or: where do we go from here? (1/3)
“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” - John Lewis
The election results have just dropped. And although Biden has won, it doesn’t feel like a victory. Even if, in some ways, it’s better than we might have been expecting.
The biggest question on my mind is this: Why did 70 million people in America vote for Trump…again?
The answer I see my friends reaching for most readily is that 70 million people in this country are garbage humans. And that we, white women in particular, didn’t “try hard enough” to change people’s minds to protect our Black / LGBTQ+ friends, etc.
Within 24 hours of November 3rd, I saw an outpouring of vitriol as I scrolled down my social media feeds: “A vote for Trump is a vote against me.” “White women fucked it up again.” “Half of this country is violent, thoughtless racists.”
But we have been living this story for four years now, and it’s not changing anything.
We have been screaming into the internet about the fragility of white women and the demise of the environment and the thoughtless selfishness of Trump supporters for four entire years and…it didn’t actually seem to change anyone’s mind. Certainly not in any meaningful way.
And if there is one thing I have learned from almost ten years of editing and coaching others through the labyrinthine process of bringing deep creative work into the world, it’s this: when “trying harder” doesn’t change the outcome, you’re not seeing the right problem.
It’s time to take a step back and take a look around.
If you want things to be different, you have to be different.
One of my deepest personal reflections over the last five years has been this question, which I have posed to myself over and over again: In what ways do I see the patterns that I see and hate in Trump within myself?
This meditation has been a profound source of wisdom.
One pattern I notice here, immediately, in myself and others, is the readiness to condemn. I watched Trump condemn Mexicans as rapists, and Middle Easterners as terrorists, and Central Americans seeking asylum.
I watched him condemn his advisors and his supporters when they disagreed with him, regardless of their depth of service. I watched him condemn Fox News on election night as they called Arizona.
This condemnation sickens me. It drives people into uncertainty, terror, powerless, and fear. It creates sycophants. It creates shame.
I am not ready to condemn 70 million people in this country.
If I want to be different from Trump, I have to be different.
And we can have discourse about the implications of scale and power, and impact and reach and institutions. And I will agree with you about how Trump’s condemnation and my condemnation and the condemnation of my liberal friends is different because the outcomes are different.
And that is true.
But the patterns, the stories, the human impulse: it is the same.
And until you have the power to impact the institutions, you have absolute sovereignty within yourself. As do I.
So we start there. We must start there.
”If the president is good at anything, it’s making people feel heard. He’s a liar who expertly appeals to people’s egos, fears and unfulfilled desires, making him an excellent salesman. Witness the millions of poor white people who turn out in droves during a pandemic to applaud him and his policies, even when those policies run afoul of their own interests.” — Erika D. Smith
As I watched the election results roll in, there was something inside of me that wondered about what was really going on here.
My liberal friends have a ready answer to this question: racism. greed. hatred. blindness. And there is plenty of that. We’ve seen it. I’m concerned about it. I condemn it.
But the concepts that are enabled by the Trump administration and the people who support them are not necessarily one and the same.
And, look. I will be the first to admit that I’ve spent my fair share of the last four years railing against people on the “other side,” assuming I knew that they were all misguided racists along with the rest of us, horrified as I saw them supporting an administration hellbent on slashing support for the vulnerable and our shared civil liberties.
I have said a lot of shitty things on the internet to imperfect people with the wind of moral superiority at my back, feeling like it was me on a Facebook crusade to personally ensure the triumph of decent society, social collateral be damned.
But one of the lingering and unsettling questions in my mind has been the fights I’ve had with my own family, who I know to be generally good people, about why—despite ALL of this—they insisted on supporting Trump.
And, plot twist? Most of the most vehement supporters of Trump in my family are not the people who are white.
I fought with my Mexican-American cousins about the fact that they were voting for Trump. I fought with my Korean-American cousins about the fact that they were voting for Trump.
In fact, now that I think about it, every one of my BIPOC extended family members voted for Trump in 2016, and I’m pretty sure they voted for him in 2020 as well.
And when I really thought about that, really looked at it, really asked myself why, I didn’t know the answer.
