17 Nov 2020
In the wake of the election, I’m seeing a bunch of headlines from people on the left about how disappointed they are with the country, how they had hoped that a landslide victory for Biden would show that the United States had somehow become less racist. I had hoped the same thing, and I’m disappointed, too. However, I think that it’s dangerous to simply label everyone who voted for Trump as being racist and end the analysis there. It’s clear that the United States has a lot of racist people living here, but I believe that it’s possible to improve the situation. That being said, the current thinking from many on the left seems unlikely to work. If calling someone a racist and cutting ties with them would make things better, our country would look a lot different than it does today.
A lot of people talk about how we should cut ties to people with whom we disagree. I agree that we shouldn’t tolerate intolerance. I also agree that if someone hurts you, you should distance yourself from them. However, I also believe that people are capable of change and that it’s a lot easier for people to leave an organization like the modern Republican party if they have somewhere to go.
One of my core values is that everyone deserves dignity and that by treating everyone with dignity I can make the world a better place. A big piece of this is treating people as individuals rather than making assumptions about who they are. What I’m going to argue below is that even if you don’t sign on to this worldview, treating people this way is still a lot more productive than painting with a broad brush.
I’m going start by looking at the Democrats, because I’m much more familiar with that party than with the Republicans. I vote Democrat more often than not, but I don’t feel that the party does a particularly good job of representing me and don’t consider myself a member of the party. I vote Democrat because once the primaries are done, the options narrow down to someone who I disagree with on a bunch of stuff or someone with whom I disagree on just about everything. The major exception to this is the presidential election, where there is usually a third party candidate in the general. This is the first year that I have not voted for a third party candidate for president (I live in a ‘safe’ state, but I wanted that landslide). I don’t vote for Democrats because they align particularly well with my politics (although Bernie comes close), I vote for them because my options are constrained.
If you went out and talked to a whole bunch of Democratic voters, you would find a bunch of different factions: Progressive democrats, corporate democrats, democratic-socialists, etc. The point is that even though you can find more than 70,000,000 people who voted for him, most of them aren’t going to perfectly align with Biden. You would hear a lot of “I like him, but…” from people who are critical of his stance on the climate, or the economy, or just about any issue. What’s more, you’ll find a lot of people who don’t align with him very much at all but felt that the alternative wasn’t really an option (Republicans who voted for him, for example).
The upshot of this is that, yeah, I voted for Biden, but no, I wouldn’t consider myself a ‘supporter’. If you think that you can judge my positions on the issues by looking at which presidential candidate I voted for in 2020, you’re not going to come up with a terribly accurate idea of where I stand. What’s more, if you think that based on that single data point, you know enough about me to sway me on those issues, you’re probably not going to have a whole lot of success.
Looking at conservatives, the same dynamic is likely at play. If you went out and talked to a bunch of conservatives you would meet people from a bunch of factions. Granted, some of those factions are truly odious, built on foundations of racism and authoritarianism, but you would probably run into people who agree with you about the environment or any number of issues, people who share your goals for the US but who have different ideas about how we get there. I have no idea what the proportions are, if die-hard Trump supporters are 30% or 70% of the Republican party, but it is certain that the proportion isn’t 100%.
Now what happens if I talk to one of those Republican voters, assume they are part of Trump’s base (and don’t bother to check my assumptions), and base my arguments on that? Well, for one I’m not likely to get through to them. For another, I might well push them away from my point of view rather than towards it, which is, to say the least, a less than optimal use of my time.
But what if I’m wrong about the proportion of people who voted for Trump? What if 95% of them are actively racist and authoritarian? Well, if you could convince the other 5% of his voters to switch sides, it would have changed the results of the election quite a bit, with Biden winning an additional 109 electoral votes, for a likely total of 415 electoral votes (a true landslide). What’s more, it would have outright flipped 3 senate seats and brought 4 more from sold Republican wins into toss-ups.
However, I’m not here to tell the Democrats how to win. Again, they don’t represent me particularly well. I have other things in mind, which I will have to get to in a future post since this one is getting a bit long.
What I’m trying to get at is that we should avoid making generalizations about tens of millions of people, both because we would be wrong and because it would be counterproductive. In the wake of the election the temptation for a lot of us on the left will be to vilify people who supported Trump. I’m not arguing that we need to go out of our way to mend relations with people who voted for someone whose main accomplishment (and perhaps goal) was to cause so much death and suffering. However, I am saying that we should be careful to avoid the folly of thinking we know what their experiences, priorities, and reasons were. We don’t need to reach out to them (not right away, at least), but we don’t need to burn those bridges, either.