Monday, February 20, 2017

Sports, Politics, Tactics, and the Emotional Mind: A National Conversation

Warning: This will be a necessarily long essay, because there's a lot to process one month into the Trump presidency. Whether you like it or loathe it, this presidency marks a rare, urgent point in our nation's history. We've never elected someone like this before -- again, that point stands whether you're happy about the occasion or absolutely crushed.

Warning No. 2: In case you haven't noticed, political discussions tend to get very heated very quickly (which is a big reason this essay is being written). This essay will not attempt to litigate various political matters through a frame of right or wrong -- not in terms of making declarations, at any rate.

Liberals will generally believe X. Conservatives will generally believe Y. No one needs to be told what they think is right or wrong -- you wouldn't believe something if you thought it was wrong. You all come to this text -- or any text you read on anything -- with your own set of strongly-held beliefs. 

So: In THIS essay, statements of political affiliation, ideological leanings, or emotional tendencies are not meant to convey approval or disapproval, nor are they meant to convey that one side is inherently better or worse than another. They are meant to simply lay out broad and generalized positions of adherence/inclination/aspiration on the parts of the two competing parties and ideologies in this country. Yes, individual voters and sub-groups naturally proliferate within these two larger umbrellas. Referring to only two ideologies and parties does not represent endorsement of a two-party system. Similarly, references to only two ideologies and parties do not represent an intent to ignore more granular and real differences within the parties and our larger framework of American polity.

Audience Note: This is primarily intended for those who are politically liberal, because I am a liberal and am more emotionally vested in seeing liberalism flourish. However, being a child of God and a citizen of the world before (and above) being a liberal, it's important to represent my values in a way which includes conservatives and various people I disagree with on matters of pure policy. Conservatives can read this as interested onlookers who very much have something of value to say to liberals... and ought to be heard by liberals.

Conservatives merely need to know that liberals are my primary audience here.

The preamble is over. Let's begin...


One of the greatest things about sports is that they represent one of the few remaining socially cohesive pursuits for large communities of people who otherwise wouldn't want to have anything to do with each other.

Rooting for your favorite tennis player; supporting your favorite school basketball team; roaring with delight at a football game (or match, for international readers) -- these communally shared passions transcend politics. You might not know it -- how would you? -- but that fan sitting three seats away from you in the stadium holds political views that are 180 degrees opposite yours. Yet, when your team scores, you both yell like banshees and high-five, because that's what fans do at the stadium.

YOU'RE ON THE SAME SIDE IN SPORTS, in ways you'd never be in other theaters of existence. 

Speaking from personal experience, I am not a fan of sports (not the ones I cover), but a journalist. Yet, when I write about American college football -- a sport loved predominantly by people in the South and the industrial Midwest, with cultural views and orientations much more conservative than mine -- who cares? We're all lovers of college football, with a passion for sharing knowledge and conversing about the topic. Sports overpower politics -- my readers and Twitter followers would rather have fun than be ideological purists... as it should be.

That's one thing sports teaches me about politics, but that's just the surface of a much deeper and larger reality.


The image of being at a sporting event (and on Twitter, though we're not "in the stadium," we're all essentially gathered around the field/court/arena anyway) is particularly instructive because it strips us of our particularities and inequalities. 

The spiritual masters offer this as an exercise for building empathy and strengthening our "spiritual muscles": 

Look into the eyes of the complete stranger next to you at a restaurant or on a bus or in any public setting. You're not being creepy. Look into the eyes of that stranger and hold the gaze for at least 30 seconds. When you do that, simply think, "This person is made of the same stuff as I am. I don't know what is going on in this person's life, but we both look out at the world from these eyes every day. I want the best for this person, just as I'd want the best for everyone else, for every other pair of eyes which tries to make sense of a confusing, difficult world on a daily basis."

A particular realization to make on the heels of that spiritual exercise flows from a story which recently made the rounds: A man who professed to have hated Muslims experienced a change of heart when he personally met Syrian and Afghan refugees.

This is not meant in any way to shame conservatives. It is meant to express a simple and universal emotional truth of human life, one which happens to have a heavily spiritual undercurrent: The power of the personal encounter is supreme in its ability to change hearts.