And if I took a step back for a second and took unilateral condemnation off the table, I wondered what it might be about the way my family members saw the world that would make them dismiss everything Trump had said and done and support him anyway?
I’ll be honest: Having that conversation with my actual family is a step too far into vulnerability at this present moment. So I turned to the internet instead.
The first thing I found was this Radiolab podcast.
And when I hear the people in that podcast tell us why they feel the way they do, I realized that (even if I didn’t agree with them, or found the implications of their decisions problematic) every single person had an internally logical reason to make the decisions they made.
Sometimes their lenses were smaller, sometimes their priorities were different, and sometimes their values were different. But not one of those people was a screaming racist, and not one of those people was deliberately trying to be an asshole. Neither were these the poor rural whites of the post-2016 election.
These were lots of regular people, whose lives were different than mine, making sound decisions for the scope of field they were considering.
And I had spent the last four years on the internet being an absolute asshole to them.
And feeling like I was right.
“I can maybe give some counsel and advice to the Democratic Party. And I think that that the thing we have to spend the most time on—because it's the thing we have the most control over—is how do we make sure that we are showing up in places where I think Democratic policies are needed, where they are helping, where they are making a difference, but where people feel as if they're not being heard and where Democrats are characterized as coastal, liberal, latte-sipping, politically-correct, out-of-touch folks. We have to be in those communities. And I've seen that when we are in those communities, it makes a difference.” - Barak Obama
What I want to ask you is this: How much actual listening have you done in the last four years? And not “hearing to decide whether or not the person is parroting the talking points you’ve decided are right” but actual listening?
Listening with “radical empathy,” where the point of the conversation is not to persuade or to identify wrongness, but truly to hear?
I can tell you that I have not done very much of this with people who are not intimate with me. I have a hard time sometimes doing that with people that ARE intimate with me.
One of the defining personal journeys of these last four years was a foray into couple’s counseling with my husband, whom I adore enough that I married him twice, also during these last four years.
But in the middle of 2018, I was feeling so unheard and so unseen in our relationship that I posted a screed on our front door about how his toxic masculinity was ruining my life.
It went over poorly. When I saw how hurt he was by what I had said, we both agreed that we seemed to be missing each other. So we agreed to go get help.
It took six months of excruciating vulnerability to get to the point where we could truly hear each other. And I think that he would agree, after all that, that there were some patterns in our relationship that were sourced in the patterns of toxic masculinity.
But in sensing them, and feeling as though he didn’t, I withdrew and withdrew and withdrew, leaving him to wonder if I truly loved him.
What I learned, when he felt safe enough to tell me, was that he was walking around in the world with a giant questionmark deep in his heart, wondering if I would ever love him the way he loved me. He was uncertain in the deepest place, where security in our relationship should be, and he was too afraid to voice those feelings, and even if he had been brave, I was too bitter and hurt to listen.
”There must be some sort of reckoning, and it can’t be left to left-leaning Black and brown people to do it, while white liberals move on with their lives thinking we’ve won and all is well if Biden pulls through. Sticking our collective heads in the sand is not the way to heal the many divisions that are threatening to rip this country apart. Because if we’ve learned anything this week, it’s that Biden was wrong about Trump being an aberration. - Erika D. Smith
As part of my day job, I recently watched a DEI webinar with Dr. Lisa Coleman from NYU.
During the Q&A portion of the presentation, people asked her over and over again what they thought she should do about some specific problem or concern in their organizations.
In every case, her answer to the question was the same: Start with learning how people are thinking and feeling right now. You can’t make change until you understand exactly where you are.
And so that’s what I attempted to do. Surveys aren’t the best for going deep, but they are a quantized form of distributed listening.
So this is what I learned from listening to America:
Black women were 2x more likely than white women to flip their vote from Clinton in 2016 to Trump in 2020—even if the majority of Black women and Black people in general voted for Biden.1
Something like 1.7 million Black women watched everything that went down with Breonna Taylor this summer (or maybe they didn’t?) and still voted for Trump. And something like 119k of those women had voted for Clinton in 2016.
