Donald Trump lost the popular vote, bigly, but he’ll be our next president anyway. It’s now time for vigilance and introspection.
His win is primarily owed to economics and culture. The former will continue to be discussed extensively for years. As for the cultural factors, the more challenging one to confront, and most likely one to be overlooked, is what Trump’s supporters think is political correctness.
At the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston, as he condemned Bill Clinton’s candidacy for President, Pat Buchanan declared a “culture war” for the very soul of America. He opposed social progress, denouncing multiculturalism, abortion, the gay rights movement, and allowing women to serve in combat positions in the military. Unfortunately for Pat, the war had been on since the late sixties, and the left continues to score one victory after another. But progressives haven’t won yet. Some of the biggest issues raised this year were Planned Parenthood, same-sex marriage, voter ID laws, gun regulations, Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and religious freedom.
I’ll be the first to say that this election was a win for racism, hatred, bigotry, and xenophobia (see Nazis celebrating in DC). His less-than-subtle dog whistles also mobilized the white supremacist and neo-Nazi fringe to come out of the dark corners of the internet that society had pushed them into, bringing them out into the mainstream. And now with the appointment of Steve Bannon as chief strategist, the dog whistles have transformed into bullhorns.
But it’s important for us to realize that’s not the whole story.
This vote was not a referendum on the moral standing of 47% of the nation, and it’s a dangerous mistake to assume all Trump supporters espouse the same ugly values of the candidate.
The Science On Conformity and Dissent
We find other people who share our sensibilities, forming tribes as humans normally do, and antagonize the ‘bigoted and ignorant’ people who don’t share our values (left vs. right). One problem with this, besides how polarizing it is, is the development of an immunity to reason and empiricism.
In 2005, psychiatrist Gregory Berns of Emory University published fascinating work that builds on the famous Asch experiments of the 1950’s. Berns studied brain activity in subjects placed in situations where they’re likely to conform. The subjects were introduced to a group of people they thought were volunteers like them, but who were actually paid actors instructed on what to say beforehand. As a group, they were shown two objects which were unlike each other, and asked whether the objects are the same. What the subject doesn’t know is that everyone else in the group was told to give the wrong answer and say that the two objects were the same. When the subject was asked, they gave the same wrong answer as their group (~41% of the time).
What’s interesting about this experiment is that the test subject’s brain showed activity in regions that are devoted to visual perception, not the area associated with conscious deception. This indicated that the subject isn’t lying, but the group has affected how they process what they see.
What’s more, the subjects who stood up for what they believed showed brain activity in areas associated with emotional salience and negative emotion. This suggests that the unpleasantness of standing alone, independent of your group, has an emotional cost. So, the beliefs of the people around us can literally change how we see the world. Doesn’t that make it even more important that we not limit our exposure to differing ideas?
Nick Kristof recently pointed out the danger of Trump’s victory exacerbating the echo chambers that already exist in some institutions. If we don’t sincerely engage with those who disagree with us, and shun them instead, we risk distorting our world view. The negative consequences of that will impact both us and the conservatives we shun.
It negatively impacts us because it robs us of the ability to truly argue for what we stand for. Instead, we might resort to just demonizing the conservatives we think are intolerant, but who are actually just people who disagree with us. Similarly, the conservative person we snub may end up resenting us for simply being liberal. They would see us as nothing more than self-righteous frauds who commit the very evils we profess to correct. Then you start hearing things like reverse discrimination and suppression of free speech.
The day after the election, an article in Slate addressed the 52% of white women who voted for Donald Trump. At this point, we all know that Trump boasts about sexual assault, objectifies women, and poses a threat to abortion rights put in place by the Supreme Court. The author’s unfortunate assessment in this article is that “the biggest and saddest reason white women chose Trump over Clinton is simple: racism.”
I understand where she’s coming from. I share her frustration and apprehension about the President-elect. But it’s dangerous to summarily shut these people down by painting them as racist. In defense of Muslims, we rightly say that it’s unjust to paint everyone with a broad brush; that there are valid differences within the population. Yet, we refuse to adopt that same approach to Trump supporters.
It’s not that we have to agree with everything the other side says. We just need to engage in thoughtful discussion with the people we disagree with. We need to talk to them with the goal of understanding their perspective, just as we’d like someone to be sincere with us. To do otherwise is not only a form of intellectual laziness, but runs the attendant risk (or inevitability) of someone worse than Trump rising to power – and they certainly do exist.
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