making it as far as it used to—some people are going to be more concerned with that than whether some Muslims they don’t know have to get questioned more often about their activity. That’s not an especially abhorrent point of view to have, it’s a pretty human one. People that are categorically against stealing often tend to steal if the alternative is starvation. Self preservation is fairly normal. Would it be nice if everyone was able to step outside of their own situation and support those most in need at any time? Sure, almost assuredly, but wishing for that isn’t going to make it happen, and I suspect it’s an unreasonable thing to expect.

Hypothesis 2: Some people are legitimately scared, and while they don’t hate anybody, they would like their fears addressed first and foremost.

Listen, if nothing else, our government has done a ridiculously efficient job of creating a terrorist bogeyman for us to be afraid of since 9/11. Despite the fact that we are infinitely safer from terrorism than dozens of seemingly innocuous things (beware of toddlers carrying pistols), we have created a narrative that terrorists are always at the ready to rob us of everything we value up to, and including, our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

Is it any wonder that people might be scared, then? That, while they don’t hate Muslims, and don’t want any ill to come to them, they also would rather see some Muslims scrutinized more if it meant less risk of being blown up? I’m not saying it’s reasonable, rational, or right…but isn’t it possible that that mindset exists? And if it does, couldn’t it also exist for things like immigrants stealing their jobs? Or trans folk in bathrooms? Or Democrats and everyone’s guns?

So perhaps some people react to that fear by putting relief of that fear as their highest priority. That’s not an especially irrational thing to do; it’s built into our lizard brain to get out of scary situations as soon as possible. Wouldn’t that at least make a certain degree of sense, even if you don’t like the outcome?


Hypothesis 3: A culture of pervasive sensitivity has made people too scared to ask questions or admit their questions, weaknesses, and thoughts.

I can sense through the Internet how sharply many of you recoiled at that, so I’m going to ask you to bear with me before you assume I’m slaughtering your sacred cows here. I’m on my way to a point…

We live in a time where it is pretty rough to not be a liberal. I know; I don’t especially consider myself a liberal or a progressive, but I’m fortunate to share many of the most important views with the progressive movement. At the same time, I’ve seen firsthand how brutal the left can be when confronted with a pink monkey in their midst.

An anecdote: I was speaking to a friend about a person whose presentational gender didn’t match their birth gender and, grasping for the term, I referred to the person as “transgendered” or as a “transgendered person.” The reaction was swift, it was severe, it was unforgiving, and it was not especially educational. It was plainly obvious that I was not intending offense, that I was attempting to use the correct term, but that didn’t matter in the moment as much as showing tribal intolerance to using the incorrect nomenclature. Later—much later—it was finally actually explained to me why one should use transgender rather than with an -ed at the end, but in that moment, I felt attacked—I was attacked.

I completely understand why the sensitivity would be present; trans people are currently in the midst of a tremendous amount of suffering, but remember that in this situation I’m actively trying to do the right thing, and my thick skin was the only thing between me and being exiled from a community for a faux pas. How many stories have we read in the past few years of an ally making a misstep and being excoriated publicly for their transgression? Amy Schumer. Lena Dunham. Stephen Colbert. Leslie Jones. A scientist wore an unfortunate shirt and seemed completely willing to acknowledge that he made a mistake, but that didn’t stop the full weight of the Internet from falling on his head.

This is the environment that exists, that we have created. The fact that we have created it in response to aggressive outside stimulus doesn’t change the fact that it exists. So the hypothesis remains, in this environment, is it possible we’re preventing people from even telling us about their thoughts for fear of reprisal? Let’s explore…

Support 1: If these hypotheses were correct, one side effect would be that polls and actual election numbers would deviate wildly, as people who are voting to alleviate their own pain at the expense of others might lie to those taking polls but still vote “selfishly” when in the privacy of a voting booth. As it turns out, that played out exactly in this election. Even Nate Silver’s predictive analysis was way, way off base.


Support 2: If these hypotheses were true, people might feel shame about their vote. It just so happens that according to a Gallup poll, only about 30% of Americans are proud of the election outcome this year despite so many people voting for the ultimate winner. This is less than half of what the score was in 2008 and down more than 10% from last presidential election.