My suspicion here? For some percentage of Black women in particular, the ethics of racial justice in America are not their primary concern.
The most significant shift from Trump in 2016 to Biden in 2020 was among college-educated white men. 2
Biden saw a 16 point gain in this demographic, the biggest blue shift I could find. Literally millions of white men lived the last four years and changed their minds about who they voted for—or, at least, they said they did.
I don’t know how to interpret this. Did these people just hate Clinton? Are white men listening to their white wives? Is the impact of college education influencing the way these men see the world? Hard to say. More work needed. But it’s certainly adding a layer of nuance I didn’t anticipate.
74% of voting Americans said the economy was their biggest concern.3
Not COVID. Not health care, or the supreme court, or abortion. People care more about the economy (and their jobs and livelihoods and income) than LGBTQ rights, legislation, or Russia’s involvement in the election. And 56% of Americans also believe that they’re better off now financially than than they were 4 years ago.
I think it’s really easy to conclude that Americans are greedy capitalist whores, but I think first about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.
We know that income inequity is at an all-time high in this country. We remember living through the insanity of the toilet paper shortage. People still die from opioid use and suicide in record numbers.
My conclusion: There are a lot of people in this country who feel the existential yawn of their own despair and tie that to a sense of financial in/security.
(I suspect this is because they don’t have access to popular mythology that helps them understand that fear can only be assuaged by going within.)
And that fear is such a driving force that it makes it difficult for them to consider the impact of their desire on others or the longer term implications of their own actions.
(And let’s be real: how many among us have struggled with this same thing in regards to Covid? Or Amazon Prime? Or plastic? This is a human failing, not a Republican one.)
Biden was perceived as better able to handle every surveyed concern—except the economy.4
It’s so close! But still, there’s that one little red tick mark advantage to Trump. Telling.
48% of voters don’t see politics as a struggle between right and wrong.5
I know that for me, that truth feels unfathomable. But it’s actually Trump voters who are more likely to agree with this sentiment, and with the way I see this, not other Biden voters.
As a whole, this year has changed how people view the impact of politics: In January, only 37% perceived politics as having moral implications.
But still, as of late October, almost half of voters don’t perceive that politics are representative of right and wrong. It’s hard to say if they’re also somewhat blind to the way our institutions & systems impact our lives, but I do think it’s easy to conclude that at least 42% of Trump voters aren’t explicitly voting to condemn you personally when they cast their votes…even if it feels like it.
This isn’t just “a Boomer thing”: among people ages 30-44 who voted for the first time in this election, 67% of them registered in order to vote for Trump.6
That number drops to 43% among 18-29 year olds, but is still nearly half.
It’s not just old racist white people who vote for Trump. It’s young racist people too…and people of all ages who have a diversity of values and priorities and fears, some of them with broader implications for others but still representative of the general triumphs and failures of human experience and perception.
This problem isn’t going to go away when people die. It’s here. We have to reckon with it.
People are really suffering. They're watching their towns and their livelihoods fall apart. They're watching people die from depths of despair and they're turning to, in many cases, the only voices that are talking to them, which is Sean Hannity. - Ryan Bates
I have more to say about this, about why I think we’re here and what I think we can learn. But this is long enough already, and the rest can wait for another day.
In the meantime, if I can invite you into one thing it would be this: Where is there room in your life to listen without blame?
(And that means without blame for yourself, or for others?)
What if the questions here aren’t about red or blue, but a third option entirely? What if the majority of people are truly making the best call for themselves, as they see it?
What if this isn’t (just) a question of racism, or bigotry, or hatred, but a question of security and human suffering?
What if our eagerness to condemn 70 million people because the actions of one hundred thousand visible, violent fuckwads are giving us justification to write off the rest of them?
How might the way we approach this conundrum change if the way we frame the problem changes?
All I know is this: dogma is dead and the old way isn’t working.
And it’s up to us, each one of us, to build the road from where we are to a new and shining future.
If you’ve found the content here to be useful to you, support my work by sharing with someone else who might feel the same or by choosing a paid subscription here.