The public square vs the voting booth
Why was Donald Trump’s election so surprising? One obvious reason is that he was completely unfit to be president. Less obvious is the fact that so much of what is now said and assumed in public life implied that his ideas were out-of-touch with the majority, with reality, and with the future. But as the election showed us, the consensus positions of public life turned out to be out-of-touch with a huge number of American voters. There’s a problem with our public conversations, and it points to a lesson for New Zealand.
There are many reasons for Trump’s win, including the fact that whole communities have been left behind in economic terms and have watched the social fabric unravel around them. Another reason is the lack of real respect and tolerance for different views that’s a feature of many Western countries now. Although we know and celebrate the importance of free speech, this theoretical commitment doesn’t always survive real world contact. For example, many in the US apparently found it difficult to raise their legitimate concerns about immigration and border control without being automatically labelled as racists. That was exactly the mindset revealed by Hillary Clinton’s comment that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.”
Large numbers of voters repudiated not only Clinton, but all those who supported her, including President Obama and all the celebrities who hit the campaign trail on her behalf. As many have said, this looks like a revolt – the masses overthrowing the elites and the establishment that have looked down on them for a long time.
But many of them did this even though they weren’t exactly sold on Trump, who had an “unfavourable” approval rating of 58.5% in the days leading up to the election. That’s not surprising—for example, Trump appears extremely narcissistic and superficial, doesn’t have political experience, was accused of sexual harassment, and said a number of actually deplorable things, like his awful “locker room” comments about women. Some of Trump’s supporters and endorsers are clearly racist and misogynistic, given the KKK’s official endorsement, and the ongoing deplorable comments from self-described Trump supporters on news websites and social media post-election. However, to paint all 55 million Trump voters as simply racist or sexist misses the complexity of why people choose to vote a certain way. For example, we’re hearing that women’s support for Clinton was “relatively anaemic,” and Trump actually won more votes from white women, especially from those who don’t have a college degree.
So here are just a couple of lessons we can learn from the mismatch between what was deemed acceptable in public conversation, and the way that people actually voted. First, it’s probably not a good idea to marginalise or ignore large swathes of the electorate with labels like “deplorables”. Trump’s election suggests that the people on the receiving end of this treatment won’t put up with it forever. The force of rhetoric may keep them silent for a while, but don’t mistake that for assent.
Second, we have to be genuinely open to different views, including the ones we don’t agree with. We know that diversity can bring benefits in so many other ways, and it’s time to accept that viewpoint diversity is just as important. Otherwise, we run the risk that whole groups of people will feel forced to suppress views they actually think are perfectly legitimate, which builds dangerous pressure over time. This is a risk that an opportunist or an extremist can exploit—someone who is quite happy to take on the establishment and to start breaking things, including the consensus. Even when that person has some pretty obvious and major flaws, they may pick up a lot of support if they’re the only one voicing the fears and views of a whole group of people. In fact, those people are likely to vote for him or her precisely because they want to break the status quo. When that kind of reasoning is in play, we’re in serious trouble.
Trump’s election shows us the kind of surprise that emerges from the safety of the voting booth when people don’t feel they’re welcome to express their views in the public square. But the problem isn’t just that we get a surprise. It’s that a weak commitment to free speech causes pressure to build up over a long period of time, and it’s almost inevitable that someone is going to exploit that pressure with damaging results. Avoiding this kind of political breakdown in New Zealand is up to all of us. Let’s champion a rich, diverse, and yes, sometimes uncomfortable public square, that accommodates and encourages discussion, dissent, and understanding.