The Morning After: Revisited

Tuesday of this week was Election Day, which means that Tuesday was the day last year when Donald Trump was elected President.

I felt a twinge in my stomach as I was going through my Facebook memories that morning. I saw the picture my family took shortly after my wife and I had voted for Hillary. Three of our faces were lit up with the smiles of people who had executed their civic duty 1 and who had played a part in electing the first female Commander-In-Chief (it was only three smiling faces because Shayna just looked like she wanted to go back home).

I remembered feeling a sort of nervous excitement. It wasn’t just that I was part of something bigger than myself, a movement that was going to continue the progress that had been made over the previous eight years. It was the fact that I knew that our country was at a turning point at that moment. Election Day 2016 was going to mark a new chapter in our country’s relatively short lifespan and my family and I were a part of writing the new chapter. Both of my children were going to be able to point to our new leader and see a woman in the highest position of power in our country. My daughter was going to have a new concept of the possibilities available to her and my son was going to be able to understand that women need to be seen as leaders too in order for our country to truly succeed. In my vision, not only had a woman finally reached the “top,” she had done so against an opponent who was unapologetic about using racism and misogyny as core aspects of his political platform. It just couldn’t have gotten much better than that.

Of course, we know that’s not how things turned out.

I processed my feelings about the election results in a blog post the following morning. I wrote a letter to my children begging them not to give up hope about their futures and not to be scared if they saw adults having trouble handling the moment. I reminded them of the strengths they had already begun to demonstrate, even at their young ages, and the fact that they were poised to use those strengths to speak up for their values as they grew older.

On Wednesday, the day after this year’s election, I felt like that hope from 2016 had been justified. It was an off-year election this year, so there weren’t as many major races to watch. I focused mostly on the governors races in Virginia and New Jersey; one state was finishing out the tenure of Chris Christie, the governor who could not have fallen lower in public opinion, and the other had a Republican candidate running on a platform of xenophobia similar to Donald Trump’s from 2016. The Democrats won each election, though, as well as a number of other races where progressive candidates beat opponents trying to push the same agendas of racism and sexism that Trump ran on last year.

Let’s be clear: I’m fully aware that the election results earlier this week will have a relatively small impact with regard to the rest of the country. Democratic governors in two states, one of which has already had a Democratic governor for the past few years, are not going to have much influence on whether or not the federal government decides to slash Medicaid funding as part of a new healthcare bill. They won’t be able to stop a bill that forces middle- and lower-class families to give the government more money in order to replace enormous tax cuts for the wealthiest businessmen and corporations in America. What they will be able to do, however, is ensure that their states continue to move with the times by vetoing bills that discriminate against their citizens or by working to ensure that undocumented Dreamers can remain in the country under DACA.

This year’s election may not have the same wide-ranging influence as the national elections for president or seats in Congress but it was never supposed to. This election was all about the nation’s response to the first year of the Trump presidency. It was about people choosing to speak out against the rhetoric of hate that Trump used to get elected and demonstrating that we are better than that. It was about citizens saying that they were unhappy with the choices that were made last year and that they were not going to allow the same mistakes to be made again.

Last year, I wrote that my children should be hopeful and ready to fight. This year, I get to tell them we took the first steps back in the right direction.


1. The memories also included this exchange:
Me: We did it! We fulfilled our civic duty.
Eitan: Hahaha, Daddy said doody!

Featured image credit: CC0 Creative Commons

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The Conversation is Still Worth Having

I came across an article on HuffPost the other day about what it’s like to have a conversation about politics in America. The author, Kayla Chadwick, stated that there are fundamental disagreements between people about the way our government should run and to what degree people should care about the welfare of their fellow citizens. These disagreements have then resulted in the ongoing arguments and bickering about healthcare legislation, tax reform and immigration law, among others.

While these debates are hardly a new feature in politics, American or otherwise, the attitude she brings to the discussion is symptomatic of the way political discourse seems to run nowadays. Her main point is that she is no longer willing to try to engage in conversation with conservative politicians or the citizens that subscribe to similar ideals because they lack basic empathy for other people. The article drips with her disdain for a number recent Republican bill proposals, Trumpcare being simply the tip of the iceberg. The title of her article serves as a clear summary of her view: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” She says that any person who would propose a bill that would take health insurance away from millions of people, vote against laws that increase funding for public schools or allow the working poor to earn a living wage, clearly has no capacity for considering the welfare of others.