So, at least a few rudimentary predictors fit. I wouldn’t say that I’ve proven my hypothesis—or even done an especially thorough job of defending it, but I will say the hypothesis fits the situation I’m observing and the existing data that I have backs it up. I’d love to see more tests to help confirm or deny the theory.

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Let’s assume that the theories hold, even if only for the sake of argument. That would mean that our situation is pretty dire; we have an environment where there are huge swaths of folks that disagree with our priorities or views of reality (“hey, I really think that my worries about health care costs outweigh your worries about preventing Syrian immigrants”), and they don’t feel comfortable speaking out about their points of view, but are perfectly willing to vote based on them. By selecting certain beliefs and declaring them unassailable, not open for debate, not up for discussion—my theory is that we make those beliefs into areas in which disagreement must be kept secret. Don’t say that you disagree, people will yell at you!

And make no mistake, if this is true, I am ridiculously complicit in creating exactly that atmosphere. I have been utterly unforgiving and lacking in any form of empathy for people with a huge list of points of view I’ve deemed “unforgivable.” If my hypotheses are correct, I’m a complete shithead (strike that, I’m a complete shithead anyway, but if they are true, I’m a complete shithead that participated in making a huge mess.)

So how would this get fixed?

I’ve given this considerable thought, but I don’t think most of you are going to like what I’ve come up with so far.

I suspect it would begin by us being less sensitive and more willing to actually have the difficult discussions about topics that we’ve considered “closed” for quite some time—and remember, I say this as a tremendous participant in that culture,  this is something I’m as guilty of as anyone.

It would mean no more room for removing panelists from a panel for disagreement, but instead, actually having the debate. It would mean no more room for hand waving away why the right to marriage is a basic human right that we should all have and actually explaining why the Bible shouldn’t be influencing our laws. It means actually explaining what it means to be trans and how it affects your life and why it matters that you use a certain restroom of that others use a certain pronoun.

It means being patient rather than cocky (oh how this stings) when having these debate. It might even mean an end to using labels to replace debate (which means I’m pretty much done having conversations). It means we have to actually listen, even when—no, especially when—it pains us to do so. Never has the expression “I disagree with what you’re saying, but defend to the death your right to say it” been more important. It means it would be incumbent upon us to educate, rather than exclude.

An example: during a conversation that recently arose about women who were wearing headphones being interrupted by men. As the conversation wound through it’s pretty (justifiably) emotional course, I saw on several occasions an exchange wherein somebody was asking, seemingly in complete earnestness, how they could approach a women they were interested in talking to. What would be the right way? In almost every case I witnessed the questioner being set upon as sexist because these women that he wants to approach are not there “for him.”

At the time, I applauded the message—I still agree that it is the correct idea—but now I question the application. Would handling this with more empathy have been more to everyone’s benefit? Rather than leaving at odds, if we assumed that each questioner was as sincere as he or she seemed and had the dialogue, might there have been a teachable moment? When we say that it’s not our responsibility to be your teacher, are we actually sending a message that we don’t have good reasons and we’re just intolerant?

I’m horrified at the thought that this might be true.

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“But Jer,” I can already hear you saying, followed by one of several thoughts:

