Thinking About Winning the Next Election
I recently tweetstormed some thoughts post-election and I feel dirty about that; tweetstorms are bad. A good friend reminded me about the need to blog thoughts for easy access later, and so here I am.
The 2004 presidential election was the first presidential election I was eligible to vote in. I proudly voted for President George W. Bush’s second term. I did not vote in 2008 because I had gotten married a few weeks prior and neglected to register. If I had voted, it would have timidly been for Barack Obama. In 2012 I did register and vote and I proudly did so for President Obama’s second term.
After November 9, 2016, I’ve been trying to remember what exactly changed my beliefs over those 8 years. Clearly there were some big shifts; what caused them?
Since the election Trump has continued his daily stream of controversies. He’s appointed white supremacists to top cabinet posts, nominated racists to other cabinet posts, settled a lawsuit for defrauding working class people, held an event promoting Trump properties to foreign diplomats, announced that the Secret Service will be spending millions to rent his real estate to protect his family because they decided not to move into the White House, and shown that he doesn’t care at all about potential conflicts of interests or even attempting to avoid the appearance of self-enrichment via his office (choosing instead to brag about it). From the liberal perspective, he is appalling, and any of these stories alone proves it. Millions of people in America, however, do not find him appalling and these stories do not seem to be having an effect on their views.
I can’t help but filter all of these stories through the mindset that I grew up with and held until sometime between 2004 and 2008, and from this perspective I see exactly why they are not appalling. Viewed from this perspective, we have a lot of work to do to get the people who voted for Trump to see him as the dangerous con man he is.
There are a few foundational beliefs held the people I knew growing up in Alabama (and I’d wager many other red states). I too held these beliefs, they were some of the central assumptions that filtered all my understanding of the news. Right now I think they are the critical points that allow every single one of these Trump stories to not stick. These beliefs are:
- Our Government is evil.
- Our Government is already corrupt.
- Our Government is already working against us.
If this is your starting point; the framework within which you receive all news, then none of these Trump stories seem any different than the stuff Obama has been up to. What Obama stuff, you might ask? Who knows. He’s in the government. The government is evil, corrupt, and not on our side.
As long as these central assumptions exist and are unexamined I imagine it will be incredibly difficult to get scandals to stick to Trump. He’s an “outsider” who “tells it like it is” and who can blame him for taking advantage of the same opportunities politicians have been taking advantage of for decades, so the thinking goes. Our government is evil and he’s just doing what everyone does. But, the thinking seems to be, he’s going to change things too.
I think these central assumptions must be dismantled if democrats are to have a chance in the midterms and the 2020 election. I am severely afraid of how this administration will spin all of their policies; who they will blame as the laws and policies they enact hurt the millions who voted them into office. I don’t think we have any room to assume that they will destroy themselves. The job is ours, and we have to start thinking about it in a big picture, contextual way. The beliefs that millions of voters hold that caused them to think of Trump as a better option than Hillary are deep and will not go away unless addressed.
I have no easy or simple answers for how to address them. But we must develop strategies. We must think about telling stories that don’t assume the horrors being covered are obviously horrible. We must recognize that the beliefs we are fighting – the assumptions delineated above – are deeply embedded and not necessarily conscious beliefs. They are also encouraged and enforced by many if not all media sources that are popular on the right. We’re trying to unravel foundational beliefs that are enforced by the primary media sources of news for our desired audience.
This is not going to be an easy fight.
Yesterday the NYT published a piece on Floridians who voted for Trump but rely on Obamacare. They all generously decided to take Trump seriously but not literally. They may be screwed over in a few months. What stories could have made them realize this prior to the election?
The reality is, for them, the government is on their side; Obamacare is doing what it was supposed to and they are benefitting. The government, in this instance, is not evil. Soon the things that are working for them will be removed. They will be harmed. Even as we have compassion and work to mitigate the harm we must be loud and clear about the sources of the harm. We must connect the pain they feel to the person they voted for. We must assume that the right-wing media, now invested in protecting the status quo and preserving all their connections to power, will be unafraid to blame Democrats and liberals, will find tenuous connections and shout loudly about them with all their available tools. This is the media terrain we face: we are fighting against people and organizations who clearly showed throughout the campaign that facts and reality are less important than preserving and expanding power.
