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No Matter Who Wins the Presidency, We Need to Come Together

No Matter Who Wins the Presidency, We Need to Come Together

No Matter Who Wins the Presidency, We Need to Come Together

We need to keep dialogue open, even if it gets difficult or downright ugly.

Photo: Lucas Franco (Unsplash)

A few weeks ago, I went to a Hillary Clinton rally in Philadelphia. While standing for two hours in line, I talked to two middle-aged men who were public school teachers, and a young woman from the suburbs who ran a private preschool. They were all excited about Hillary’s early childhood education policies, and her support for unions. The preschool teacher relied on the Affordable Care Act for her health insurance. The public school teachers were concerned about gun violence in the neighborhoods they served and thought expanded background checks were a common-sense solution.

While they all had positive things to say about Hillary, they were equally passionate—if not more so—when talking about their hatred of Trump. They were disgusted by his offensive comments about women, immigrants, Muslims, and disabled people. They couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly listen to him speak and still support him. "They’re stupid," said one of the public school teachers, "just a bunch of rednecks." His friend and the preschool teacher nodded. "I just don’t understand why they’re voting for someone who isn’t even in their best interest. They’re just not smart enough to get that."

While I’m sure Trump supporters weren’t standing in line at his rallies with sensible and well thought out critiques of Hillary supporters, I felt alienated from the crowd in that moment. Though I’m sure no one in line was looking at me and thinking "redneck," the people they were talking about are my family.

The conversation that happened in that line is common in progressive social circles. We like to pat ourselves on the back for being ahead of the curve, enlightened, well-read, and generally informed. We can name at least two or three more foreign leaders than Gary Johnson, we went to a gay wedding way before the Supreme Court’s ruling, and we might even be able to point to Aleppo on a map (or at least tell you what country it’s in). But for as much as we think we know, we are often unbelievably out of touch with the concerns, beliefs, and daily lives of at least half of the country.

Whether Hillary Clinton wins or Donald Trump wins, we need to ask ourselves if we’re really as progressive as we think we are. We need to meet the people we’ve written off, and we need to talk to them without the barriers of Facebook or Twitter or anonymous usernames.  

This idea is usually met with a lot of resistance. "They’re not going to change their minds," other progressives say. "They’re racist, and sexist, and homophobic, and talking to them won’t change that." I find this idea incredibly sad—to believe that people really aren’t capable of change. I also don’t think anyone is naturally racist, or sexist, or homophobic, so they must have changed in some way to form those harmful views.

I mentioned that my family are "rednecks." By that I mean they are white, not college educated, sometimes not high school educated, work blue collar jobs, and are from an impoverished mining town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains with a population of fewer than 300. The racial makeup of that town is 98.2 percent white, 0.4 percent from other races, and 1.4 percent from two or more races.

I see my family infrequently on holidays, and so we rarely talk about politics or social issues. They care about me, but they know very little about my life, and may or may not know my sexual orientation. Few of them have ever ventured more than thirty miles outside their hometown. My dad was one of the few who did; he moved away. When politics do come up—usually during election years—he shrinks into a corner, cringing. He once told me he didn’t understand how they could think that way, then stopped for a second. "I guess I can. I probably thought that way too once. When you’re exposed to so little—it’s just what they know."

This is important to keep in mind after the election. People will always make the choices that make the most sense to them. Rather than labeling people as lost causes, which I think we sometimes do to protect ourselves from trauma (whether that trauma is in the past or present), we need to find the strength to understand them. Understanding someone is not the same as excusing their behavior when it marginalizes other people, but figuring out where harmful beliefs and behaviors come from is the first step toward change.

I don’t believe every conversation we have with someone who opposes our beliefs will change their minds or ours. But if we open up that dialogue, we might be able to figure out what events in their lives led them to where they are now. We have to genuinely ask, "Why does this make sense to them?" We might be better able to appeal to their empathy—to make our point in a way that resonates. I’m not advocating that we talk to people who pose a threat to our physical safety, but I am advocating for the kinds of conversations that will test our patience, shock us, and sometimes leave us feeling frustrated or angry for days. Those are the difficult conversations we need to have if we want any significant change.

When we assume people aren’t smart enough to know what’s good for them—aside from being condescending—we can’t hear their concerns. Many families like mine never felt the effects of the economic recovery. They still can’t afford health insurance. Their public schools have abysmally low graduation rates and test scores. They are often trying to survive day-to-day—trying to keep the heat on in winter, trying to afford dollar store groceries, and trying to put off going the dentist even when they can no longer chew solid food.

And yes, concerns about immigrants coming to take their jobs, or Muslim terrorists invading the country, or transgender people simply using the restroom are harmful, unfounded, and based on misdirected fear and resentment. But those core concerns—the concerns about the safety and survival their families that created all that fear—are real.

If Donald Trump wins the election, it will be because he has taken advantage of that misdirected fear and resentment. It will also be because we failed to address the real, underlying issues. If Trump wins, we can’t use it as an excuse to cut ourselves off, to retreat further into a progressive bubble. We need to see it as a call to action—a call to have those difficult conversations, to hit a dozen walls and keep on listening and talking, and to stop cutting off conflicts with a decisive last word on Facebook.

If Hillary Clinton wins the election, we cannot become complacent. We need to stay involved in politics, be activists and advocates, and keep reaching out to people who disagree with us even if they seem unreachable. If we instead choose to shame people, to shun people, then we need to look at ourselves critically. Is our goal as progressives to start dialogues and create opportunities for change and growth, or is it just to feel superior?

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Cassie Sheets