So Your Nation Has Elected a President You Really Don’t Like

[Note: I don’t do much political stuff on this blog, but I didn’t really have another place for a piece this long. So it goes here. Enjoy!]

Stop me if this sounds familiar. It’s Election Day. A wealthy challenger with a nice political record is challenging an embattled incumbent. There are a lot of reasons to dislike the incumbent. In the eyes of many, the incumbent has weakened the standing of the United States in the world. He has driven up the debt to unconscionable levels doing things that could be called unnecessary and wasteful. He has initiated actions that seem to go against the Constitution on their face and that you believe to be changing the very identity of the nation you love. It seems obvious to you that he should not be re-elected, and yet when Election Day is over, he has done just that, squeaking by with a popular vote victory of just a few million votes. It’s enough to make you want to give up on this whole democracy thing, because clearly the voters can’t be trusted with even the simplest tasks of electing a decent challenger over a terrible incumbent

For liberals, I’m talking about John Kerry’s loss to George W. Bush in 2004. For conservatives, I’m talking about Mitt Romney’s loss to Barack Obama in 2012.

Eight years ago is not that long ago. I can remember pretty clearly how I felt back then and what I did about it. So I thought I’d put together a few ideas and concepts in the hopes that it would be useful.

When your guy loses, the first thing to consider is how you look at the voters who voted the person in that you don’t like. There’s a temptation—and believe me, I know how strong it is—to find a way to write those voters off entirely. To act like there is some intrinsic flaw with them, that they lack basic rationality and are incapable of fundamental human decency. You can write them off as brainwashed. Or lazy. Or crazy. Or racist. Or childish. Or socialist. Or greedy. Any of these sound familiar? This is the temptation to dismiss entire portions of the electorate with any sentence that starts with the words “They’re just …” Like this: Why did people vote for Barack Obama? They’re just lazy and want government to take care of them without them having to actually work for themselves. Why did people vote for George W. Bush? They’re just greedy racists who want to keep what they have and not share with anyone not like them.

Both of these sentiments have been shared pretty freely in recent years, but here’s the problem with them. Think about the people you know. Did all of them vote for the same person you voted for? I hope not. I really hope each and every person reading this knows one or more people who voted for the other guy. Now think about any “they’re just …” statement, and apply it to that individual. Are all your liberal friends truly unwilling to work and waiting for the government to do everything for them? Are all your conservative friends heartless monsters who never give to charity or do volunteer work, and who can’t deal with anyone a few shades darker than them?

Eight years ago, my answer to that last question was a firm “no.” For the record, my conservative friends also are not greedy insider traders looking to foreclose on your grandmother while twirling their freshly waxed mustaches, though it would be kind of cool if one of them was. By and large, they’re kind people who are good to their families, who spend lots of time volunteering, and who want an America where people of all sorts can live and work in safety.

If I’m going to be fair to my conservative friends, I can’t rely on darker stereotypes, because they don’t reflect who they really are. And if I keep treating them like the hideous conservative demons from fevered liberal nightmares, there’s a pretty good chance they won’t listen to a thing I say.

Here’s a pro tip: Going up to a conservative and saying something like “Why do you try to oppress everyone with your religion while trampling all over the poor?” is equally as effective as going up to a liberal and saying “Why do you hate America and want to destroy all jobs while turning it into a socialist nation?” I’m not saying you can’t ask these questions. Give it a shot. Let me know how it goes. I’ll tell you this, though—if any sort of positive conversation results from it, it’s because of remarkable restraint on the part of the person you’re talking to. It’s best to not have to rely on that.

What was reinforced to me eight years ago was that I needed to treat people who disagree with me the way I want them to treat me. Revolutionary, I know. But I’ve had those conversations, the ones where people struggle with the concept that I can believe what I believe while also somehow claiming to be any sort of decent person. After all, if I was a real liberal, would I be talking to them? Shouldn’t I be out paying for teenagers’ abortions with the money I collected from my eight welfare checks? I didn’t like being seen that way, so I figured conservatives wouldn’t be fond of me doing something like, say, wondering how they can claim to be good people when they hate women and want to suffocate the poor in their sleep.

There’s a complication in here, and it’s this: There are people who embody the stereotypes out there. There are people who just want the government to do more for them. There are people who want the government to keep anyone different from them at least one hundred miles away, if not out of the country altogether. Each side of the political spectrum has its worst element. What I’ve found, though, is that I can’t treat my friends like they’re part of that worst element. At least not if I still want them to be my friends. And I can’t assume my friends are the only sane members of the opposition in the whole country.