We argue with each other on Twitter or Facebook or other realms of the internet, and our interactions are generally very distant. Yes, many of us make friendships online, but the cross-boundary conversation -- with someone who holds diametrically opposed views or comes from a substantially different life background -- is extremely hard to pull off. The personal encounter is the best way to break down barriers. This applies to any person, regardless of ideology or creed. 

Sports certainly have their flaws -- and to be sure, subsections of sports fans display the same kind of tribalist instincts which corrode American politics -- but sports remain better than most at helping us connect with people from different backgrounds. A fundamental reality of American sports is that most of the ticket-buying public is white, while the large majority of professional athletes is black.

Sports are not this tension-free oasis of joy where everything is sunny and just and right, but the purity of competition enables winners and losers to walk away from a game by shaking hands, the loser waiting until next year and the winner acknowledging that the losing fan's team put up a good fight.

Our politics........ do not exactly operate this way, to say the very least. 

This is a different kind of competition. It's far more consequential than sports... which is why the Trump-Clinton election was and continues to be such a psychically resonant event across the spectrum of emotional reactions. The stakes of the 2016 American presidential election -- now being fought for on a daily basis in the midst of a remarkable 24-7 news cycle -- were so large that, with perfect reasonableness, many Americans have plunged into depths of emotions they might not have known they were capable of.

This is not a value judgment of any American, merely a reflection of reality: Many Americans treated the result as a death, a cause for mourning and grieving the way one would lament the loss of a friend or beloved family member at a relatively early age. My mom suffered a heart attack before the election and needed about 10 days to emerge from a state of shocked misery after November 8. When Stephen Colbert (whom I like, and whom I know many conservatives dislike) did his Election Night special on the Showtime cable network, he saw members of the audience -- who gathered expecting a Clinton victory -- weeping when it became apparent Trump was going to win. Colbert later remarked that he had nothing to say to or for an audience which was so emotionally set on one outcome. The freight train of what felt like death to many American liberals had just hit them full force. People I talk to in Seattle -- my normal city of residence and one of America's most liberal cities -- won't shy away from saying that yes, they've been grieving over the election. Their words, not mine.

Therefore, if the outcome of Clinton-Trump felt like death, Trump and his voters are -- in the eyes of many American liberals -- murderers. Murderers of a dream, murderers of political norms, murderers of various ideas previously felt too sacred to violate. On an emotional level, it is completely understandable that most liberals view Trump voters as "f***ing sexist misogynistic racist scumbags," which -- for the sake of brevity -- will henceforth be referred to in the acronym "FSMRS."

This brings us not to the final point of this essay (there will be a section on tactics later), but to its central ground: If guided by the spiritual exercise above -- looking into the eyes of another person for 30 seconds and wanting the best for that person, regardless of his or her circumstances or views -- it is imperative for American liberals to not regard Trump voters as FSMRS.

As I have remarked on Twitter to liberals unwilling (very understandably, I might add...) to listen to Trump voters, "Empathy might seem like capitulation to or approval of an opponent, but it is nothing more than respecting the whole of the individual person." To amplify that remark, one can empathize with any person even in the midst of intense disagreements or conflicts. Moreover -- and getting to the very center of this essay -- the spiritual masters would tell us we SHOULD do precisely that. Empathy with and for opponents -- those different from us -- ought to be one of our fundamental aims as spiritual beings... at least if we value spiritual fulfillment and self-actualization as a core goal in our lives.


Here comes the source of a great deal of tension and dissonance, flowing from the above point: Many American liberals possess an agnostic, if not outright secular, identity on the spectrum of religious views and beliefs. Plenty of American liberals are ex-Catholics; moreover, the numbers of ex-Catholics exceed many individual mainline Protestant denominations in America. Ex-Catholics, if they ever wanted to form a church community as a bloc, would constitute one of the nation's larger mainline denominations. The sex abuse crisis, combined with decades of narrow-worldview preaching from old white European men, have caused a substantial exodus in American Catholicism. (Again, this is not a value judgment, merely a notation of the demographic shifts and their causes.)

