On Tuesday night, Nov. 8, millions of Americans sat down at their televisions, expecting to watch the election of the first female president of the United States. To so many, it seemed like the only reasonable expectation. Not only was Hillary Clinton winning in the polls, but the very thought of the United States electing the KKK’s candidate in 2016, to succeed the nation’s first black President, seemed absurd. I mean, surely we’re not still that backwards, are we? Surely movements like Black Lives Matter and past movements like Occupy Wall Street have had some effect on America’s political imagination!
My wife and I didn’t even plan on watching the coverage. We turned on a movie and ate popcorn, expecting that when the movie was over we’d turn on the TV to watch Clinton’s historic nomination acceptance speech and then we’d go to bed. But, of course, I had to check occasionally on my phone just to see how big a lead she had. I wasn’t completely crazy, I knew she had a chance of loosing Florida. But with an ominous glance at my phone, seeing Florida turn more and more red, Ohio being called to Trump more quickly than I thought possible, and Pennsylvania slipping through Clinton’s fingers, I turned to my wife and said, “I think we have to watch the election coverage now.” I did the math. I knew the unthinkable was happening.
I thought of my sleeping children, who will be 7 and 4 by the time we can correct this error. I thought of the millions of youth whose political imagination will, for the next four years, be shaped by the reality of Donald Trump in the White House. I thought of the already waning cultural credibility of the church and my heart sank. How can I explain this to emerging generations?
It felt like I had sat down for a test for which I was not prepared. I felt a kind of panic. Wisconsin was NOT on the study guide!
So what happened? How did things go so wrong?
People have been speculating. Some are blaming it on sexism, some on racism. Many blame it on apathy among (young) Democratic voters or the misconduct of the FBI director’s controversial reopening of the email investigation–the scandal that wasn’t. Others are blaming it on liberal elitism. Liberal elites blame it on everyone else’s ignorance. And in the whirlwind of speculation, what people don’t seem to want to admit is that we–the progressives and especially the progressive Christians–actually lost the argument. Yes, we know we lost the election, but do we know we lost the argument?
It seemed so obvious to to young people, to journalists, to just about every demographic and especially to intellectuals (63% of whom, if you just count people with postgraduate degrees, voted against Trump), that Donald Trump was not “great.” We progressive Christians knew how right we were. But we failed to convince. Our argument failed.
Now, of course you can console yourself in the fact that Hillary Clinton did “win” the election. She did receive more votes than Donald Trump. She, in fact, won more votes than any candidate in American history, other than Barack Obama. “The arch of history is bending toward justice,” you might say, even if the arch of the electoral college is not.
Don’t console yourself. Because if you just blame the electoral college, try to abolish it, and move on, you’ll continue to lose the argument, even if you win more elections. If you fall into the trap of arrogantly dismissing your opponent before explaining to them why you think they’re wrong, you’ll just forfeit the argument by refusing to have it. We progressive Christians missed this problem throughout the campaign. For example, we were so sure that Hillary Clinton won all the debates (and, by every traditional metric, she did) because when Donald Trump said something we thought was ridiculous, Clinton would just say, “well, that’s horrifying” and we would say, “yup!” Instead of actually addressing what he said and convincing the other side of its horror or its ridiculousness, we just scoffed and calked it up as a win. We failed to actually argue.
I am saying, as many have since the election, that we were in an echo chamber, a bubble, and that we liberals did indeed ignore the white rural conservative too much… (as absurd as that is to say out loud) I am NOT saying that we should revert to a more moderate position or be more hospitable to racism than we were before. I am NOT saying that our ignorance of white rural conservatives is in any way comparable to the outright historic marginalization of black people, women, or the LGBTQ community. I am NOT saying that it’s right for these people to claim that they’ve been marginalized or that the fear they felt when Obama was elected should be taken as seriously as the fear that many people–people who are actually threatened by deportation and discrimination–feel now. I am quite suspicious that they just confused a minor threat to their privilege for actual fear.
What I AM saying is that we need to stop scoffing and actually have the conversation… in our youth groups, in our public forums, even on social media. We need to stop retreating to our six and seven syllable words (i.e. neoliberalism, nationalism, xenophobia) as a place of comfort and actually engage in conversations that people understand. Intellectuals, your education was never meant to elevate your personal status. You are educated so that you can educate others. You lost the argument in 2016 because you failed to do that.
So what we need to do, starting today, is not just huddle our tribe and resist the others. We can’t afford to talk over the other side and scoff in arrogance any longer, especially not with this new government. What we need is to engage the other side. To listen. To validate, when we can. To empathize. To love. And to argue. To argue our point. To stop politely babbling into the echo chamber, and to start convincing people that we’re right. To start describing racism and misogyny in a compelling way so that people recognize it when they see it. In order to do that, you’ll have to consider the possibility that you’re wrong and that your opponent, no matter how bigoted you’ve been trained to think they are, might be right. This will be scary and risky (especially when it comes to issues like racism that we take for granted as a no-brainer) but if your argument can’t handle that risk, then it never deserved to win in the first place.
As my friend, Charlie Johnson, said the other day, “Being right is almost worthless. Being more right than someone else is less than worthless. Persuading others that we can all do right together is worth everything.”