Philosophy, Power, Psychology, Social Influence

A few lessons from the 2016 Election

 

Like so many people, I was incredibly dismayed on Tuesday night with the election of Trump as our next president. Since the election, I’ve been racking my brains trying to understand the question: “How could this happen?” The following are a few insights I’ve gained:

Insight #1: Identity trumps everything

People don’t vote self-interest.  They vote with the candidate they most identify with. Trump’s staunchest supporters voted for him not because they are anxiously waiting for big tax cuts, but because he is everything they are or want to be: rich, White, male, brash, incorrigible. Those are their values.

Trump’s smartest political move was ingratiating himself with and mobilizing a single, under-served, yet significant portion of the population by mirroring almost precisely what they wanted to see in a political figure – themselves. This was beyond anything Trump said or could say; it was all communicated non-verbally.

On a much smaller scale, Trump did the same after he secured the nomination for the Republican Party. He adopted more “conservative” stances on key issues and chose a conservative vice presidential candidate to make himself more identifiable as a candidate to Republican voters. This is what allowed less enthusiastic Trump supporters to swallow his pill.

Contrast this with Clinton, whose biggest issue throughout her campaign was not simply convincing the American public that she was trustworthy, but getting people on the left to identify with her.

Clinton represented to voters the old way of doing politics, pre-Obama.  It didn’t matter how much experience she has, what she has achieved in her 30+ years in public service, or who her husband is – the public didn’t find her trustworthy because the public associated her with the establishment. And because the most of the public is not part of the establishment, the public couldn’t identify with her.

And as a result, no one was excited about her. No one mobilized, like Trump’s supporters, to support her. At worst, people voted for her because she was better than the opposition; at best, because she could be the first woman president. And in the middle, where most of her important voters were, she was a Democrat.

To put this simply: Trump won because a significant portion of the population identified with him more than they did Clinton. A very sad truth for me, because the reason I voted for Clinton in both the primary and the election was not simply because I thought she was better than her opponents, but because she had three key identifying features that I personally value in a president:

  1. Experience. Being a president is not just a job title or a chance to fulfill a vision; it is a whole set of critical skills.  It requires executive, managerial, negotiating, public speaking, strategic thinking, quick decision-making, and listening skills. It requires a strong knowledge of the workings of the government, of international relations, of military strategy, of economics, etc. It also requires self-control, patience, and the ability to see the forest for the trees.

    Given these required skills, regardless of her values or the past decisions she has made, Clinton is perhaps the most qualified politician ever to run for president. No other political figure in history, as far as I know, has more knowledge, experience, or competence to run a country than she has. This, more than anything, is what excited me about Clinton running for president.

  2. Willingness to work together. Because of her extensive experience, she is someone in a strong position to help dissolve or at least manage the division between Democrats and Republicans that plagued Obama’s presidency. She has a strong history of reaching over the table in order to garner bi-partisan support for legislation.

    And beyond party politics, throughout her stint as Secretary of State, she has shown the ability to unite various groups  towards achieving shared goals, such as with the sanctions on Iran or the decision by Obama to intervene in Libya. These are all examples of her executive style, which she calls “smart power.”

  3. Support for the underdog. Clinton has a proven record of fighting for the little people, whether it’s children, women, NYC first responders, or her own staff in the State Department. Clinton’s drive towards help those who are under-represented is a common theme I’ve read about in various accounts of her and is something that I think is genuine.

I find it disheartening that I hardly heard any of these values held by most people in deciding who to vote for, because if they were, there might have been more excitement towards supporting Clinton throughout her campaign.

Insight #2: Critical thinking was not an important value in this election.

I spoke before of the values held by Trump’s staunchest supporters.  Fortunately for Trump, critical thinking – the ability to make decisions or judgments based on carefully analyzing, verifying, and evaluating information – was not one of them.

If it were, then a simple Google search would have shown that the majority of the statements Trump has made have been proven false or, even worse, downright lies. Consider, for example, the PolitiFact report in June 2016 that states that of 156 political statements made by Trump, 78% of them were discovered to be either Mostly False, False, or Ridiculously False.

It is unclear from this evidence whether his staunchest supporters on Election Day either didn’t care that Trump was lying the majority of the time, refused to believe the results, or just didn’t bother to take the time to research. Either way, it is clear from the election results that critical engagement with this fact is extremely lacking.