Many other American liberals didn't need the sex abuse crisis to push them from a churched background and into an unchurched or unaffiliated position. They were always skeptical of religion itself or appalled by atrocities committed in the name of religion (or both). Purely in terms of what liberals and conservatives say they believe (again, we're not going to judge sides or assess their levels of fidelity -- that's for you, as individuals, to resolve on your own terms...), liberals occupy the vast majority of secular-or-atheist ground. It's not exclusively their terrain, but much more prominently so.

Why mention this if speaking primarily to a liberal American audience? Forget about whether people live up to their values or not -- that's a different essay for another writer to compose. This much is true: The language of spirituality -- which connects to values and principles -- has a lot to say to American liberals in terms of how to handle Trump voters on an emotional level. Thus begins a difficult but necessary (pretty much all necessary tasks in life are difficult, right?) walk through the complexities of interaction with opponents. They're harder to do in an online setting than in person, but in person, they're still extremely difficult because of the directness of personal encounter.

A key point: This is not (yet) a matter of pragmatic politics or effective tactics. I am remaining in and focusing on the realm of spirituality before going to the political and tactical realms, because I locate and value spiritual work as the most important work a person will ever do. Phrased differently -- and for a more secular audience -- I value treating people well as sufficient religious expression (which is something I know will meet with disagreement from theological conservatives). 

Why? As a number of wise priests have told me over the years, "Spoken prayer is irrelevant without meaningful action and behavior toward others." 

Private faith and private piety, if not ever translated into a loving embrace of the very people it is hardest to love, aren't worth a dime. That's not an attack on faith -- it's an attack on a poor and incomplete representation of what faith is supposed to be, and what it is supposed to create in the believing individual.

Let's then explore why the language of spirituality has much to say to American liberals (especially in that secular-or-agnostic range of cohorts) in terms of how to handle Trump voters as persons.


First off, yes, I think religion in the United States is taught very poorly. If you look at the post beneath this one on this blog's homepage, you'll find an essay on the very topic. The reality (my opinion, of course, not a fact in the way 2 plus 2 equals 4...) that religion is taught very poorly does not mean, however, that central concepts of how religion (and more precisely, a generally Protestant and evangelical Christianity) is taught should be ignored. One must use the structure of language to realize the deeper meaning behind words and concepts.

Sin is a big and central concept for evangelical Christians -- probably in any land, but my focus is on America. Within an evangelical Christian framework, Jesus died as atonement for the sins of human beings -- he died for our sins. Easter -- the Resurrection -- is a victory over not just death, but sin itself. The language of evangelical Christianity in America is founded upon the idea that "I can do nothing, but God can do everything." As the Pauline letter to the Galatians says (chapter 2), "I no longer live, but Christ lives in me." Personal acceptance of Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior washes away the stain of sin symbolized by the blood sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the cross. Alone, men and women are flawed and imprisoned by sin; once they accept Jesus, they have salvation. It's a highly personal testimony to the need to be freed from sin and obedient to God. 

While portions of these beliefs represent the bedrock of Christianity in virtually any denomination, other specific details do not flow across all denominations. Yet, this concept of sin forms the bridge to an understanding not just of how the evangelical mind works, but to how American liberals and Trump voters can at least stop hating each other in the wake of months of entirely understandable venting.


A good and honest catechist (someone who teaches the doctrines and precepts of the Christian religion) will tell you the following about evil and sin:

Evil is a force which people can strengthen or perpetuate in spite of good intentions or innocence in terms of personal conduct.

Example: Person A tells a lie to Person B with the full intent of preserving some dark secret or larger truth. Person a tells the lie because s/he thinks Person B, if knowing the full truth, will commit an act of violence toward Person C. However, Person B somehow learned the truth before Person A told the well-intentioned and protective lie. Person B murders Persons D and E, this other couple which got entangled with Person C.

Person A meant to protect Person C, but through a well-intentioned act, unleashed forces which led to the deaths of two people (D and E), not just one.

Person A wasn't evil. Person A didn't do something most reasonable people would identify as evil. Yet, Person A contributed to evil, and moreover, to more evil than what s/he had hoped to initially avoid.

