How to go high when others go low in today’s political climate

Warning: Political talk below. I had some thoughts about today’s tumultuous US political climate that I feel needed to be said aloud. This will be my first–and probably last–post about politics. If you’re not interested in reading about politics, feel free to skip over this article.

I’m not proud of what I did on my birthday.

Someone close to me flew out across the country just so he could treat me to dinner. We were eating at Olive Garden and enjoying a basket of endless breadsticks when politics somehow found its way into our conversation. I already knew that politics had a funny way of turning civil discussions into bitter arguments…but there was no way that could happen to me, right?

I was wrong. We learned that he supported Trump while I supported Hillary. It all went downhill after that. I tried to make him see things my way, and he did the same. The more we tried to change each other’s views, the more we just became entrenched in our own beliefs. What was supposed to be a happy day turned into a night of bitter anger.

He came all the way across the country to visit me, too. I wish I could take it all back.

In today’s tumultuous political climate, there are several ways that we can make a positive difference. I’m writing this as a Hillary supporter, but I think this is applicable no matter what your political views are. What I’m about to ask of you is not easy. Few things worth doing are. In the words of Dr. Seuss, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Resist caricaturizing people you disagree with

Recently, I was discussing the 2016 presidential election with a female Pakistani friend of mine. She’s very intelligent and I look up to her, so it surprised me when she exclaimed “Hillary only lost because she was a woman. That’s literally the only reason. People didn’t want a female to be President.”

I understood where she was coming from but I couldn’t quite agree with what she was saying. As a Muslim, she’s been discriminated against and treated unfairly in ways that I’ve been privileged enough not to experience. And I don’t know enough about statistics to definitively argue that Hillary would have won if she were male. But I disagree with the idea of painting Trump supporters with a broad stroke in the way that she did.

What kind of person comes to mind if you were to imagine a Trump supporter? Uneducated country folk? Gun fetishists? Bible thumpers? Racist misogynists? Weirdos with “MAGA” hats? It’s easy to think of them that way because that’s how the left portrays them.

Just type “Donald Trump supporter” comic intro Google Images and you’ll see what I’m talking about

If I’m being perfectly honest, it feels good to portray Trump supporters that way. It makes me feel like I have a moral high ground against them. However, I urge you to avoid broadly painting people you disagree with. Most of them aren’t really like that, and seeing them as caricaturized versions of themselves stifles legitimate political discussion (and probably also raises your blood pressure). Also, the more you caricaturize those you disagree with, the more they feel justified in doing it back.

Show empathy before arguing with facts

This is a toughie. I’ve heard people say that the 2016 presidential election is the first time they’ve thought less of someone based on who they voted for. I mean, this is Donald Trump we’re talking about here! He’s the guy who—among other things—said that he grabs women “by the pussy” and who referred to nonwhite countries as “shithole countries” and who called climate change a hoax and who failed to condemn a murder by white supremacists in Charlottesville and who tells lies at an average rate of approximately 67 times that of Obama. And that’s just a start! Should we show empathy to someone who supports such a President?

Yes, we should. No matter how much we “know” that we are right, it’s still important to lead with empathy. As Dale Carnegie puts it in How to Win Friends and Influence People, “You can’t win an argument. You can’t because if you lose it, you lose it; and if you win it, you lose it.” In psychology, this is sometimes called the Backfire Effect where disproving someone’s opinion causes them to double down and strengthens their belief in that opinion.

Instead, try to understand where they’re coming from. As Stephen Covey wrote in the classic 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”. Hear them out. Even if you wholeheartedly disagree with what they’re saying, bite your tongue and just listen. Try to understand how they arrived at their beliefs.  Only after you show a genuine desire to understand the way they see the world can you begin to have a real, productive conversation about politics.

Okay, so where are they coming from?

Many of these people come from the countryside. David Wong from Cracked did a great write-up on the divide between urban and rural communities. These kinds of communities are built around local businesses such as coal mines and mom-and-pop stores. If a Walgreens were to close down in the middle of New York, no one would bat an eye. On the other hand, a local store or coal mine going out of business in a countryside town can devastate their entire economy.

Perhaps one of Hillary’s biggest blunders was that she failed to empathize enough with rural voters. On March 3, 2016, she cheerfully said “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business”. That doesn’t sound so good if you’re a coal miner yourself. If you look at that comment in context you can clearly see that wasn’t the message she was trying to convey. Unfortunately, she didn’t choose her words carefully enough.

A lot of these people are otherwise well-meaning but get their news from sources that value sensationalism over being accurate. As Obama himself put it, “If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me”. Notice how much empathy he shows by saying this. Instead of judging people for watching “fake news”, he puts himself in their shoes and admits that he would be doing the same thing.

Some people feel that Hillary backstabbed Bernie Sanders in the primaries. They had faith in Bernie as President but not Hillary and instead decided to switch their vote to Trump. Finally, many of Trump’s supporters are exactly who you think they are. Racists/sexists/xenophobes who see Trump as one of their own. You can safely write these people out of your life.

How to take the high road when others go low

One of my favorite moments about President Obama is when he spoke at town hall in Elkhart, Indiana on June 1, 2016. A member of the audience asked him a loaded question about why he and Hillary wanted to restrict the gun ownership rights of “the good guys” instead of “holding the bad guys accountable for their actions”. It’s a trick question designed to trip up Obama. Instead of taking the bait, however, Obama takes a few seconds to reflect and then calmly explains what’s really going on regarding politics and gun control. He shows an incredible amount of discipline and manages to empathize with the very person who’s trying to trip him up.

The United States is more divided than it ever has been since the Civil War (not the one featuring Captain America). There’s too much partisanship and not enough empathy. Let’s change that together. Seek first to understand before being understood, and lead others to do the same.

As for me, maybe someday I’ll learn to forgive myself for what I did on my birthday.

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