I appreciate Chadwick’s candor and I will even admit to sharing some of her hesitation in striking up a conversation with someone who is so far on the other side of the political spectrum.  It would be particularly difficult, for instance, for me to be convinced that access to useful healthcare coverage and medical services should be anything other than basic human rights, as opposed to only rights of humans who can afford them. Furthermore, I could not guarantee that my opinion of a person would be unaffected if I heard someone try to push such an agenda. As much as I may want to engage in a substantive discussion about the merits – or lack thereof – of proposed legislation, it would be a challenge for me to get past that hurdle.

That being said, I think there are aspects of these kinds of arguments that Chadwick is missing. For one thing, Chadwick does not seem interested in reaching any sort of compromise. I don’t necessarily blame her; as she says at the start of the article, many of us have reached “arguing-about-politics fatigue,” so any conversation that starts from a point of disagreement seems doomed to devolve into the shouting, noisy stalemate often portrayed on cable news shows. Even civil conversations often end up sinking to the level of personal insults. Not only is there no “winner,” we end up so angry at each other that we don’t even want to hear each other’s opinions, leaving preciously small hope for any sort of resolution.

The problem with the view of any effort being useless since the goal is unattainable1 is twofold. First, it overlooks the idea of earning partial credit. Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t gain the Democratic Party nomination in the 2016 Presidential election, but he did succeed in pushing the party’s agenda much farther to the left than it had ever been. That is a meaningful achievement, even if he did not win the nomination. Chadwick may not be able to convince a conservative person to flip their entire ideology and become a Democrat but, at least by remaining open to conversation, she may be able to convince them to reevaluate the policies they are defending.

The other problem with reducing the approach to political discourse to the black and white terms of success or failure is that doing so reinforces the isolation of the various groups in our country with their own ideals. “The “I’ve got mine, so screw you,” attitude has been oozing from the American right wing for decades,” Chadwick notes, but she is leaving out the idea that the left has been just as obstinate; we simply replaced selfishness with self-righteousness. We decided that we knew what was best for the country and labeled anyone who disagreed as immoral, uncaring or racist.

I would argue that it is still worthwhile to engage in political conversations with people who do not share our views but that we have to modify our goals. As I said earlier, I agree with Chadwick that fundamental disagreements are extremely unlikely to change; that’s what makes them fundamental. A Republican is not going to suddenly become a Democrat just because I make a good argument, just like I’m not suddenly going to alter my views because I hear a persuasive defense of conservatism. If our objective is to understand each other, however, rather than convince each other, I think we can actually make some headway.

The main reason we often reach stalemates in these conversations is because people don’t want to be told that they are wrong. Most people are more likely to cling to their beliefs, even in the face of irrefutable2 evidence, rather than admit that they might have made a mistake. That’s why starting the discussion with the objective of trying to change someone’s mind is misguided; someone who has decided they are right is extremely unlikely to then decide otherwise.

On the other hand, if we start from a position of trying to understand the other side, rather than change it, we actually have a chance to achieve something much more meaningful. We have become so accustomed to keeping ourselves separated by labels that we have stopped viewing each other as actual human beings.3 The right ridicules liberals for being melodramatic and for not being fiscally conscious. Meanwhile, the coastal elites who campaigned for Hillary labeled Trump voters as uneducated racists, rather than trying to understand the reasons behind their decision to back him.

The best course of action – for all of us – is to talk less, listen more and to start from a place of agreement, rather than a place of conflict. Find out what you have in common with someone from the other side – allegiance to a sports team, family makeup, movie interests, etc. Ask them questions about themselves, their family and their interests. Ask how their background brought them to hold their current political views. Get as deep as you can in understanding where a person is coming from and then – this is the hard part – allow them to keep their beliefs.4 We don’t necessarily all need to agree; in fact, one of the primary tenets of our country is that we are able to move forward, even when we have differing opinions. But, as long as we can continue communicating, we can have a better understanding of each other’s opinions and work to reach some common ground about where our country is heading.