Sin is something much more focused: Sin, in its purest catechetical definition, means "knowing something is wrong and doing it anyway." To put a finer point on this definition, this means "having a full grasp, with a fully-formed and developed conscience, that an act is wrong and, without sufficient/careful/prolonged re-examination of conscience, committing the act."

In secular language, we'd call this "snapping" or "losing it." Sin, though, necessitates full and true awareness of the wrongness of an act and diving headlong into the act, damn the consequences.

This brings us to the gulf -- the yawning, endless chasm -- between American liberals and Trump voters. How does the concept and language of sin enter into it?


Trump voters can be viewed and dissected in many ways and from many angles, but of interest here is the fact that 81 percent of American evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This fact is itself a strong reason why so many American liberals can't stand religion and/or left a church community, but what gets lost for many American liberals (though hardly all of them -- many are very deeply rooted in a more liberal expression and awareness of Christianity...) is that the motivations of evangelicals are not their own.

This is how the immediate inclination to label ALL Trump voters "FSMRS" can be softened and ultimately (over a long period of time) broken down. 

If you've ever taken a class or attended a retreat which in some way focused on conflict resolution or conflict negotiation -- whether marriage counseling or business communication or anything else under the sun -- you will hear this principle if the therapist or the leader of the seminar is any good: 

In communication, the primary (not exclusive, just primary) burden lies with the sender to convey the message in the way s/he wants the receiver to absorb it. The two parties -- sender and receiver -- do not have to agree on the correctness of what is being said, but they must share an understanding of both the point AND its intent.

People on opposite sides of ANY political divide have always tried to rip each other's throats out because they always stand on opposite groundings, opposite foundations from which their language and their subsequent framing of issues flow.

American liberals looked (and still look) at the whole of the Trump candidacy, and all the appeals to abhorrent behavior, and conclude that it is 100-percent unacceptable for anyone to vote for this man under any circumstances, and that a vote for Trump makes a person -- inherently and immediately -- an FSMRS.

American evangelicals probably want Trump to speak more politely, and they certainly don't approve of his sexual assault, but as Democrats did under Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky affair, they make the point that personal conduct and fitness for the presidency are two different things. (Again, I'm not here to litigate this, only to explain what both sides think and why...)

Evangelicals then make the point that ending abortion -- which they see as a profound and central moral evil in this country -- justifies voting for Trump in spite of his abhorrent personal conduct and all the other unsavory aspects of his candidacy. For evangelical Christians, at least those of a conservative bent in red states throughout this country, it is -- both literally and figuratively -- a matter of Gospel truth that abortion is the biggest reason to vote for or against political candidates in the United States of America.

Right or wrong, liberals and evangelical Christians largely (there are some liberal Catholics who oppose abortion and evangelical Christians who don't regard the issue as the all-important litmus test) perceived Trump through entirely different lenses, just as they do in most elections for most candidates. 

This is the gap in communication which reflects our nation's deep and -- I fear -- deepening divide. 

Both sides in America's political war think the other side is living in sin. Evangelicals would use the term "sin"; American liberals use FSMRS or other variations. However, neither side is, because one has to KNOW something is wrong and then do it in order to sin. 

Votes are value judgments in which people weigh various factors against each other and try to choose the best representation (or in many cases, the "not as bad as the other guy" representation) of their views. If processing information and context the way an American liberal would -- in an upbringing belonging to many liberals (urban, coastal, unchurched, watches MSNBC daily) -- that person would almost certainly not share the same thought process of many American evangelical Christians, who live in states with starkly different demographic profiles (rural, inland, a house church or evangelical worship center 10 blocks from home, watch FOX News daily). 

Life experiences; the information pumped into our brains; the kinds of people we do and don't meet on a daily basis; the environments we inhabit and the contexts they supply to inform our value judgments -- these and other fundamental parts of life are so dramatically different for The Two Americas. Even if one side is inherently more moral and correct and knowledgeable than the other, purely as a matter of relationship to facts (which both sides, of course, think of themselves), the other side isn't sinning -- NOT THE PEOPLE ON THE GROUND WHO STRUGGLE WITH LIFE EVERY DAY.