This lack of emphasis on critical thinking isn’t just on Trump’s side. In the same PolitiFact report, Clinton was ranked one of the most honest candidates in the 2016 election, with only 28% of her statements being Mostly False, False, or Ridiculously False. And yet according to an NBC poll taken a month after the report, only 12% of Democrats saw her as trustworthy.

We can argue all day what the reasons are for why Clinton is seen as untrustworthy, but the fact is: few on the Democrat side bothered to research for themselves whether or not their evaluation of Clinton had plausibility. As a result, most Democrat voters, who resigned themselves to voting for Clinton for lack of a better candidate, were unmotivated to actually defend against the public’s inaccurate portrayal of Clinton as somehow less trustworthy than Trump.

This was perhaps the most depressing thing I encountered throughout the election. The fact that both Republicans and Democrats held the same view towards both Trump and Clinton (temperamental vs. untrustworthy) without bothering to question this portrayal is a striking example of just how much critical thinking is undervalued in this country.

Insight #3: Arguing is futile

If critical thinking was not an important value throughout this election, then arguing with Trump supporters to try to convince them why they were stupid, racist, sexist, bigoted, xenophobic, etc. for voting Trump is not going to accomplish anything you want, unless you are looking either to vent your anger and frustration or get into a pissing battle with a Trump supporter (or perhaps both).

Not only is arguing the least effective method for convincing anyone of anything, but it becomes virtually impossible to have any effect when the person you are arguing with willfully neglects finding any substantial proof to back up their claims due to an ingrained bias against intellectualism.

Arguing also becomes futile when the debate quickly turns into a huge back-and-forth of ad hominems against not only each other’s candidate, but each other. When the focus of the argument is attempting to defend one’s answer to the question, “Which candidate is worse?”, then we are only detracting from the primary concern we should be discussing: the issues and possible solutions to those issues.

Lastly, arguing here is futile because what we are seeing is the accumulation of years of anger, of strong feelings of disenfranchisement, within a certain portion of the population. These people are reared up and ready to fight; they only need an excuse to jump in. And I can almost guarantee, they are willing to go farther than you to try to win.

Strategies for moving forward

Given these insights, there are a few things we can do moving forward to help our situation:

  1. Cultivate critical thinking. This is the best weapon against Trump and his staunchest supporters. Regardless of your values, regardless of whether you are liberal or conservative, you can still develop critical thinking skills that will allow you to make more informed decisions and judgments not only in the electoral process, but with respect to important issues plaguing our country. These skills involve researching before coming up with an opinion, vetting your sources to make sure they are credible and as unbiased as possible, and considering alternate, even opposing, ways of viewing issues. What we need now more than ever is not political stances on what we should be doing, but viable, bipartisan solutions for dealing with emerging and long-standing issues.
  2. Stop arguing, and start raising your standards for discussing other people’s ideas. And your standard should be: “Where is the evidence?” Don’t attack people.  Don’t attack their ideas. Don’t attack what they want for America or themselves. Rather, question how they formed their conclusions. Constantly and persistently ask them: “What evidence did you find to support your conclusion?” Stop trying to win points against people who think differently from you; rather, try actively to get them to question their own thinking.
  3. Use social media and the Internet to help push change. Publish and share articles that address important issues and possible solutions. Follow sites like Change.org and sign up or start petitions. Follow significant representatives and senators on social media and regularly post comments, questions, concerns, and requests. Contribute to online forums. Be politically active online.

Overall, the lesson I learned from this election is how critical it is to find sustainable and innovative solutions for providing quality education to the general public, particularly lower-income Americans.

When a significant portion of the population, in their desperation, turns to a candidate with zero political experience, who has repeatedly made discriminatory remarks about significant social groups in the country, who has consistently lied to the public throughout his campaign (including lying about his lying), who has goaded and insulted so many different countries (some of whom are allies), and so on – then it has become clear that the American education system requires a significant improvement.

In the mean time, the best we can do is to value education for ourselves and cultivate and share this value to future generations.

Sources:

“Hillary Clinton: Smart Power and Foreign Diplomacy.” Correct the Record. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Sharockman, Aaron. “The Truth (so Far) behind the 2016 Campaign.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 29 June 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Cohen, Kelly. “Poll: Just 12 Percent of Dems See Clinton as ‘honest and Trustworthy'” Washington Examiner. MediaDC, 16 Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

Jacobs, Tom. “A Clearer Portrait Emerges of Trump Supporters.” Pacific Standard. Medium, 24 Aug. 2016. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.

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