 


1. This concept was summed up by Bart Simpson as, “Can’t win; don’t try.

2. “Irrefutable” is significantly less iron-clad than it used to be, thanks to the knee-jerk reaction of calling a report “Fake News.”

3. We can thank the media – both mainstream and social – for this dynamic.

4. Ana Marie Cox, political correspondent for MTV news and host of the Crooked Media Podcast, “With Friends Like These,” conducted a number of these kinds of interviews with Trump supporters at a rally in Iowa with fascinating results.

Speaking My Mind

It was just short of a year ago that I wrote a post about keeping my political opinions to myself.  I wrote that I had no interest in publicizing my views of governmental policies or the personalities that were advocating for them, largely because doing so felt like screaming at the wind. It seemed futile to publish articles about foreign policy or health care or education reform because I never felt like my voice would have any effect. I’m only one person, of course, and it is always hard to tell if anyone is listening. I pictured myself publishing a blog post and my words dissipating into the ether of cyberspace, without any response or recognition. Or, if there were recognition, I imagined it manifesting in the form of internet trolls hurling insults at me from the protection of Twitter egg avatars, rather than challenging my argument with an opposing opinion and engaging me in honest discourse. It’s not even that I’m looking for recognition with this blog;1 but if I’m going to write about something as important as the state of our government, I want to be able to make a difference.

The other issue was that I felt disappointed in the political conversations I was watching between actual politicians. I published the post in June 2016, at the end of the presidential primary election schedule. My biggest complaint was that the debates had become “nothing more than candidates throwing insults back and forth at each other while the political issues get pushed to the side… [All] platitudes and sound bites with no substance.” I was looking for leaders to describe their plans for moving our country forward but I was given reality television drama instead.

That brings me to today.

As I was deciding how I wanted to approach my stance to the events that have transpired over the past few months, I realized what has been bothering me the most about our President’s administration. It is not just my vehement disagreement with his choices for cabinet posts, as I outlined in my letter to the President on Inauguration Day. It is not just that I take exception to the blind defense that most Republican members of Congress provide in response to the President’s executive orders that are clear examples of discrimination. It is not even just my anger about the GOP’s celebration of a health care bill whose purpose is to offset tax cuts for the super-rich, rather than provide actual health care to U.S. citizens.

The most concerning and frustrating aspect of the American government since our President took office has been the fact that the supposed leader of the free world does not seem to care about the people he is said to be leading or the institutions of the country of which he is supposed to be in charge.

The President makes open displays of disdain for those he feels are beneath him and speaks negatively about foreign leaders without hesitation.2 Many of the President’s words seem to be uttered without any consideration as to their potential consequences. He appears incapable of admitting that he is mistaken (at best) or that he has lied outright (at worst). His disregard for the weight of his position and the related importance of his comments has shattered any last shred of integrity that might have remained with him.

To put it simply: I don’t trust him.

It is unfortunate, to say the least, that an educated American citizen feels like his Commander-in-Chief cannot be relied upon to accomplish simple administrative tasks. It is also unfortunate that his staff is forced to bend over backwards trying to defend his actions and comments, even if doing so forces them into their own political gaffes. However, neither of these are as depressing as the refusal of Republican members of Congress to deviate from party lines in order to speak out against behavior that is harmful to the American public or, in some cases, borders on treason. Our representatives in government should be held responsible if their actions do not benefit their constituents. If they vote in favor of bills that have a direct connection to negative results for the citizens in their districts, they should not be re-elected. If those in power take action to remove people from office who are investigating potential ties to corruption and foreign interference in our governmental procedures, they should be held accountable.

It is not worth remaining quiet about one’s views in our current political climate simply because the desire for open and honest political discussion is hard to find. It has been people’s complacence and comfort with silence that has led to the mess that has become our government. People need to speak about their ideas, whether the audience is apparent or not. We need to write letters to editors and op-ed pieces, make phone calls to our elected officials and attend rallies and marches in person. If it feels like Washington is not listening to us, we need to speak louder, reminding our representatives and senators that they work for us and not the other way around.

