The past couple weeks exploring a wide range of political views with acquaintances and perfect strangers has been a fascinating and, at times, very powerful journey for me. And this is just a beginning! I can't express how much I am grateful for the people who have been willing to speak to me.
I have done a few listening sessions and have had several ad-hoc conversations - at a show, at the markets, at home, with people I barely know, with friends, with family. This project has proved to be a fantastic conversation starter and I am truly enjoying that element - in addition to all the different perspectives I am hearing. As much as politics can be volatile, people do love to talk politics.
I have been mulling over how to do justice to the perspectives of the people I have spoken to. At the same time I what to know what is most interesting to anyone who might be reading. I'll look to your feedback on that!
What I'm hearing: A sense of hope
In my first couple weeks, I have deliberately sought out voting choices that are distinctly different from mine (I do plan to speak to people with a wide range of perspectives over time). This has given me a chance to hear several different perspectives on why people support Trump. I heard a few things I had expected to hear, and what I didn't realise I would hear: a sincere sense of hope.
Among the handful of people I have spoken to, I have heard people express their hope in several different ways. Here are the few that have come up most frequently:
- Benefit to the average worker through jobs/wages/opportunities because of a government stance that promotes (American) business
- A welcoming of the ability to express conservative views
- Anticipation of the change that someone from outside the establishment could bring
1. Economic hope
Excitement for the potential of an invigorated business sector (and therefore what it means for the average worker) has been the most commonly expressed hope that I have heard. Here are a few different quotes.
From a construction industry professional in the American south:
"Most of my colleagues & the people I am exposed to - this is a very red state - have an extreme sense of hope. Sure we are a bit wary - how will this rookie non politician do as a president? But there’s hope that the things that made this country great - oh man - I’m not really a Trump fan and I’ve just repeated the party line - but it seems like he’s got the policies that will return us to our heyday.
A lot of the ideals of the progressives sound fantastic, but when you apply them to the human condition they don’t really work out. This new guy says we’re going to make it easy for you the average guy to achieve the American dream. We don’t want anything for free. We’ll work for it, we’ll earn it, and because of that we’ll treasure it more. We just don’t want to be constantly behind the 8 ball - we want to earn enough to take a decent vacation again.
There is a real push to punish rich people. If I’m a 17 year old boy and I see rich people being punished for their success through exorbitant taxes, what motivation do I have as a potential entrepreneur to outlay the cash, put my neck on the line, and make the sacrifices in my personal life? Why would I do all of that so that now they take 60% of what I made? Nobody in their right mind would do that. That’s human interest.
I do believe that putting money at the forefront of your being people and screwing people is wrong. But if you make more money because you had the better idea, then: great. But I see society going the direction that "winning is wrong". I want my kids to be successful. But if things are going this way then why would they want to try hard to go after something? That concerns me.
I agree with his tax principles - so that business can expand and employ more people. We want people to build themselves up. People are happier when they are earning. People WANT to do it ON THEIR OWN. They aren’t comfortable being given things. Put a job in front of them where they can earn it: anything THEY can do is a positive thing. If business people make an extra billion but those people make $60K a year - they’re not going to complain. They just want to put their kids through college and go on vacation once a year. Class warfare goes out the window for me. Get them working. If everyone is making a good living and working on - there’s no time for all the racial tensions and things that divide us. It’s hard to argue with one another after you’ve all eaten 10 pounds of turkey at Thanksgiving."In Sydney, Australia, with a small business owner...
"I sit on the more conservative side of things and people say to me that I’m a greedy capitalist because I started a business. They are assuming we are all heartless, capitalist, greedy pigs. I am for capitalism. I’m not against people making heaps and heaps of money if they do it ethically."and then in conversation with a couple entrepreneurs:
"It’s the American dream, isn’t it? He makes money and he’s not going to apologise for it. People want to make money."
