What Happened and What to Do About It

What Happened:

On November 8th, 58% of voting-age citizens cast ballots in the presidential election. In 2008, when Obama was elected, 64% cast ballots. When all the ballots are counted, Clinton will have won the popular vote by at least a million. Trump won the electoral college by squeaking ahead in some of the swing states: he was only 68,236 ahead in Pennsylvania, for example.

Donald Trump did not prevail in the election nearly so much as Hillary Clinton failed to win it. Too many people who otherwise agreed with her policies were uninspired by her candidacy. She failed to ignite enough passion to turn enough of them out to vote. Partly this was the result of an outrageous smear campaign against her, perpetrated for decades by Republicans but taken to the extreme in the past year. Donald Trump generated passion from part of the constituency that chose him, but many of his voters disliked him only slightly less than they disliked Clinton. A significant number of Republicans voted against him or just sat out the race.

President Obama explained the election this way, as quoted in today’s LA Times (p A7): “… a pretty healthy majority of people agree (with Obama’s vision)… The problem was, I couldn’t convince a Republican Congress to pass a lot of them (Obama’s initiatives)… Having said that, people seem to think I did a pretty good job. And so there is this mismatch between frustration and anger.”

Racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic voters have been with us for a long time. It remains to be seen if there really is an increase in the percentage of Americans who hold these views, and whether or not we really can credit them for the outcome of the election. The more fundamental cause is the Republican Party itself. Forty years of race-baiting code language by Republicans has culminated in Trump’s outright, unvarnished rhetoric of hate. Forty years of ranting that government is bad and taxes are evil, underscored by Republican mismanagement of government, have mesmerized many Americans into assuming that they can’t count on their elected officials to do anything useful. Six years of absolute intransigence by Republicans in Congress toward President Obama has stymied him from advancing the progressive agenda that reflects the real will of the people. This has demoralized folks across the political spectrum, contributing to many people’s sense that the whole system is futile, rigged, and corrupt. (The antique electoral college system, and its current consequences, only adds to this frustration.) The Republicans created the conditions for a demagogue like Donald Trump to rise to power. And we cannot count on them to clean up their mess.

The Democratic Party hardly has been flawless all this time; far from it. The Bernie Sanders revolution was and still is a healthy corrective to its failings. But let us not presume an immoral equivalence between the two parties. Overwhelmingly, blame must be laid at the feet of the Republican Party for systematically, cynically dashing the belief that our votes can result in social progress.

America has not drifted into particularly worse racism, sexism, xenophobia, or homophobia, problematic as these prejudices remain. But it has become more frustrated. Most of our people still want what we wanted in 2008 when Obama was elected. Millions of voters have blamed Democrats for not delivering on policies that the Republicans would not allow them to enact. Hillary Clinton was defeated by the resulting demoralization. So it is vital to remember that this election in no way gives the Republican Party or Donald Trump himself a popular mandate to enact their policy platforms.

What To Do About It:

1) Be mindful. Practice meditation and prayer. Be aware of your reactions to the election. Examine your feelings carefully, with warmth and openness and an absence of judgment. Let your feelings be. Only then can you act carefully and intentionally, instead of reacting automatically and uselessly. Cultivate your moral imagination so that you can be profoundly empathetic even towards people you have never met nor ever will meet. Cultivate a sense of deep curiosity, through art and music, through listening to lectures and reading good books. Our national discourse more than ever needs us to be mindful, kind, respectful, open, interested, patient, and non-judgmental with people with whom we may disagree.

2) Be aware. Stop relying on Facebook and Twitter and “talking heads” as your sources for the news. These sources separate people into parallel universes of thinking and voting that barely intersect. They are a big part of the problem that was revealed on November 8; millions of voters blamed exactly the wrong people for the problems they see with the country. Social media flashes headlines based on your preferences, and what you prefer may well not be what you need to know. You’ll get vastly more information by reading good sources than by listening or watching. Read intelligently, professionally-curated news: The Economist Magazine, the New York Times, the LA Times. Read researched books by reputable authors that dig deep into public issues. Identify a few issues you are passionate about, and stay deeply informed about them. It’s our civic duty to know what is really going on, instead of relying on “echo chambers” like Fox “News” or Rachel Maddow. Know your Constitution and defend it: you can count on it being trampled by the Trump administration.

3) Belong. What organizations are politically advocating for the issues that matter to you? You can’t do it all. You can’t be involved in every important campaign that will resist the Trump agenda. So choose one or two, join them, and be seriously involved over time. It is okay to start small; you can grow in your commitment and involvement. Be patient, stick with it. John Oliver’s list of organizations to support is a good one. To it I would add Progressive Christians Uniting, which amplifies and organizes the grassroots action of church folks at a national level – I’m an activist for it and a member of its board of directors. Belong to a faith community or a local community organization where you can have ongoing, face-to-face relationships with folks who are engaged with civic life. They will give you emotional and spiritual support to stay engaged for the long term.

4) Protest judiciously. Mass demonstrations can be powerfully useful, but not always. Pay close attention to the leadership of any protest you are inclined to join. Are the people behind it capable of managing the crowd safely and intelligently? Are they able to translate the protest into sustained, effective action afterward? Will the event serve any real purpose other than burning off angry energy? Is there a likelihood that the protest will backfire, serving only to energize the opposition to your cause?

5) Be an every-election voter, and gently urge everyone you know to make voting an unfailing habit. Be a “votivator”: share your voting choices, every time, with your friends and family members. Encourage them to do their own research, of course, but let them know that copying the voting choices of people they respect is a perfectly legitimate “entry level” for democratic participation. The more of us who vote, the more our politicians must attend to our interests and reach out to us for support. Some people are demotivated to vote by the Electoral College. But the fact that at least a million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than for Donald Trump will still matter greatly in making the case that the Republicans do not have a popular mandate to move the country backward. Consider running for public office, or vigorously supporting others, particularly young people, who are considering doing so. All politics is local, it is said – certainly all politics starts at a local level. Progressives need to do a much, much better job of creating and maintaining a “pipeline” of talent for political office from the local to the national level.
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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