Love and Friendship in a Divided Electorate

We’re called to love everyone. No exceptions. Our Lord said to love even our enemies and that the second great commandment is to love thy neighbor as thyself — even when thy neighbor pulls a different lever in the voting booth.

‘E Pluribus Unum’ banner detail on the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.
‘E Pluribus Unum’ banner detail on the dome of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C. (photo: Image credit: ‘Farragutful’, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s only natural, at a time like this, that people who voted Trump are rejoicing and people who voted Clinton are mourning.

It’s also natural—politics being politics—that people on both sides will say some ugly things.

And that’s a problem.

Regardless of who you supported, we don’t need to be ugly to each other. That’s not constructive.

I’ve been pleased that, after the election’s result was clear, both Trump and Clinton have set a positive tone. That’s good. It’s traditional at this point in an election cycle. And it needs to happen.

Hopefully, it will help their respective supporters follow suit, because we really don’t need more ugliness in American politics. There’s too much already.

While it won’t happen overnight, we really need to work on draining the reservoir of ugliness that is poisoning American political discourse.

Here are some thoughts toward that end . . .


An Unexpected Result

Going into the election, most pundits and the media were expecting Clinton to win comfortably, and the fact she didn’t came as a major shock to many of her supporters (and to many of Trump’s supporters!).

“How could this happen?” is a question being asked by many right now.

Based on comments by both pundits and ordinary people I’ve been reading, it seems many Clinton supporters entertained a view that could be phrased informally like this:

  • Only people who are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, Nazi “blood and soil” people could vote for Trump.
  • Most of my fellow Americans are not misogynistic, homophobic, racist Nazi “blood and soil” people.
  • Therefore, Trump will not win.

Since Trump did win, something is obviously wrong with the premises that led to the conclusion that he would not. At least one of them is false.


Picking the Wrong Premise

Today I’ve been seeing progressive commentators re-evaluating the wrong premise, saying that the election showed they weren’t living in the country they thought they were and that most Americans really are misogynistic, homophobic, racist, Nazi “blood and soil” people.

Thus, writing for the New York Times, Paul Krugman says:

We thought that the great majority of Americans valued democratic norms and the rule of law.

It turns out that we were wrong. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about. For them, it is about blood and soil, about traditional patriarchy and racial hierarchy.

This is precisely the kind of ugliness we don’t need.


Your Neighbors Aren’t Moral Monsters

To progressives wondering how Trump could be elected, I would say: Your instincts that your fellow Americans are basically decent people is right. Take comfort in that.

It’s the other premise—that only a moral monster could vote for Trump—that’s wrong.

This is the flip-side of what happened in the two previous elections, when conservatives had to deal with the wrenching election and then re-election of Barack Obama. It didn’t mean that the American people were moral monsters.

Both conservatives who opposed Obama and liberals who opposed Trump could view those they disagreed with as mistaken, even as seriously misguided, but it didn’t mean the majority of Americans were moral monsters.

And that has an important lesson for all of us: Decent people can be wrong. They can be mistaken. But they’re still decent people.

Anybody who talks regularly with people who have different political views knows this.

If you have friends whose politics are different than yours, you can still recognize them as friends.


The Friendship Principle

In fact, refusing to be friends with someone because their politics differ is not at all healthy.

It’s not healthy for your soul, because we are called to love everyone.

It’s not healthy for democracy because, if people with different views never talk to each other, it leads to a highly polarized, poisonous political climate in which politicians can manipulate the masses by pitting them against each other.

And it’s not healthy for society because it inhibits the free exchange of ideas, leading people to live in ideological bubbles where they are victims of groupthink, rather than seeing their ideas tested by opposing viewpoints.

In fact, we’ve just seen a major example of that.


Why Didn’t We See This Coming?

Today I’ve been seeing liberal commentators ask why they didn’t see Trump’s victory coming—why the polls didn’t show it.

Part of the reason is due to flaws in polling methodology. Most polls today are adjusted after-the-fact by pollsters based on the assumptions they make about the composition of the electorate. If those assumptions are wrong, the polls will be wrong.

It appears that in this case there may have been an additional factor.

Also for the New York Times, Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Network of Spiritual Progressives, puckishly wrote:

It turns out that shaming the supporters of Donald J. Trump is not a good political strategy.

Writing from a liberal perspective, he concludes that:

If the left could abandon all this shaming, it could rebuild its political base by helping Americans see that much of people’s suffering is rooted in the hidden injuries of class and in the spiritual crisis that the global competitive marketplace generates.

Democrats need to become as conscious and articulate about the suffering caused by classism as we are about other forms of suffering. We need to reach out to Trump voters in a spirit of empathy and contrition. Only then can we help working people understand that they do not live in a meritocracy, that their intuition that the system is rigged is correct (but it is not by those whom they had been taught to blame) and that their pain and rage is legitimate.

Coming from a libertarian perspective, Scott Adams—the creator of Dilbert, and who perceptively predicted a year ago that Trump would win both the Republican nomination and the 2016 election—makes a related point, which he applies directly to why the polls were wrong. He writes:

The social bullying coming from Clinton’s supporters guaranteed that lots of Trump supporters were in hiding. That created the potential for a surprise result, so long as the race was close.

The result of the election seems to bear out his conclusion: The climate had become so poisonous that many Trump supporters were not willing to admit who they were going to vote for, and that contributed to why the polls were so wrong.


What’s the Solution?

So, if you were a Clinton supporter, what’s the solution to this problem?

The answer is not more shaming and bullying. That’s what led to the problem.

If you want an accurate picture of what people are thinking, they need to be able to express their thoughts without fear of retribution.

Better yet: Talk to people who disagree with you. Get to know them. Befriend them. After all, they’re decent people.

Most people are.

Also, don’t buy it when politicians and their surrogates paint everyone who disagrees with you as a moral monster.

They’re not, and that’s not the loving, compassionate attitude to which you aspire. It’s the hate-filled attitude you abhor.


Sauce for the Goose

Of course, what’s sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. Everything I’ve just said applies equally to Trump supporters.

Living in an ideological bubble is not healthy for anybody, for all the reasons mentioned above.

Viewing everyone who disagrees with you as a moral monster is both inaccurate and unloving.

You’re also unlikely to convince anyone of your position if you don’t talk to them, or can’t talk to them in a friendly way.

You may disagree with others’ politics passionately. You may believe that vital moral principles are at stake in American politics (and they are).

But if someone can’t recognize that most people are basically decent people, even when they disagree, then that person’s commitment to principles is impressive, but his heart—like the Grinch’s—is two sizes too small.

We’re called to love everyone. No exceptions. Our Lord said to love even our enemies and that the second great commandment is to love thy neighbor as thyself.

Even when thy neighbor pulls a different lever in the voting booth.