OP-EDS

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November 10, 2016

A Damaging Discourse

Hurling insults at Trump supporters won’t help productive political discussion

On Tuesday night, my dream died. Hillary Clinton, the nation’s presidential frontrunner, lost to a man whom pollsters and statisticians across the country overwhelmingly posited would lose the election. The liberal dreams I yearned to see sewn into the fabric of our republic were firmly swept away. In their place stood questions: how did this happen? Why did Hillary lose? What about the electorate changed overnight?

Most importantly, to my mind, how did most electoral forecasting models—from Nate Silver to the New York Times to the Huffington Post—get this so incredibly wrong? No poll or prediction is perfect, but this was a different result entirely; so many predictions were just way off base. So what led pollsters and statisticians to such a bewildering screw-up?

My clearest thought is that the ways in which Americans have conversations need revision. Insofar as it stops conversation, the tendency to get defensive or testy with a disagreeable or seemingly wrong-headed remark is problematic. It shirks civility for comfort, and voices of dissenting minorities (or majorities) burrow underground. The paradigm of politically correct (PC) culture is a case in point: Criticisms of the necessity of PC culture are dismissed as offensive or unenlightened, leading its critics and its proponents to form increasingly polarized and ideologically homogenous social circles. In other words, the moral supremacy of PC culture drives its dissidents into secrecy or stunned silence.

Such was the case in this election. Trump supporters found themselves in the middle of a national dialogue that rejected their views outright instead of challenging them in civil ways. Labeled as bigoted, sexist, naïve, and unkind by their opposition—traits that aggressively transcend party lines—they sought refuge for their opinions in the only way this dialogue made possible: by keeping them private. As Graham Ambrose, a Yale student writing for The Washington Post, noted in September, Trump supporters on liberal-leaning college campuses “[kept] a low profile” and “stay[ed] quiet.” 

I can’t think of another way pollsters didn’t see this coming. The sheer incompatibility of pro-Trump sentiment with the liberal political dialogue America has maintained produced a silent majority whose magnitude only became evident on Tuesday night. As avenues of conversation disappeared with Trump’s ongoing controversy, statistical information thinned, and pro-Trump Republicans held their beliefs silently in check. Nowhere did this reflect in national polls. Thanks to Americans’ intolerance for pro-Trump political views, the only people who understood the consequences of their impact were the voters themselves. Put simply: conversations stopped, Trump supporters hid, and the polls were devastatingly wrong.

To that end, the whole trend of “if you support Trump, unfriend/block me now” posts on social media is troubling. It’s not unjustified in the short term, but as a long-term coping mechanism, it doesn’t breed the kind of discursive cooperation we need in society to actually see these things coming. It reads characteristics into Trump’s electorate that are not necessarily there.

Which is also not to say that Trump hasn’t been sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, and demagogic. He has. But it is to say that half of the voting population had legitimate grievances that Trump has promised to remedy, and to condense the voters into “a racist/sexist/homophobic hodgepodge of people versus Hillary supporters” not only overlooks the nuances of why they felt that way, but also makes Democrats into hypocrites. How can we call ourselves a party of acceptance if we can’t accept the majority will of the people? More than that, though, how can we overlook or deride the legitimate (and widespread) grievances of almost sixty million fellow Americans? Racism, sexism, and xenophobia were on the ballot, but so were perceived economic prosperity and the rejection of an establishment that apparently failed many. Binary terms only further create an “us vs. them” narrative—they can’t mend the wounds of this election or restore civility.

At that point, then, it comes down to value judgments—whether one believes there’s a social responsibility to curb the grievances of others through policy (free college, affirmative action, and so on), or if civic responsibility stops at individuality. So long as people have their corners of the world and leave everyone else be, the logic runs, they can’t be part of the problem. In what way are they contributing to it? At least, that’s what I imagine. Some of these people really are deplorable, misogynistic, and xenophobic. But above all, they are strikingly individual, with a conception of the kind of idealism Reagan would be quick to espouse: that it is within oneself that one finds the essence of one’s being, rather than in the relationships socially constituted around them. It is through individuality alone that freedom occurs, and Trump has offered that path.

So where do we go from here? I feel as though it starts in conversation. We need to start a new national dialogue—not in terms of what we say, but in terms of how we say it. We need to promote inquiry and acceptance in a sincere struggle for political ideals, and we can’t hide behind personal biases or avoid ideas we dislike. We need to dive deeper than the surface level of uncomfortable beliefs to find out the real rationale that buoys them up in groups like those that support Trump. And we must be open to, rather than dismissive of, heated civil discourse. 

The election results on Tuesday night showed a deeply divided America. Our contemporary political dialogue silences so many voices that it inverts the promise of rigorous debate at the heart of America’s democratic ideal. But we have the power to change that. I dearly hope the University of Chicago is the place where we start.

Gabriel Davis is a second-year in the College majoring in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations.

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