At this moment, I shouldn’t be writing about the chaotic politics porn from the last couple of years all wrapped up in the decisions surrounding Scottish independence, Brexit, and Trump’s election — I should be writing a book chapter on emotion and crisis, but my brain is obsessing about these three things, so I’m exorcising my writing demons. At the same time, these three votes are incredibly important because they are setting the agenda for politics and political discourse (discord) with knock on effects across the West. Yet, the social and media conversations about these votes seem to be doing nothing constructive — just ensuring that everyone remains angry and divided.
Let me be clear about my positions on these issues so certain people can dismiss what I’m going to say because they disagree and move on with their day. Trump — eek… I’m a Sanders modern socialist, so supporting a corporate beast from any party isn’t my pint of beer. Brexit — are you kidding me? Seriously, I understand criticisms of the EU but <face-in-palm>…. Scottish independence — Britain doesn’t work in its current form for anyone outside of the Southeast, so they should’ve gone for it. More on all of this, so if you can’t cope with my starting perspectives, you’re really going to hate the rest, so you should probably save yourself the time and annoyance of reading.
I’m starting with Trump and working my way backwards — in part to keep the posts manageable and in part to make myself get back to work.
The Trump Problem for Democracy
As we’re nearing T-Day (i.e., Trump’s inauguration), the political realities of the next four years are daunting, but frankly it’s not because of Trump, it’s because the GOP is taking advantage of the divisive figure that he is to take some potentially damaging votes, like their vote-a-rama to try to gut an already challenged Affordable Care Act and make moves on many of the issues they support. Yet, the Hillary Clinton (HRC) flagwavers who can’t quite seem to get over an unfortunate election outcome aren’t helping. Instead of intelligently engaging people who supported Trump to understand why they couldn’t get on board with HRC, they are engaging in ad hominem attacks on people and basically engaging in the same kind of rhetoric with about the same quality of evidence as we saw after President Obama’s election with the Reverend Wright and birther points. The Russian question that Trump is being asked concerning collusion over the Democratic National Party headquarters being hacked and information about the ‘fairness’ of the primaries being leaked (as a Bernie supporter, frankly I wish that had come out MUCH sooner and been made a much bigger deal) and about whether he did naughty things with Russian hookers in Moscow is as relevant as the ‘terrorist sympathizer’ arguments about Obama. They serve to keep political opponents angry and engaged (ha ha, my connection to this emotion and crisis chapter I should be writing), but not in productive ways.
So, as ‘liberal’ opponents of Trump start to race down the same road to divisive politics that frankly hamstrung the genuine opportunities for improving the US we found under the Obama Administration, what’s worse are many of the social media conversations they’re having and where they’re taking the conversations. During the primaries as a Sanders supporter, I saw rhetoric about how women should be ashamed for not supporting HRC coming from people in her own campaign staff and then being echoed by many of my liberal social media acquaintances. As a woman this offended me at a monumental level because it was an argument that was meant to silence supporters of Sanders and advocate for HRC for the entirely wrong reasons. These same people are now blindly saying that Trump supporters are ignorant, racist, homophobes who have no place in civil society (I summarize, but it’s not far off).
For example, a friend of mine posted this meme last night on Facebook, I liked it, and reposted it. For me, it’s the right kind of message because frankly I didn’t find the Obama opponents eight and four years ago very palatable in their rude attitudes about Obama supporters. In a democracy we need to understand that we can vehemently disagree with someone’s politics, but that should almost never be a judgement on them as a moral human being (ok, unless they advocate killing puppies ; ) ). The reality is that no party and no candidate can control the nut jobs who support and like them for the right or wrong reasons. Yet, within an hour or two of reposting this little meme, this was the ‘counterpoint’ posted by someone that I had always judged to be a reasonable and thinking person.
To me, this represents the genuine threat to democracy that we face with President Trump — that we continue this politics of competition and worse yet, we support the continued divisiveness of people. So, instead of focusing on issues that matter, we continue to tribally divide ourselves into supporter/ fan clubs. If we’re going to do that, why don’t we just organize some ‘casuals’ surrounding political events and see which side actually wins out (American decoder to what I mean… ‘casuals’ refers to the period in English football/soccer history where supporters of one team would organize fights with supporters of the opposing team, aka ‘hooliganism’)? That would at least be more interesting, but then again some American would bring a gun to the fight and it would all go downhill quickly.