I realize this is a brief departure from the larger flow of the essay, but it's necessary to make the distinction: POLITICIANS AND ELITES, people in positions of great wealth and power, and with unfettered access to all manner of resources, can be said to sin when they do things that cause harm. (This applies to Democratic politicians as well as Republicans. Who sins more? That's not my concern -- this is not an attempt to litigate or make pronouncements on "false equivalences" or like terms.)

The single heroin-addicted mother of three on the sidewalks of New York, or the meth-addicted parents of a single child in Idaho, certainly made bad life choices, but their actions are properly understood as just those -- bad choices -- and not sin... at least if they were poor all their lives and turned to selling and using drugs as both their only financial catapult and their only emotional escape. Their bad choices were the products not of a knowing intent that their actions were wrong; their actions flowed from the tangled intertwining of several life factors that oppress people: lack of education, lack of communal support, lack of good job prospects, lack of awareness on where to attend a parental instruction class at the community center. (If you're in a rural area, is that the first thing which comes to mind? Clearly not for anyone who struggles with life on that profound a level.)

The point of this persistent focus on sin is not just that Americans sin less often than they think their opponents do; it's that much as sin requires fully-formed knowledge and awareness of the wrongness of an act, communication between opposing groups must involve a basic understanding of (not agreement with) the intent of what the other group is trying to say. 

The FSMRS label might feel good and cathartic, but it can't be applied to whole groups of people, because every individual person -- that one pair of eyes on the bus or in a sports stadium -- masks internal thoughts and individual life experiences we can't know about... UNLESS, of course, we sit down in a coffee shop and really listen to that person's life story.

That is the spirituality of respect for the other person. That's the bridge in communication Americans have to walk. That's the understanding of different kinds of language, different cultural framings, different undergirdings of worldviews and thought processes, which so deeply divide Americans. Purely on a spiritual level, it is INHERENTLY GOOD to be more in communion with one another, and to fight less with one another. Moreover, this spiritual good is always emotionally healthful for us. 

Less anger -- living less out of an angry center, that place which makes us want to label opponents "FSMRS" all the time -- makes us more likely to avoid heart attacks and cardiovascular stress. 

Less anger and more peace trigger different chemical reactions in our brains. We become calmer and more measured in our thinking. We generally make fewer mistakes compared to when we are consumed with anger. We make fewer knee-jerk decisions, which correlates to a decrease in mistakes. We sleep better -- physically, yes, but also in the more metaphorical sense of regretting fewer things we say and do.

Ah, but I haven't really addressed the politics and tactics of any of this. That's the next -- and last -- subsection of this essay.


Let's go back to sports to provide a good way of framing effective tactics in politics or anything else we engage in.

Roger Federer has won 18 major tennis championships for many obvious reasons. One essential way of framing his excellence is that he can hit any kind of shot really well. His backhand might be his worst shot... and it has been one of the 10 to 15 best backhands in tennis over the past 13 years. Without getting too deep into tennis for those who don't follow it regularly, let's cut to the chase: Federer is far more adept than most of his peers at hitting any kind of ball. For the non-tennis folks in the crowd, Federer can hit topspin, drive, sliced, chipped, drop, inside-out, inside-in, forehand overhead, backhand overhead, T-serve, wide-serve, kicker, or flat shots with well-above average effectiveness. The constant variety of Federer's game -- as a server or when hitting groundstrokes from the back of the court -- makes opponents unsure of what kind of shot is coming next. Is it the heavy topspin? Is it the hard low drive backhand? Is it the teasing slice or the craved drop shot?

The uncertainty of an opponent -- constantly on his heels -- enables each Federer shot to be more effective. The collective, the presence of abundant variety, becomes not only a weapon, but THE weapon.

Isn't it great to know that on a day -- or against a specific player -- when spins and angles don't work, a pure power approach can? Isn't it great to know that if groundstrokes aren't working great, a good net-rushing attack supported by well-placed serves can do the job? Federer naturally wants to do a few things better than his opponents so that he can win without added stress or complications, but if he's dragged into that long and grueling match, does he have a Plan B when Plan A fails? He often has a Plan C or a Plan D -- not against Rafael Nadal, but against virtually everyone else. This is why he's been so incredibly successful.