These next few years are not going to be an open, civil debate of facts and logic. They’re going to be a long, uphill climb against people and corporations happy to keep their constituents fed with outrage and distractions. And these people and corporations are going to use social media to propogate these messages, social media designed to make it easy to hear what you want to hear.
I can’t remember any epiphanies that took me from voting for Bush in ‘04 to wanting to vote for Obama in ‘08. I think what happened was a multi-year development of cognitive dissonance that left me unable to pretend like voting for Republicans made any sense. I remember realizing at some point that I (at the time) felt very strongly about conservativism as a guiding principle; and on examination of policies and legislation passed by Republicans I realized that Republicans are not conservative at all. They are in many ways the opposite; focused on expansion of corporate power and freedom (while spouting rhetoric about the good old days of mom and pop store America), willing to forsake all past principles for power and riches, and full of lots of morality-based rhetoric that prioritizes short-term success for actual improvement/development.
Accepting these facts was not an easy, simple path and definitely took years.
And despite all of these recognitions; there was the abortion issue. At the time I was pro-life and had been taught all my life this was the singular issue to vote upon. But leading up to the 2008 election there was a lot of discussion about the nature of Republican’s committment to “pro-life” principles. This involved people talking about how ludicrous a singular focus on banning abortion – at the expense of numerous other proven ways to reduce it that did not require long-shot, politically tough goals – was; and other people talking about how “pro-life” in the Republican/religious language stopped at birth and was not surrounded by a willingness to support policies and positions that respected all of life (see: positions on incarceration, welfare, child-care, single-parent support, basically ALL of life outside of the womb).
These discussions were critical to my softening and eventual turning. These discussions took what was a fundamentalist guiding principle and provided new context within which I could safely examine how the principle should inform my voting and my politics.
I have no idea what it looks like to take these ideas and conversations to a national level. I have no clear idea how we dismantle the assumptions that many have that cause them to ignore the incredible dangers Donald Trump and his administration present to America. But I write as proof that someone can, in the course of one Presidential cycle, turn away from beliefs that defined their political positions and become open to voting in a way that seemed previously unimaginable.
My only hope is that there are more like me, and that we who hope to defeat Trump can find ways to win them over.
Since my original tweets on this topic I’ve been thinking a lot about cognitive dissonance. I think it’s an incredibly valuable tool in fighting propaganda. When we are only fed information that fits into our existing understanding of the world we receive it less critically. But if our existing understanding of the world shifts; if it becomes uncomfortable or less straightforward we must be a little more critical. Information we previously ignored because it didn’t fit now may be considered.
I think we have a number of options available to us for creating cognitive dissonance under Trump’s presidency. He promised to change things; we can show how he’s just going to be more of the same. If someone thought the government was working against them before well, shit, wait until they see things a year from now. We (anyone who disagrees with Trump) should be working to expose these changes; to remember how things are now, where they were headed until his election, and work to understand the narratives being told to defend him. Trump is not going to make anything better; the question is whether we can both fight against his worst plans while also holding him responsible for every terrible thing that happens under his administration.
I have seen this work already happening. Many are working to tease apart the logic that allowed people who do not think of themselves as racist to vote for someone who ran on blatantly racist policies. The harder work is taking this message to the people who voted for Trump, to crack through their self-narratives and convince them one cannot be both a non-racist and support a racist. There is no separation.
This type of work has to happen on many levels; not just racism, but also breaking apart policy positions to see how Trump’s administration does not achieve the goals that many people had in voting for him (see the ACA-reliant Trump voters). From my perspective, these people are not going to be persuaded on their own. We, all of us who fear for America under Trump, must do the work to produce media and engage in conversations and create a world in which their self-biases and critical assumptions are untenable.
Maybe, just maybe, we can avoid the worst-case scenarios under Trump. God, I hope so.