2. Expressing conservative views
Many of the people I have spoken to, mostly white and male, have expressed frustration with political conversation. The people I spoke to have felt that they are shut down and dismissed if what they say doesn't align to popular views. I feel like I can hear the litany of objections that often come from the progressive side, but I am determined to hear these guys out. It's important to me because, like many others from all sides of the political debate, in various different aspects of my life I have tried to find ways to help others break through cycles of deep and persistent disadvantage. If it is possible and not just idealistic thinking, I would like those efforts to not create unintended disadvantages elsewhere within our communities. And so I listened closely.
One person who I called for a listening session expressed serious apprehension at the idea of speaking to me because: "I have tended to be slapped down when I express an opinion. If you’re a white, Christian, heterosexual male then you are told that you only think that way because you are white, male, heterosexual, etc. When you pin me with a label then you don’t have to listen…so I keep my mouth shut."
In the conversation with the construction professional, he explained in more detail this concern I've heard a few times over the inability to hear out one another' differing views:
"I’m worried for the future for my children because the more open-minded we get, the less ability we have to have an open debate. So many things are off the table because they hurt .7 % of the population’s feelings. When Jimmy Fallon starts picking up on that train of thought...it’s rampant in society.
It’s on both sides. I’m a Christian, but I think Christians are too quick to judge. Christ said to let him do the judging. He said to love them, and people will see their mistakes, what is right, and what is moral. Christians say: “we believe that gay marriage is not correct” - but our job is to love them and invite them in - our job is not to judge. I think the Christian right gets that wrong.
However, just because I think our black president gets it wrong: that doesn’t make me a racist. Just because I disagree on the definition of marriage: that doesn’t make me a homophobe. Just because I don’t want open immigration: that doesn’t make a xenophobe. I can disagree and not be an “ist” or a “phobe”.
I think the right views politics through the lens of work and private lives. The left seems to view life and work through the lens of politics - is this politically correct? Not: is it cool [author's note: intended meaning = good for us] or does it make sense? When you look at whether or not things are politically correct it doesn’t make sense. But when you look at everything through the lens of whether or not it makes sense, then you hurt people’s feelings too much. We do need to have both.
In some examples I've seen, conservatives cannot congregate on campuses. They are shunned. Not allowed to meet. If they do it’s under guard and they are told what they can and cannot say. The liberals riot. There is too much a threat of violence and so the police say 'we can’t protect you'. This conflicts with the narrative that Republicans are the fascists. How can you have an open and tolerant society if we cant even have conversations?
The more progressive we get and the more ‘open minded’ we get, it seems there’s no room for the dissenting view. When there’s no dissension you have mob rule and mob rule is bad. Feedback loops. 'I won’t listen to you.' 'I’m right, you’re wrong.' There’s no conversation because everyone is trying to shut the other out."
In another session, I asked an Australian small-business owner more about this Churchill quote and comment from our correspondence (which I quoted in a previous blog): "'Some people's idea of free speech is that they can say whatever they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage'. In fact, even more worrying is the trend away from recognising the importance of free speech in the first place. People don't want it if they don't agree with it, and then retreat into echo chambers where their own opinions are reinforced by a very limited version of free speech."
He talked in detail about what he has experienced in trying to communicate his views. As an example, he prefaced one of his views with, "If you can draw a connection between policy and outcome and see that it’s not working, then we need a different approach." And then he talked about how he doesn't support transgender surgeries that don’t align with the dominant chromosome because the research shows these particular surgeries may worsen the psychological challenges later. He says, "This doesn’t make me a bigot. There’s mud slung in either direction."
To summarise how he feels about free speech, he quoted Evelyn Beatrice Hall, who was describing Voltaire's beliefs: 'I disagree with what you’re saying but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'
This hope - stemming out of frustration from being shut down in political discussion - that people who have differing views (conservative views) will be able to voice them more openly now has left me with questions. Some of these are to challenge myself, some of these are deliberately provocative.