The simple question I pose to American liberals, whether identifying with the Democratic Party or not: Why shouldn't political tactics be like this?


This is not a value judgment of Republicans and conservatives, merely an attempt to frame politics and ideology in America: William F. Buckley of National Review (one of the signature conservative publications in the country) once said that he and his magazine had a duty to "stand athwart history, yelling, 'STOP!'" 

This next statement doesn't mean conservatives are "negative" people with fewer ambitions or inferior motives compared to liberals; it is merely meant to frame how our ideologies see the world: Conservatives, for the most part, care about saying "no" more than liberals do. 

This is not about Trump-versus-Clinton so much as the larger debates which occur in matters of finance and culture, setting aside the question of whether politicians in Washington live up to those stated ideas or not.

I'm a Bernie Sanders voter. I believe Bernie when he says we can make college free for all Americans. (The point here is not whether he's right; it's only to frame liberalism relative to conservatism in very broad terms.) More money and resources for more disadvantaged populations -- that's basic liberal framing and thought. It's an oversimplification, but the core truth remains. For conservatives, financial matters are more about cutting taxes and reducing spending. Get more money by being more responsible and saving resources. Reduce regulatory burdens on citizens and businesses. Liberals -- at least in terms of outwardly stated views -- want government to do more, while conservatives want government to do less. 

Realizing that these questions can be flipped in ways which switch the answers, I still think that liberalism is broadly a "YES" philosophy, conservatism a "NO" philosophy within the theater of politics. No liberal should feel superior for this reason, and no conservative should feel s/he is being talked down to -- this is merely a representation of views and orientations surrounding the subject matter.

Because liberals and conservatives are different, and because the presence of only two electorally viable parties undeniably means that competing strains of political worldviews fight within both the Democratic and Republican Party structures (the party machinery at the top and the grassroots underneath), it seems important to have a bigger toolbox of ways to connect with voters, purely as an extension of politics (and removed from the spirituality and emotional health which attach to better relationships with ideological opponents).

This is where language comes into play, and moreover, where Democrats (liberals) need to realize that for all the ways in which they think they are different from Republicans (conservatives), they have been the same in one basic way: They get just as angry at Republicans (FSMRS!) as Republicans get at them!

It is a profound irony, one which is hard to face up to for liberals, but an irony which -- if ever dealt with in the right way -- could create an electoral colossus which would be hard to break for a very long time.


Culturally -- I don't even think any liberals would disagree on this -- liberalism is winning in America. 

Gay marriage. More non-traditional families. Erosion of mainline religion. Shop owners have to sell gay wedding cakes. Millennials and younger evangelicals who believe in climate change. The larger undercurrent of mass culture -- naturally channeled through densely urban areas and in highly commercialized contexts -- is liberal in nature. 

Given these larger underlying pulls, one might think that most of America has Democratic governors and Democratic state legislatures.

Nope -- roughly two-thirds of both are controlled by Republicans.

Well, okay, then, at least there's a Democratic Presi--


House, if not the Sen---

Nope -- not the presidency, not the whole Congress, and not even one chamber of Congress are in the Democratic column, even though mass culture is generally in a much more liberal place compared to the Reagan years.

How can this be? Republicans and conservatives -- while dumb (in my opinion) in terms of shrinking their demographic windows of opportunity with blacks, Latinos, and other minority groups -- have long been a LOT smarter about language and framing situations than Democrats and liberals. 

Moreover, what Trump and (President) Steve Bannon are doing right now -- while presenting a surface picture of incompetence to liberals and independents (and, I think it's reasonable to say, actually BEING incompetent on at least some fundamental levels) -- is nevertheless a masterful way of not just retaining, but increasing support among their voter base.

The very naked LACK of carefulness, of cautiousness, of nuance, in the Trump/Bannon message is a profoundly cathartic release -- for Trump voters, but even conservatives who didn't vote for Trump or support Trump during the election. Why? Because the media -- in their opinion -- was dramatically one-sided during the Obama presidency and is now complaining about how it is being treated. Conservatives, even those of the non-Trump or never-Trump variety, can still appreciate and gain inner satisfaction that the liberal media are getting their long-needed comeuppance. 

