Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

Just not in the way you think.

One of the worst developments of this election season–after, that is, the fact that we’ve elected a proto-fascist sexual predator with the temper of a three-year-old denied candy–is that the Left appears to have collectively decided that the reason this happened is that we failed to empathize with conservatives and that we have been too concerned with making sure that trans people can use the right bathrooms.

I agree with part of this. No, not the bathroom part. We did fail to empathize with conservatives. But I mean that in a very different way than the thinkpiece du jour does.

Empathy means understanding what someone thinks and feels from their perspective. It doesn’t mean feeling bad for them–it’s not the same thing as sympathy. It doesn’t mean patiently debating life-or-death issues with them. It doesn’t mean coddling them or doing what they want you to. It doesn’t even mean accepting their distortions of sociopolitical reality as fact.

It just means understanding what they think and feel, from their perspective.

Overwhelmingly, white Americans–at least the ones who voted for Trump–think that people of color are the cause of their economic problems, and they feel afraid of them. They think that LGBTQ people are sinful and a threat to the proper order of things, and they feel disgusted by them. They think that women are asking for more than they deserve and that women are inherently deceitful and untrustworthy, and they feel threatened by them.

I know this because I listen to right-wingers and read what they write.

And because I have a relatively high empathic ability, which I train for hours each day in the course of my job, I can actually put myself right into a hypothetical conservative’s shoes and see why they’d feel what they feel given the beliefs that they have. If I had those beliefs, I would also feel (and vote) the way they do.

And when I put myself in the headspace of a white conservative, and run a simulation in my mind of their beliefs and values, their support for Trump and other Republicans makes complete sense to me. There is nothing hypocritical about it at all. There’s little evidence that they voted “against their interests,” because as much of a failure as Trump will be at improving their economic circumstances, that wasn’t the only interest they had. They were also very interested in reducing the number of people of color (especially Muslims) in the United States, maintaining Christianity as the dominant American value system, making sure that women don’t take what isn’t theirs, and preventing LGBTQ people from further corrupting American culture. They accomplished all of this and more by electing Trump.

Sure, many of them shot themselves in the foot economically in order to do that. But there’s nothing surprising about it. Psychological research (which I unfortunately can’t find right now, so feel free to take this with a grain of salt) suggests that people may willingly lose money in order to harm someone that they want to harm.

And sure, there are a lot more factors in this election outcome than just the specific beliefs I listed as examples. Those are some major ones, but there are others, such as “government-run programs are wasteful and harmful in general and should be reduced or eliminated” and “climate change is a hoax” and “I admire Donald Trump’s business successes and would want someone with those skills as president.” Yes, you can be a Trump supporter without being primarily concerned with, say, reducing the number and influence of people of color in America. But as others have pointed out, every Trump supporter has heard his rhetoric about people of color and women and decided that that is acceptable on some level. So yes, you’re all racist and sexist. Every last one of you.

The reason I think that lack of empathy–when “empathy” is properly defined–contributed to the Democrats’ loss is because they failed to understand what they were up against. Many liberals demonstrated a disturbing lack of critical reading skills when they insisted on taking statements like “I just want our jobs back” literally rather than interpreting and contextualizing them properly. When taken literally, this statement suggests that if Democrats want to capture more of the white vote, they need to address these voters’ presumably lost jobs. (Never mind that many of them are making six figures.)

But Clinton had a comprehensive jobs platform, and Obama is finishing his presidency with a strong record on jobs. While Clinton may have failed to adequately communicate her platform and the media certainly failed to adequately explain it to the public, I don’t think that the vast majority of these voters would ever have voted for her no matter how well she communicated. There are two reasons for that. One is that she’s a woman, and the majority of these voters do not believe that a woman can or should be president. The other is that they don’t simply want “their” jobs back; they believe that their jobs have been taken by immigrants and people of color. This belief is extremely strong, cemented by a cohesive in-group identity, and resistant to things like calm and reasoned presentation of facts to the contrary. Clinton supports immigrants and people of color, so she’s not going to have their vote. Neither is any other Democrat.