The smug arrogance of the liberals only serves to support the negative assumptions that many hold about ‘liberal elites’ in the first place, but the insulting patronizing attitude ensures that you all never have an honest conversation with a Trump supporter about the frustration with the political process, the disenfranchisement of working class Americans that they didn’t believe would be addressed by HRC, and a host of other issues. If you want to understand it — read this editorial from the Guardian because it lays it out with the points and counterpoints very clearly. Until the liberal left tries to understand the majority of the Trump voters, it will NOT win an election and people will continue to be tribal in their support of their favorites. For liberals, there could’ve been MUCH worse policy options for candidates than Trump — this is why the GOP establishment isn’t keen on him. He doesn’t support ending gay marriage or reducing LGBTQ rights and he’s center left on most social entitlement issues. And when you genuinely listen to him speak (as the Guardian article points out), he has some alright ideas about policies that could help industry in the US — this is a hell of a lot more than HRC or most liberals have had (aside from Bernie 😉 ) for a long time. Until liberals start engaging on issues of policy, American democracy hangs in the balance — not because of Trump, but because of continuing the kinds of anti-social and counter-productive tactics that the GOP and conservative supporters have used for the last 8 years against an Obama administration.
If you need more convincing, we can go academic with recent research social media and crisis communication finding that social media functionally acts as a loudspeaker for peoples reactions amplifying them and producing more and more unreasonable attitudes — stirring people up (Pace, Balboni, & Gistri, 2014). Yet at the same time, this doesn’t affect everyone equally — the people who are angry get angrier and the people who support the ‘brand’ (in this case party or president) are still likely to support them, feel like they know more, and are more willing to engage positively with whomever they support (Kim & Atkinson, 2014) only deepening the divides.
I had to come to terms with my favored candidate losing a long time ago — the election outcome only deepened my conviction that the Democrats chose the wrong person to represent the party in the election because popular character vs. popular character would’ve suggested we’d be inaugurating President Sanders next week and not President Trump. So it’s given me some time to think about what’s really going wrong in the US — why it’s a place I don’t want to live again … probably ever. It’s not because of any particular politics — it’s the political apathy coupled with self-imposed political ignorance, it’s the tribalism, it’s our inability to confront our own social violence (and I’m not just talking about guns — I’m talking about the thought policing and genuine negativity) towards one another, it’s all of these things that make it genuinely a horrible place to live. I used to think this was just coming from the right, but it’s not — it’s coming from both directions with more and more people getting left behind. I think we have 20 years before we have a hope of the US improving and that’s only because the worst people on both sides of the aisle will eventually just die out.
What’s ironic about it — I managed to make it through the end of the GW Bush administration and the Obama administration without unfriending or unfollowing people I know on Facebook just because of their political views about liberals (a couple had to go because I thought they were a little to scary for other reasons 😉 ), but to be honest, I don’t know how much of the liberal nastiness I can take in my FB feed. In all of these years, I’ve NEVER had a conservative friend of mine try to silence my view, accuse me of racism or sexism by extension, and try to discipline my views. I’ve certainly had them tell me I was full of crap — that’s alright because I said the same and we went on about our business. But in the last several months I’ve seen this coming up more and more from so-called liberals and honestly, I just can’t be arsed with the negativity at a personal level. It’s incredibly difficult to meaningfully engage with many of these folks — people by the way that I genuinely thought I liked as human beings — because they’re not interested in understanding or even having a bit of a fun political debate. What’s the point? It doesn’t mean that I’m disengaging from politics, but that I just can’t be bothered with the negativity and I agree with these folks on about 90% of the points they raise. That’s what’s so disturbing. If I find them too judgemental and negative, what must someone who disagrees with about 90% of their political views feel?
Militancy, disengagement from each other, interpersonal divisiveness, and taking our focus off the policy issues and important CIVIL policy discussions — that’s the threat to democracy — not Trump, regardless of whether he’s a good man or a jackass; regardless of whether he’s a good president or terrible. Just as a reminder — this picture is one from the Rally to Restore Sanity in DC in 2010… you know, back in the day when liberal folks in the US were asking people to take their rhetoric down, to be measured, considerate, and kind to one another. I love irony. Ok — and now back to writing my chapter or I’m never going to meet my deadline.