Liberals don't have to like any of this, but they need to see it for what it is.

When Trump/Bannon frame the press as the enemy, they -- fully cheered on by their supporters -- are telling the media, "NO! SIT DOWN! YOU BLEW IT! YOU LOST! EAT SOME HUMBLE PIE! MAYBE START DOING YOUR JOB ALL THE TIME, NOT JUST WHEN A REPUBLICAN IS PRESIDENT!"

This is the "NO!" of Republicans in action.

Of course, Hillary won roughly 3 million more votes than Trump. A natural and understandable reaction is to say that "There are more of us than them!" Mathematically, yes, but not in the right states or among the portions of the population who were either unsure about whom to vote for; uncertain of whether they wanted to vote in the first place; or unsure of whether their vote really mattered, given their distrust of Hillary.

Why Hillary lost can be picked apart in a million different ways, such that no one line of analysis can be allowed to exclude various others. However, if forced to choose a particularly prominent reason, Hillary -- though being quite rational about it -- framed most of her campaign as a NO to Trump and his awfulness. (There was so much awfulness to point out, and again, that inclination was rational.)

Hillary needed more of a YES -- not to the many people Obama helped in urban centers, but in areas of the country which needed more convincing and didn't feel the full benefit of the Obama years. Case in point: Youngstown, Ohio, documented by the instructive must-follow Chris Arnade.

To be clear here: It's not that Hillary shouldn't have said NO to Trump. She needed to. It made sense. The larger point is that for liberals and Democrats, a specific NO has to be situated inside a larger YES. This speaks to having a variety of tactics -- like Federer in tennis, or like the New England Patriots in football -- and finding ways to increase the options one has in reaching voters.


Even conservatives listening in on this conversation would probably acknowledge the following: If Democrats can get non-traditional voters (chiefly those who didn't vote in 2016) to the polls, they have a very good chance of winning in 2018, 2020 and beyond. Naturally, many Democrats are confident that Trump has awakened many millions of these Americans, with most falling in the millennial camp (those in their 20s). 

Logically if not inherently, it is unassailable to point out that Democrats, if they turn out a large percentage of 20-something voters, are likely (not guaranteed, but highly likely) to win more elections. I can't imagine any politically astute person disagreeing with such a claim.

It has long been the case that people in their 20s don't vote as regularly as older people. Being in one's 20s means experimenting, seeing the world, trying to find one's niche. It is not a negative commentary on 20-somethings that they don't vote as much as other older demographics; it just IS. That's the reality. Accordingly, while reaching these voters should obviously be one point of emphasis for Democrats, it can't be the one basket the party throws all its eggs into.

Variety. Federer. Sports tactics. Run the ball if the defense dares you to pass the ball. Use headers in soccer if long kicks outside the penalty box are wildly inaccurate. Pass the basketball into the low post if your 3-point shots aren't falling.

Have a Plan B if not a Plan C. This doesn't mean junking Plan A, merely having more ways to reach people.

Democrats should pursue their Plan A, but in the meantime, what about the need to at least: 1) Get Rust Belt voters to NOT vote for Trump in 2020, and for Republican congressional candidates in 2018? 2) Getting those same voters to vote FOR Democrats in those two upcoming election cycles?

How can understanding Trump voters -- with empathy, with better language, and with a common ground/frame of reference -- NOT be a major part of the Democratic playbook? To focus only on non-voters and millennials would be like hitting only backhands, or running the ball three times into the middle of the line, or shooting only 3-pointers without dribbling to the basket. 

Democrats might say, "Hey, the Tea Party didn't empathize with us in 2010!"

Yes, that's correct... and Obama strolled to re-election two years later. Meanwhile, though, what about candidates in state legislatures and governorships? At these more localized levels, the support for Obama which exists in big urban centers didn't -- and doesn't -- matter. Democrats are woefully out of touch in terms of connecting with voters (and running linguistically conversant YES candidates) in states and legislative districts without built-in demographic advantages. 