Of course, you could argue that if even a few people had responded positively to Clinton’s attempts to bring them into the fold, that might’ve tipped the election to her favor and she would’ve won. That’s a valid argument and I don’t disagree, but even in that case you’d be left with millions and millions of voters that Democrats have misunderstood and underestimated. Still a problem, especially given the long-term trajectory of right-wing populist movements. If Trump had lost this year, that would’ve prevented things from getting as bad as they’re going to get in the immediate future, but it wouldn’t have solved the problem.

So how do we stop misunderstanding and underestimating right-wingers? How do we have actual empathy towards them?

1. We take them seriously.

When someone tells you who they are, believe them. Trump has been telling us who he is for decades and people still won’t believe him. “Oh, he didn’t really mean that about grabbing those women.” “He didn’t literally mean that Mexican immigrants are rapists, just that there are probably some rapists among them, like any other group.” “He’ll probably surround himself with good people once he gets to the White House.” We’re now seeing how that’s turning out.

Same with Trump’s supporters. When they say that their jobs have been taken by immigrants, they mean that that’s what they believe. You are not going to win them over unless you either manage to convince them that this deeply-held, socioculturally-reinforced belief is false (good luck with that), or you tell them that you’re going to kick all the immigrants out so they can have their jobs back.

Many–not all–Trump voters have real economic concerns. But they have chosen a fundamentally racist way of explaining the origins of those problems, and they will not accept a solution that doesn’t get at what they see as the problem.

2. We learn to read and listen critically.

On the other hand, we can’t take people’s statements so literally and interpret them so shallowly that we fail to understand what they actually mean. When Trump supporters said that they want to get rid of all the elites in the federal government, they didn’t mean that they wanted the next president to be someone who grew up in a Rust Belt town with ordinary non-politician parents, built their own small business from the ground up, and knows what it’s like to struggle financially. When right-wingers use words like “elites,” what they typically mean is urban liberals and/or Jews. So nobody should be surprised that most Trump voters seem totally okay with his own elite status and that of the people he’s filling his administration with.

LIkewise, the language of racism is typically full of codewords and euphemisms that allow people to dodge away from the implications of what they’re saying. When white people say that they’re worried about the changing demographics of this country, they mean that their majority is on its way out. The only reason for a white person to be concerned about being the minority is that they hate or fear people of color.

Taking people’s words literally might seem like a necessary part of taking them seriously, but that’s only if you refuse to acknowledge that most people communicate indirectly. That’s especially the case when we have heavily stigmatized certain forms of direct communication. For instance, in most circles, people will make you feel very uncomfortable if you say something like, “Black people are lazy and I don’t like them.” (Yes, even if those other people believe that on some level themselves.) So instead, you learn to say things like, “I just think that a lot of these welfare programs are encouraging dependency and preventing people from getting out there and getting an actual job.”

Well-meaning liberals may respond to this person by pointing out that while fraudulent applications for food stamps do happen, most are genuine. They may point out that some of this person’s (white) relatives have been on government assistance. They might say that, actually, there are work requirements involved with food stamps and you can’t just take them and do nothing.

They won’t get anywhere because the person hasn’t said exactly what they mean.

3. We understand the powerful role of tribalism and identity.

Identity politics did cost Clinton this election. Specifically, identity politics won the election for Trump. This election was won by conservative white identity politics.

For white conservatives, things like opposing immigration (of non-white people), fearing Muslims, distrusting women, being disgusted by homosexuality, and believing that government programs and other institutions unfairly favor people of color aren’t just isolated opinions, like preferring summer to winter or liking a particular brand of frozen pizza.

Rather, those are strong markers of group identity. Even when presented with strong contrary evidence, you can’t just abandon them because then you’d be like Them, not like Us. And being like Them is unspeakably awful.

I’m not saying liberals don’t have their own versions of this, by the way. They sure do. But the point is that they underestimate the role this plays in our current political situation at their peril.