For starters, it is eye-opening to me to hear conservatives express the frustration that progressive views are dominant and dominating, that their views are unpopular and they get shut down. It's funny...my sense is that progressives have long felt outweighed and overruled by the conservative voice. Have progressives been shouting for so long just to be heard and recognised that they really are now out-shouting and eclipsing other perspectives? I feel like the progressive sense of identity is that of always supporting the underdog and...have progressives really not recognised the power they do hold (just in time for the balance to change again)? What has changed in the past 8 years?
What about the peaceful coexistence of really different views? Does that ever exist without one group or the other seeking power, feeling disenfranchised - or fearing disenfranchisement? It occurs to me that it is this very fear and fight for power that fuels the constant squabble, the politicking, the ever-changing balance of power...which might be described in other words as a healthy democracy. Are we actually looking for that constant friction, not less? Is that what keeps us out of worse problems?
In terms of listening...What about those individual, one-one-one, or family conversations? Have we, humans, ever been able to truly listen to differing views? What makes it so hard? What is that fear? Why do we end up shutting people out? Why can these conversations be so painful that people stop talking to one another? Why is it that political arguments can sever family ties? (I have a theory that political rifts mirror the rifts and rejections we are all deeply afraid of within the context of our family relationships.) And so, is listening really possible at this level? Christmas dinner is coming. Should we just avoid it?
In terms of the ability to voice conservative views now...I am curious...what does happen when we see more of that? I do want to hear what people have to say. One person I talked to spoke about how his views on a number of topics have changed. I feel like that is true for a lot of people. I am curious how we are all seeing things now. It makes me want to keep listening.
3. Change from outside the establishment
One of the people I spoke to said that it's "just human nature to rebel", and I don't think it's going too far to claim that Americans have a particular love of anything anti-establishment. It is certainly in our DNA to distrust big government and maybe even government at all. We respect the guy (or gal) that wins against the establishment. I remember parties - the PARTIES - massive huge celebrations in the street - held when Obama was elected because he represented change, hope, and something from (mostly) outside the established powers. We may not be seeing the same celebration in the streets as we saw with Obama, but Trump certainly represents this same sense of change for many people - and is far more of an outsider (noted that he represents another form of the establishment in terms of business).
The entrepreneurs and small business owners I have talked to so far here in Australia had a lot to say about why Trump signals hope:
"The people who voted for Hillary, they’re the disillusioned ones. They voted for the status quo. Really? The status quo!? It’s not that great."
"The guy on shitty wages in b*ttf*ck Idaho? He’s not going to support the status quo."
"It think we needed someone to shake things up. Trump is shaking things up, all over America. All over the world. As long as it doesn’t cause World War III, I’m ok with that."
"You have a billionaire republican who has become the hero of the working class - the irony is not lost on me."
And so this is just the beginning of what I'm hearing. I could share perspectives on LGBT, welfare reform, the Middle East, healthcare, and so on. But what do you want to hear about? What questions should I be asking? I hope you will let me know.
To quote the construction professional, "Everyone agrees: we want grandma taken care of, we want good jobs, we want our children to be taken care of. We just have different views as to how we accomplish that." And, yes, we have REALLY different views as to how we accomplish that.
As I have been watching events post-election, I have been feeling a sense of hope, too. I have lots of concerns, but what makes me feel hopeful for our democracy is that Americans seem to be picking and sorting from the rubble of the emotions and frustrations that exploded this election to pull out what we want to keep, and to point out what we don't want to keep. To see people urge love and unity as opposed to anger and violence; to hear people invoke the Constitution to hold us to our principles; to see people come together around things they do share; to see us laugh at ourselves - all of this is inspiring to me. It does make me feel that our democratic processes are working, even while it is really messy and painful. Now, granted, I am watching from afar, and my relatives and friends don't live in the areas with the most severe poverty, disadvantage, and/or conflict (therefore I don't always see the news from those areas). I know there is much I am not seeing, and so I am keen to get a sense of it in person when I am home for Christmas.
I do plan on keeping the conversation going - because that has also been giving me hope. I have really been excited by people's willingness to speak to me, and the conversations that have cropped up spontaneously. This dialogue feels worthwhile. Please join me!