One can perhaps allow that Democrats don't need to connect with Trump voters on the presidential electoral level and stick to the non-voter/millennial strategy, but remember: If Republicans win several more stage legislatures in the coming years, they could amend the Constitution without / over Democratic opposition or votes. Democrats -- with the culture war flowing their way -- should not be in this position, but local Republicans have been effective at rallying their more traditionally reliable voter base to:

A) vote!

and B) voice that NO against what they see as this surging liberal tide overtaking their way of life. 

Democrats need to be serious about empathy as an urgent political tactic, They need to read up on George Lakoff (a Berkeley linguist who is on Twitter) and centrist Jon Haidt (a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who is on Twitter), who authored a very important book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics And Religion.

These are great jumping-off points for the conclusion of this essay -- all Americans (not just liberals) would do well to read these two thinkers, especially Haidt's book -- but they underscore a key point which neatly ties together this whole essay.

Democrats -- as briefly hinted at above -- might wonder why the Tea Party didn't try to make nice with Democrats in 2010 or future election cycles. Once more, this is not a value judgment, merely an explainer: Liberals and conservatives don't share the same grounding in terms of their worldviews and assumptions. Therefore -- it is the irony at the heart of this piece -- why should liberals rail at Republicans at all? Purely as politics -- not morality or as a gateway to emotional holistic wellness -- it is counterproductive, because it feeds into the conservative NO and heightens the emotional temperature in the room, when reptilian-brain insta-reactions (often our least healthy and accurate actions) are committed. 

Purely as politics, Democrats need to tone down the temperature in the room while steadily appealing to a positive vision. For all the other reasons Hillary was victimized by unfair events -- the Comey letter, the Russian influence, and other legitimate gripes Democrats have -- her remark about "deplorables" will go down as one of the great mistakes in the history of American politics, because it revealed a huge NO, unmasking what conservatives understandably saw as loathing which destroyed the notion that Americans are "Stronger Together," or that -- as Michelle Obama said, "When they go low, we go high!"

Yes, the Obamas -- both of them supremely skilled politicians, gifted with an ability to create empathy around a positive message, much like Bill Clinton ("Don't Stop Thinking About Tomorrow" and "Build a Bridge to the 21st Century!") -- went high whenever Trump went low.

Hillary? She held her tongue on many occasions -- goodness knows she received scrutiny disproportionate to what Trump merited during the campaign -- but her one slip of the tongue was more than enough to motivate the conservative base (and probably some undecideds from more rural areas) to vote against her.

Democrats have to be relentless -- not in telling Trump voters that they are FSMRS, but that they have much to learn from Trump voters; want to see life through those two eyes on the bus or in a sports stadium; and will work to create a positive message which truly influences those Trump voters' lives, instead of shouting a NO across the political chasm in this country.

Yes, empathy is most important on a spiritual level. It's also very good for holistic human health; but it's also good politics, part of the variety of tactics needed to meet every person in every circumstance across a very divided, very complicated country with a quirky Electoral College system and state legislatures that need to be turned purple, if not blue.

Democrats can't win elections the way Republicans can. Democrats and liberals, after all, see themselves as being different from Republicans and conservatives.

Ironically, if Democrats really did seek a different path -- the road which leads away from FSMRS -- and really did live outside the fear which currently leads them to lash out at opponents (treating Trump voters as the enemy the same way Trump views a free press as the enemy), they might create the most formidable electoral coalition the 21st century will ever see.

1 comment:

  1. Matt, as a conservative, I find this somewhat heartening. I don't hear liberals trying to understand my point of view. Most of what I hear almost strikes me as a deliberate attempt by liberals to NOT understand my perspective and to write every conservative perspective off as nothing more than rationalization for hatred.

    While I could nitpick some aspects of this (are liberals really "yes" people? Go to any college campus and see how little free speech is valued...) But most of it is spot on. Especially the notion that most liberals don't really care to understand us, much less empathize. I don't need anybody's empathy, to be honest. But I'd like my arguments to be considered on their merits rather than the shallow caricature that liberals imagine them to be. Thank you for consistently doing that in the twelve or thirteen years I've been reading you.