However, and perhaps this is even more important, we also need to listen. While it feels empowering to join with those who feel the same way we do, it is incumbent upon us to engage those who disagree with us so that we can understand their position and become more informed about the circumstances that brought them to their opinions. Such discourse continues to be critical for our nation’s progress because open conversation is the only path toward compromise. Even if we succeed in replacing the politicians who have brought us to this point, a lack of appropriate and mindful follow-up would land us right back at square one in the future. Without it, the population will continue to reinforce the current divide along party lines, resulting in the same white noise that has brought us to where we are today.


1. Which is good, considering the blog’s fairly meager following.

2. And those were our allies!

Featured image courtesy of Mediamodifier.

Dear Mr. President

Dear Mr. President,

I’m going to begin by offering you congratulations on your inauguration today. You may not have won my vote, or even the votes of the majority of U.S. citizens, but you did win the votes you needed to win the election, which is why you’re standing where you are today. As I told my students after the election was over, “Whether you were happy with the results of the election or not, the system worked the way it was supposed to.” And so, I will congratulate you.

I must tell you, though, Mr. President, I am nervous about your upcoming administration.

I am concerned about the people you have appointed to your cabinet posts. Senator Jeff Sessions, whom you have selected as your attorney general, has a political history replete with racist actions and statements; your Secretary of State appointment, Rex Tillerson, has close ties with Russian leader Vladimir Putin; and your nomination for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, not only has no formal experience working in schools, she struggles to understand the basic policies of our education system. I’m not saying that you have to be an expert in these areas or that you should be running these political and economic systems yourself, but your appointments of people to positions who are on record as being biased against the agencies they are about to oversee are, as I said, concerning.

I’m also concerned about the connections between your supporters and acts of violence, acts which seemed to happen fairly frequently during your campaign. I’m willing to acknowledge the possibility that these incidents may not have been quite as prevalent as they seemed because of the publicity they received in the media. That being said, however, I would argue that even one act of violence on your behalf should be deemed deplorable, rather than minimized. It would also be comforting to hear you condemn acts of violence against women, people of color or even just people who disagree with you, rather than simply distancing yourself from those attacks, if you address them at all.

The root of my unease, Mr. President, is that I have difficulty believing that you have the well-being of our nation as your top priority. If my concerns stemmed simply from an inherent difference of political opinion, I would not be happy about your actions and cabinet appointments, but I would accept them. The problem is that every action you have taken, both during your campaign and since the election, has appeared to be self-serving, from maintaining ties to your businesses after being elected to appointing Rick Perry to head the Department of Energy, a position neither of you understood. Even if it is not necessarily the case, it appears to me you are more focused on your own interests than on how you will achieve your goal of making America great again.

Mr. President, you have the most unique of opportunities before you. Today you are becoming our Commander-in-Chief and our representative to the rest of the world. It is a position of great power, to be sure; but, as we learned from Spider-Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

If I may be so bold, I would like to give you some advice as you begin your new position. You don’t have to listen to it but I sincerely hope that you will at least consider it. You seem to put so much stock in what other people think of you, taking to Twitter to post angry responses, whether you feel you’ve been slighted by CNN, Saturday Night Live or Meryl Streep. I believe that one of the reasons why many people – including me – have been so outwardly negative about your election victory is that we do not feel like you see yourself as our leader. As I said earlier, your actions seem to indicate you have only your own interests in mind. It appears as though you plan to lead the members of your own socioeconomic group and the rest of us will have to fend for ourselves.

My advice is this: lead all of us. Answer our questions, rather than suppressing the voices that imply that you might be wrong. Explain the rationales behind your actions and support your arguments with facts. Reassure us that you are thinking about the consequences of your comments and that you are listening to advisers who have some political experience as opposed to just your business buddies. Assuage our fears by demonstrating that you’re not just making decisions because “you feel like it.” Be more transparent about your thought process and engage in true political discourse, rather than simply insulting the people who contradict you.

We may not be happy with your policies or your political actions. You still may not get our agreement. But you may get our respect.

Congratulations again, Mr. President.

Sincerely,

Aaron