If you really want to convince someone that the pizza they like is shitty or that winter is obviously the superior season, you might succeed by presenting them with well-reasoned arguments and responding effectively to their rebuttals. (You probably won’t–they have those opinions for a reason–but you could.) That’s because they probably don’t really, really need to believe that their pizza is better or that summer is the best season.

When it’s a matter of group identity, that changes. Conservatives don’t simply believe that climate change is a hoax; they really, really need to believe that climate change is a hoax. If they stop believing that climate change is a hoax, they will lose part of their sense of who they are, not to mention cause conflict with their friends and family and also start fearing that we’re all literally going to die. That’s some powerful motivation to keep believing that climate change is a hoax. Avoiding cognitive dissonance is a much stronger drive than your calm and reasoned arguments can possibly provide.

So now that we know how to truly understand Trump supporters, what do we do with that?

Here’s where I’m not really a helpful source of advice, because I don’t actually think there’s anything to be done. I don’t think that being nice to them or debating calmly with them will change their minds. I don’t think creating progressive policy that addresses their economic concerns will help, for the reasons I’ve laid out. The way to get right-wingers to vote for you is to support the policies that they support, and you can’t do that as a Democrat or any other kind of liberal or progressive.

I think we can do two things:

1. Galvanize the left-wing base so that they turn the fuck up at the polls next time.

Stop with the “voting doesn’t really matter” fucking bullshit. We’re about to find out exactly how much it mattered. This is my main aim when I write and share things about Trump, about racism, about fascism, and so on. I’m not trying to convince conservatives. I’m trying to get progressives who can vote to get the fuck out there and vote. I fucking promise you there are progressives in Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and literally every other red and swing state who could have voted in this election and chose not to.

Because I don’t believe that we can convince conservatives to stop supporting Trump (or other relatively less awful but still awful politicians), I believe that our best option is to strengthen our own base so that it can defeat conservatives in elections. And not just elections, of course. I’ve just started hosting monthly letter-writing parties to get my friends and myself to write letters to our representatives and senators. Progressives need to start doing all of this kind of shit in much greater numbers and defeat conservatives with brute strength, not, ironically, brute reason.

I don’t like this. I wish we could all just rationally debate each other until the best ideas won, but that’s very clearly not how the world works. Progressives need to get more comfortable with relying on things like numbers and politics rather than on simply Being Right and feeling good about it.

2. Do our best to educate young people.

Of course, brute strength isn’t a perfect or sustainable solution. As I said, we could’ve avoided a Trump presidency and prevented a lot of harm that way, but the shitty ideas would still be out there, ready to strike at any time. Kinda like Obama being president didn’t end racism.

We need to keep trying to reach young people before they develop a strong tribal conservative identity. That’s very hard to do, because these identities can form early. My 14-year-old brother is a passionate Trump supporter and there’s nothing any of us can do to talk him out of it now. Maybe there could’ve been years ago. Maybe I should’ve tried. But I had no idea this was coming. Now I know exactly what can happen, and how quickly.

(Yeah, yeah, he might “grow out of it” or whatever. But that’s not going to happen through arguments with me. I already tried that.)

These are my two best ideas, but honestly, I’m feeling pretty depressed and cynical about the whole changing-minds project right now so I welcome disagreement on that.

What I’m much more certain of is that however we proceed, we need to do so with as accurate an understanding of conservatives’ perspectives as possible. That means acknowledging their opinions about women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, and people with disabilities.

Pretending that these opinions do not exist and are not a major driver of conservatives’ political behavior isn’t going to do any good. It won’t convince conservatives that they should agree with us because we’re nice to them and don’t make them uncomfortable. It won’t make them vote for someone who wants to do things that they don’t want to happen, like protect abortion access and ensure equal pay for women.

Too much of the commentary about this election has been focused on whether or not Trump supporters are _____-ist, or whether or not you can support Trump without being _____-ist, or how it makes Trump supporters feel to be called _____-ist. For the purposes of this discussion, it doesn’t matter what you call them. They have made their opinions very clear. Are we going to listen?


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Yes, We Did Fail to Empathize with Conservatives

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