Like virtually everyone likely to be reading these words, I’ve spent the past few days vacillating between shock, anger, depression, horror, and fear. I’ve watched the arguments and recriminations and tears and messages of hope mix and spread throughout my little corner of Facebook. And I’ve done a lot of thinking. (What else is there to do when you can’t sleep?)
I think the greatest lesson we can draw from all of this is that we need to be more engaged.
First, we need to be more directly engaged with the causes that are important to us on a day to day basis. Voting every two years is not enough (although it’s important). Giving money to promising candidates is not enough (although it helps). Posting to Facebook is not enough (in fact, it’s probably a waste of time). We need to engage more directly. Go to protests. Write letters to Congress. Become something more than just a small donor, a silent voter, and a voice on social media that nobody but the proverbial choir can hear.
Perhaps more importantly, we need to engage with the other half of the country. More than 60 million people voted for Donald Trump. I’ve read plenty of theories about why, which these range from “they’re all racist” to “angry, poor, and ignored.” But outside of one conversation in a parking lot this fall, I’ve never had a serious conversation with any Trump voter about any of the issues facing our country. How many have you had? The mere fact that we have to speculate and read think piece after think piece about why people voted for Trump proves just how absurdly out of touch with that half of the country many of us are.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a quote that has always stuck with me from that famous scene in The Newsroom: “If liberals are so fuckin’ smart, how come they lose so goddamn always?”
It’s a valid question. “Smart” is difficult to define, but there’s no denying that liberals are, on the whole, more educated than conservatives. And I would argue that on many issues, like climate change, the liberal position is objectively the correct one. We are right. Yet somehow we’re now faced with a reality where all three branches of government are dominated by conservatives. And while the extremist wing of the conservative movement has had real success with getting representation at the highest levels (hello, Tea Party), real progressives have barely gotten off the ground. You can blame DNC shenanigans for Hillary’s nomination if you like, but that doesn’t explain why there are so few real progressives in local government, state government, or Congress.
Part of the problem is just strategy. The Tea Party succeeded by working from the bottom up, getting representatives in local and state governments to bolster their national efforts. Progressives, as far as I can tell, have no lower-level strategy or coordination at all. We just keep hoping for a progressive president. But without real progressive support at lower levels, a progressive president wouldn’t be able to do much. We can learn from the Tea Party: political change comes from the bottom up.
But another major problem is communication. We have the facts on our side, but we’ve been bashing our heads against a wall for years, smugly assuming that our correctness will be enough to win over these ignorant hick conservatives if only we can educate them. Alternatively, we think, we can shame them into agreeing with us by calling them all sexist and racist.
Regardless of how accurate those accusations may be, there’s no denying that this strategy has not worked.
More than anything, right now we need to engage with our neighbors, the people on the other side of the fence. We need to show them in real, personal terms why we are fearful, but we also need to genuinely listen to what they have to say. We don’t have to agree with any of it, but it’s pretty unlikely we’ll win any of these people over if we don’t understand them. And especially on the issue of climate change, we desperately need to win them over. We don’t have time to wait for the denier demographic to die out.
I spend most of my time thinking specifically about the climate, and my instinct says that most of our messaging on that issue is wrong. Somebody who isn’t convinced about climate change at this point isn’t going to be won over with more facts. They aren’t going to care how fast the Greenland ice sheet is melting. They don’t give a shit about polar bears.
But there are other ways to argue for the climate agenda. Investing in the green energy sector creates future-proof jobs. The United States needs to be at the forefront of green innovation to maintain our position as the dominant technology power. Climate change poses a serious national security threat to the United States by destabilizing poor regions and creating refugees.
Could these arguments work better? My suspicion is yes. But it will be hard to tell what works if we don’t get out there and start actually talking to these people instead of just shouting about the issue on our own Facebook wall.
I am guilty of all of the sins described in this post, of course. More than anything, this post is an attempt to reckon with my own failures, and figure out how to reverse them. Moving forward, I am going to do better, and I challenge you to do the same. Specifically:
- Get involved in real life. Whatever cause is important to you, do something about it. Giving money is great, but don’t just do that. Become a visible public advocate and speak from the heart about why you care. People need to see that we are out there.
- Engage with conservatives. Demographically, we win in the long run, but do you want to wait for the long run? If not, we need to win some of these votes back. And that starts with understanding. Let’s all try to have more frank, face-to-face discussions with people we don’t agree with about the things we care about. If we can do this without getting accusatory, aggressive, or argumentative, we may just win a few people over. And even if we don’t, we’ll have a better understanding of their positions, what’s important to them, and how we might be able to change our messaging to win them over in the future.
(That said, be safe. We cannot afford to be naive about the risks, and we’ve seen in the wake of Trump’s election just how significant they are, especially if you’re a person of color. Just yesterday I learned that I used to live in the same town as a white nationalist who was building a dirty bomb. These people are out there, and they will not be won over by any argument. So be careful about the environments and contexts in which you choose to engage. Focus on engaging with centrist conservatives, not the hardcore KKK lunatics.)