I can count the number of Trump supporters I know on one hand. Throughout the past few months, my social media has been filled with posts about shattering the glass ceiling, furthering the progressive agenda, and stopping Donald J. Trump. I read the New York Times, the Atlantic, FiveThirtyEight, The Onion. My Facebook feed is filled with the views of my high school friends from Long Island (most of whom went on to college) and Harvard students. I, like many of my friends, was shocked to hear that Donald J. Trump will soon become the 45th President of the United States.
To Hillary Supporters
Many of you are hurting right now. Many of you are angry, fearful, and disillusioned. Some of you are worried about what might happen to your friends and your family members. Some of you are worried about what might happen to you. Most of you are wondering, “How could this have happened?” I think a key reason why Trump was elected—and why none of us predicted it—has to do with empathy.
When Paul Ryan announced that Trump heard “voices other people weren’t hearing,” he was right. We are not hearing those voices. We are not engaging with the concerns of millions of Americans—and not just straight white Americans. Millions of people of color, women, and gay Americans are dissatisfied with the direction of the Democratic Party. They do not feel represented, they do not feel heard, and they found something in Donald Trump that we were not offering.
And honestly, it is hard to blame them. When we share condescending Huffington Post headlines, when we dismiss claims about race and immigration with one-word jeers like “racist” and “xenophobic,” when we try to shame people against voting third-party, when we unfriend people who share views we consider offensive—we validate all of their rhetoric about how out of touch liberal America is. I’m not saying we are always wrong. I am saying that it takes more than being right to win elections—it takes more than being right to persuade, to negotiate, and to govern.
If we are to protect the values we stand for, we need a new strategy. We need stop calling people everything-ists and start figuring out how to communicate with them. We need to establish norms against echo chambers. There is a time for healing, for grief, and for safety. Perhaps now is that time. Perhaps it is worth prioritizing our emotional wellbeing over our political efficacy the next few weeks. But I fear that if we allow ourselves to do so for the next four years, we will wind up doing so for the next eight.
I believe we have a moral obligation to be more empathetic in our political discourse. If you believe that we have a moral obligation to protect members of community, to fight for Democratic values, to elect leaders who are best suited to serve America—then we need to be concerned about the effectiveness of our discourse. Just like we have community norms that promote voting and phone banking, we should set norms that promote empathy and discourage echo chambers. Imagine a world in which our conversations and our social media threads looked like this:
“If I understand correctly, your claim is that illegal immigration will lead to more crime. Can you point me to any studies that support this view?”
“It seems like we both want a strong economy, and you believe that less government spending will lead us there. Can you walk me through your logic?”
“I see that you are really frustrated with the direction of our two-party system. Can you tell me a bit more about what motivates you to choose a third-party candidate?”
These types of conversations are unlikely to get 200 likes or trend on BuzzFeed. They are not as catchy as witty jokes about how stupid those everything-ists are. These conversations will, however, do a better job at changing minds. Perhaps we will even learn to challenge some of our own premises when we are on the receiving end of these questions.
You deserve time to heal. Now is a time to prioritize self-care. There are also plenty of ways to engage in politics without actively engaging with Trump supporters. But these methods are limited, as they only engage the people who are already likely to support us. It is not easy to engage with rhetoric that you find offensive and dangerous. Sometimes, engaging with these views might be too harmful for our emotional and psychological wellbeing.
But most of the time, I think we can do a better job engaging without sacrificing our mental health. Some degree of discomfort and dissonance is valuable, especially if it makes our advocacy more effective. As we have recently seen, the cost of ineffectiveness is too high.
To Trump Supporters
Congratulations. I mean that sincerely: you survived an election cycle in which many of your views were ridiculed and invalidated. Your candidate is now our President, and I genuinely hope that he succeeds. As the next few months progress, we will need your help to understand the vision and how we can work together to achieve our shared goals.
But right now, your fellow Americans are hurting. A lot of them are terrified. Why should you care? Some of them have ridiculed you. Many of them chanted “Love Trumps Hate,” implying that hate drew you to your candidate. Even more may have aggressively dismissed your views as something-phobic. If Trump had lost, many of them would currently be mocking you.
I urge you to forgive them. They need your love right now. These are empathetic, kind, intelligent people. I don’t always condone what they say, but I believe they say it because they care deeply about the direction of our country. Show them that when they go low, you can go high.
Perhaps soon you will be able to convince us that your candidate is qualified to lead this country. Right now, it might be too early to start that conversation. A lot of them do not want to hear about the merits of your candidate’s policies, about checks and balances, or about how they will be okay. They want to feel heard and validated. They want you to recognize how stressful it can be to sit with uncertainty, how terrifying it can be to wake up and realize that the America you thought you lived in does not exist.
Imagine how they would react if your comments looked like this:
“It sounds like you think that undocumented people are justified in coming here even though it violates the law. Can you explain why?”
“I’m so sorry you feel hurt right now. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I may not understand your political views, but I wanted to remind you how much I care about you.”
At this point, I hope a lot of you accept this claim that more empathy in politics is beneficial. But what can we actually do to achieve this goal?
1) Follow different media outlets. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s Red Feed, Blue Feed feature. If your feed is filled with liberals, read more from sources like Fox, The National Review, perhaps even The Drudge Report and Breitbart. Listen to people like Sam Harris, Ross Douthat, Dave Rubin, perhaps even Rush Limbaugh and Milo Yiannopoulos. Reach out to your conservative friends and ask for recommendations. If your feed is filled with conservatives, read more from sources like Huffington Post and Jacobin. Listen to people like John Oliver. Ask your liberal friends for recommendations. It is not easy to digest content from the other side—a lot of it may disgust or offend you. But if your goal is to get into the minds of people on the other side of the aisle, understanding the information they digest is an important—perhaps necessary—step.
2) Validate more. People on both sides want to feel heard. “So if I’m hearing you correctly, it sounds like you’re saying X. Is that right?” can go a long way.
3) Ask more questions. No one likes being told what to believe. Instead of “You’re wrong because of X,” genuinely ask “have you considered X? How would you respond to X?”
4) Identify common ground. Instead of “I just don’t think you care enough about X,” try “So it sounds like we both value X, but we see different ways of getting there. Does that seem right?”
5) When you struggle to engage, think back to times when you changed your mind on something (hopefully, this comes to mind rather quickly). Did you always have the “right” political view on every issue? What led you to change? Sometimes other people will have views that we think are harmful, irrational, and ignorant. But so did we—and we still do. The great thing about opinions is that they can be malleable. If we treat others who disagree with us with the same compassion and humanity that we can have for our past selves, perhaps the road to empathy will become easier.