empathy and the 2016 election.
by Michael King
This week, the United States will elect a new President. It is no secret that the path to this election has been among the most contentious and ill-spirited in recent history, and our nation feels more divided than ever. I see this – the gap of understanding between people on both ‘sides’ – each day as I work and live among a college campus. Some of my students have Donald Trump cutouts in their windows, pointing at me and grinning as I walk to grab coffee, and others scoff at the mention of his name. With students on all sides of the issue, in an increasingly hostile political environment, I find myself bracing for the results. Where will we be once the President is announced? How can we possibly find our way back together?
How I’d define empathy. There’s been a lot of effort to parse out exactly what ’empathy’ means. Brené Brown says it ‘fuels connection’ between people, and she connects it to the idea of perspective-taking. To be empathetic, then, is to work to understand a person’s perspective rather than to judge it. As part of the Brave Space initiative on campus right now, we are working to build empathy among students. ‘It is a practice,’ we’ve taught them, ‘a choice to work to understand someone rather than to judge them.’
Empathy looks like asking questions, placing ourselves as closely as we can to the experiences of others, and – often – presuming good will. It builds bridges between seemingly disparate people (and camps of people). Empathy, in the 2016 election season, is something we need desperately.
Who could possibly vote for Donald Trump? Since Donald Trump announced his candidacy more than a year ago, I’ve scoffed at the idea that someone might see him as a serious candidate. On Twitter, he is bombastic and reckless, calling all who criticize him ‘losers’ and making wild claims and accusations about individuals (and groups of people) at whim. Throughout his campaign, he has said and done a scary long list of really negative, horrible things. He has denigrated women, promoted hurtful stereotypes about Muslims and Mexicans and women and gay people (and on and on), he has incited violence at his rallies, he has changed his views wildly and unpredictably, and he has failed to produce an actual platform, promising vaguely to ‘make America great again.’
A year ago, I looked forward to the day Donald Trump would lose the primary. Today, two days in advance of the election, I am not certain we will dodge four years of the words ‘President Trump.’
Who is voting for Donald Trump? Well, according to demographic information, primarily white people. Further breaking it down, Trump pulls his highest numbers from white people who aren’t college-educated. This leads to a lot of dismissal from Trump’s critics that Trumps’ supporters are ‘idiots.’ This is not a realistic – nor empathetic – means of understanding what’s going on.
I grew up in a town called Brazil, Indiana. I have lived in Terre Haute and Muncie, Indiana, as well as in Charleston, Illinois. Look over my 27 years, and you will find that I have spent my life in towns and cities that once thrived but now struggle. They are also, you might notice, towns and cities with a disproportionately high population of white people. Driving through them today, you will find them all to be towns with signs hailing ‘Trump / Pence,’ and very few ‘Clinton / Kaine’ signs in opposition.
Not terribly long ago, these towns and cities found their pulse around factories, mills, and mines, putting hardworking and good people to work and providing them a means to give their families a good life. When globalization took hold – that is, when an increasingly interconnected world caused factories, mills, and mines to close in favor of outsourced jobs – the situations of families in towns and cities like these changed for the worse. Proud Midwestern/American values of hard work and independence from help were put under threat, all because the global economy shifted the world. For families like these, America hasn’t felt great for a long time.
For me, it’s not hard to see why perfectly good, loving, and hardworking people are attracted to the promises Trump is making. Even further, though it’s not a view I can condone, I understand why so many people are attracted to the idea of slowing the influx of immigrants, of identifying ‘people who don’t look or speak like us’ as the reason for America’s struggles. It seems to me that a lot of Trump supporters are still looking at the shells of the factories, mills, and mines that once thrived, waiting for them to tick up again. Waiting for a pre-globalized America to return.
Trump promises not just a conservative America, but a defiantly conservative America. An America that doesn’t stress over ‘locker room talk’ or politically-correct terminology. An America that will overturn landmark court cases that mark ‘liberal turning points’: Roe v. Wade, the 2015 Supreme Court ruling on same-sex marriage, etc. Looking at the rapidly shifting political climate over the past eight years, and keeping in mind the atmosphere in which I was raised, I can understand why the Trump promise of a return to a time prior to these conversations, a headache to those who once didn’t have to consider these things, is fulfilling.
I understand all of this. I work to empathize, each day, with the people who in comments sections who are hailing Trump as the savior of the United States, who see Hillary Clinton as the antichrist and make this view known. Whether I want to believe it or not, there are good, caring, educated, hardworking people who will be voting for Donald Trump this election season. I have family members who are likely voting for him.
When I talk to students about empathy, I always acknowledge that empathy is rarely the convenient path. It is much easier to dismiss those who disagree with us as idiots or bigots, to dehumanize them into something manageable. If empathy fuels connection, judgment severs it.
Now let me ask for empathy. As we cast our votes in the 2016 election, let’s work to consider empathy. Who are these human beings ‘on the other side,’ and why do they feel the way that they feel? There are people who feel genuine fear about a Clinton presidency, it’s true, but there are people who feel genuine fear about a Trump presidency as well.
As a gay man in his twenties, I am fearful of a President who says he will work to appoint Supreme Court judges who will undo some of the progress we’ve made over the past few years. My life could be dramatically changed by a Trump presidency, by the decision of many to put him into office, and that makes me fearful. If this happens, and if the landscape for LGBT+ people begins to regress, it will hurt my heart. It will dampen my hope.
Don’t consider my story alone. Consider the lives of Muslims, of Mexican immigrants, of young girls watching this election unfold.
Ultimately, whether it’s Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, we will soon know the conclusion of a heated and contentious election season. We have bridges to mend, with chasms between people and groups of people throughout our nation, and this will begin with empathy. It takes work, it takes commitment, and it takes heart. So, today and tomorrow and tomorrow again, let’s choose the better path over the easier path. Let’s choose empathy.