  • “I’ve been poor, and I didn’t vote for racists!” That’s excellent for you. You are an admirable human being. Now that you’ve told your story, perhaps it’s time to listen to some other stories. The stories of people who did do so might be enlightening since they are clearly very different from you in some important way.
  • “In voting for a racist, they, themselves, have proven to be racist.” I totally understand that sentiment. I have made similar statements numerous times in the last few days. I believe that John Scalzi’s Cinemax Theory of Racism is a valid and accurate assessment of that situation; it summarizes my view quite nicely. What value is that label though? Wouldn’t it be more valuable to hear from the folks that voted in that way? Is your need to label people or their actions more important than healing the country?
  • “The economy is in great shape.” That sounds more like making assertions than listening.
  • “Unemployment is down.” That’s still not listening.
  • “We should just listen when people try to incite hate crimes?” That’s not what I’m saying, and I think you know that. It feels like a disingenuous use of the slippery slope to take “we should listen to people when they discuss their problems” or “we should listen to people when they express an unpopular view” and conflate it with “we should listen to people while they advocate hate crimes.” Is it a grey area? Absolutely. As grownups, is it our job to learn to navigate grey areas? Yep.
  • “You’re saying this is our fault then? Our activism?” No, but I can entirely see how it sounds like that. It would be fairer to say that in a more perfect world, the activism that has been going on would simply work (in a perfect world, it wouldn’t even be needed), but that it might be time to try a different tactic, or at least to modify our existing one. We have simply gotten so used to agreement that our listening skills have become rusty; it’s time to clean them off and hone them again.
  • “How can I listen to the concerns of someone who is actively attacking people of color and women?” You don’t, those aren’t the people we’re talking about. In fact, I’d humbly suggest that you and I putting the people to which I refer (the folks from postulate 4) and folks shouting epithets at people of color into the same bucket—into the same basket, if you will—is part of what is driving this division. My hypotheses are based on the postulates above, and one of those is that there are people that wish nobody any harm, they just want relief any way they know how. Can’t we make room for hearing them? For practicing empathy with them?
  • “Conservatives didn’t seek to understand us when Obama was elected!” I don’t much know how to respond to this; it sounds so much like “but they started it” that I am having trouble reconciling the notion that I keep seeing it from people I respect. Any disagreement must begin with somebody deciding that they want the division to end; does it have to be the other “side”? Can’t it be us?

It’s time to practice patience aggressively; actually, based on the election results, it’s way past time, but we’ll make do with what we have. For my part, I expect to have to tone down the rhetoric and listen. That doesn’t mean I won’t correct, and it doesn’t mean that I won’t argue—this isn’t a call for capitulation. It is a call to calm the discussion down and eliminate taboo subjects. There’s no room for that in the discussion; there’s only room for listening and for conversation or debate.

At its core, what I’m suggesting is that we treat the folks that have different values than us and that we don’t understand as we expect all of us to be treated despite the fact that people don’t understand us and our differing values. We demand to be respected; perhaps it’s time that we did the same for the folks from postulate 4 that simply want to stop whatever suffering they’re currently enduring.

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If these hypotheses are true, that doesn’t change several important things one bit, though. It is still profoundly important to fight Trump’s insanely dangerous policies and views.

It is important that we continue to call out racist acts when we see them, that we stand up for those that are being attacked, marginalized, or dismissed in the current state of unrest. While we are doing so, we need to continue to hold Trump’s feet to the fire; why hasn’t he denounced these acts yet? What will it take?

Holding on to the values that are important to us as we seek to understand the values that are important to people that aren’t like us will be the very foundation of our efforts. Recognize that the goal isn’t that one or the other of us changes our mind, but simply that we’re heard and respected.

We must continue to protest, so that we can ensure that our voices are heard as we enter a new, potentially very dangerous regime. In doing so, we must stand up for those alongside us that don’t have a voice or that need our aid. Look out for our Muslim brothers and sisters, for our immigrant neighbors, and the women that need help.

It is essential that we donate to organizations that fight on our behalf as well, places like the ACLU, Black Lives Matter, UNICEF, and countless others.

We must continue to vote our values, even as we constructively teach others about why we maintain them and learn from them why they do not. We must not allow acts of intolerance to become normalized under Trump’s presidency.

This work to resolve the divide isn’t in place of fighting for the society that we wish to exist; it’s practicing empathy as we fight for that society. It’s fight; but fight better.

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For all I know, this is all completely incorrect and wrong-headed. What do I know? I’m just some foul-mouthed idiot who has the luxury of pontificating for thousands of words in a blog post for an audience of mostly friends and acquaintances. It’s honestly more likely that I’m wrong that I’m right. In a perverse way, I would PREFER that I’m incorrect, because it would validate my feelings, reduce my guilt, and eliminate a huge block difficult and scary work that I would otherwise have to do.

But if my hypotheses are correct—and clearly that’s a pretty enormous “if”—we have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us. I’m pretty sick of feeling this way, and I’m sick of being gravely disappointed in so much of my country. We need to do something.

I’m interested in your thoughts on this. Twitter or Facebook are great ways to share feedback, or if you wish to share in private, email is great too, you can use me@ my domain name above. We need to figure this out, and writing off sixty million Americans isn’t the way to do it. I’m open to ideas.