What it comes down to is this: Both in 2004 and in 2012, the nation was not taken over by a bunch of crazy, America-hating, dreadful people. Instead, people voted for a candidate for a number of different reasons. Some of those reasons were insane. Most were not. There is a rationality at work in many voters, and also a sense of what they believe is decency.

I’m not saying at the heart, we’re all the same or any such thing. I’m also not saying there are not really weird beliefs out there that should be boldly countered. I’m just talking about how we do it.

One thing that has been clear to me is that, often, political differences are based on different perceptions of the world; we then go and apply logic to those different perceptions and quite naturally come to different conclusions. That’s a topic for another essay, though. The point is, the differences exist, and they’re significant, but they don’t have to totally alienate us from each other. We don’t have to treat the other side like lumbering, irrational, horrible beasts. When your guy loses, getting through the next four years becomes a lot easier if you believe that the people who supported the other guy might have some decent motivations. Sure, they’re wrong-headed in some ways, but we all have our failings. I’ve got friends I disagree with politically, I’ve got friends I disagree with religiously, and I’ve got friends who do not see the merits of Joss Whedon shows. They’re all heretics, of course, but they’re also people I’m happy to know. I can tell myself that if the people who voted for the other guy are like the people I know, then it might not be so bad. I still disagree with them, but they’re not deranged. At least, most of them aren’t. I can work with them. I can try to understand their thinking better, so that it doesn’t all seem like people trying to destroy America, but rather people trying to do something good. It’ll be okay. And at worst, another election will come along in four years.

P.S. One more piece of advice: I know liberals had a lot of fun talking about moving to Canada after the 2008 election, but with its socialized medicine and higher rate of taxes as a percent of GDP than the U.S., it’s not the best place to go to flee any perceived encroaching socialism, so that’s not the best talking point. Besides, I’d miss you!

  1. You were brilliant here. I’ve been sharing this widely.

    • MZabkar
    • November 8th, 2012

    Bravo! As your conservative counterpart, I applaud you.

    • Thanks! We have our disagreements, but you’re one of the reasons why I can state firmly that I know conservatives sincerely care about their country.

  2. There is one thing I definitely agree with. Anyone who does not see the merits of Josh Whedon shows is a heretic.

    • d bandzi
    • November 9th, 2012

    You mention friends who have different opinions. I have close family who I have a rule when getting together, and that is, no politics disgusted in this house. I can’t believe people/ family would let politics rip relationships apart.

    • That has to happen sometimes. I really like exploring a bunch of topics in conversation with family and friends, but you’re right–sometimes there are some discussions that aren’t going to work. And in those cases, the relationship is worth more than the battle.

    • jeff
    • November 10th, 2012

    I am an “expat” living in France. The French middle class people(yes we still exist) cannot understand how a self-righteous business consultant could even be on the ballot in such a great country under such current pressure especially after a multi-trillion dollar fiasco in iraq caused by…

    • Part of what I’m getting at is that it’s important to understand the impulses that led to Romney’s nomination, which does not of course mean agreeing with them. The short answer is that there is a significant mistrust in the public sector’s ability to effectively address social problems, accompanied by worries that the approaches government uses sometimes makes these problems worse, not better. There is an underlying concern that if we allow the government to provide a certain level of income, or housing, or medical care, or whatever, then we will dull the self-reliant edge that many people believe is at the core of the American identity.

        • MZabkar
        • November 10th, 2012

        Jason, once again, you have described the core of my beliefs to a ‘T’. The only thing I could possibly add would be to add a deep mistrust of public sector management of, and gathering of, tax revenue, as well as subsequent economic policy.

        But…and I’ve told you this before…I think you and I are a lot closer on these topics than it may seem at first glance. I truly appreciate your insights.

      • To be clear, I wasn’t echoing my own beliefs. Just sharing what I know about the perspective of some conservatives I know. I’m glad it sounded accurate, because that’s what I was trying to make it.

    • jamie
    • November 10th, 2012

    You had me up until your snide Canada comment. Really? You needed that little dig?

    • I didn’t really consider it a dig. I thought it was useful to point out–if people are worried about the United States leaning leftward, it’s not the best response to want to go to a nation that generally is to the left of the U.S.

    • Tom z
    • November 24th, 2012

    I’m part of the 47% that asked the government for help when I lost my job due to outsourcing. Romney is the guy who took over companies, profited from them going bankrupt, and outsourcing jobs, in other situation to take advantage of tax breaks he claimed he know nothing about. Obama is FAR from perfect, however, the promises he made in 2008, for the most part, has been attempted even worth opposition from the other side of the isle. In my humble opinion, when our elected officials figure out they are hired by the people to work for the people by listening to the people, they will be much better off. This means working together. We teach our children to cooperate, why can’t they?

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