Can We Talk to “Them”?

Like it or not, democratic citizenship imposes a burden on us: to perfect an imperfect union. Retreating into our own safe zones won’t accomplish that.

By Ethan Porter

Tagged citizenship

In 2015, the producers of the blockbuster camp movie franchise Sharknado were casting the third entrant in the series. Sharknado is about giant tornadoes comprised of sharks—yes, sharks—who must do battle with a motley crew of B (or C, or D) list movie stars. For Sharknado 3: Hell No, the producers needed someone to play the president. They asked Donald Trump. As The Hollywood Reporter detailed this past summer, Trump at first agreed. But then he pulled out. One of the movie’s producers remembers Trump’s now infamous lawyer, Michael Cohen, explaining: “Donald’s thinking about making a legitimate run for the presidency, so we’ll get back to you.”

He did not get back to the producers in time. Mark Cuban was cast instead. And so instead of acting as the president in the Sharknado franchise, Donald Trump became the actual president of the United States.

Set aside, for a moment, the particulars of his policy preferences, such as they are. Set aside further that he received substantially fewer votes than his opponent. From the moment he announced his candidacy until the moment he took office, the very notion of a Trump presidency was ludicrous, absurd—the sort of thing that savvy cable movie producers knew to milk for laughs. Yet after he won the Republican Party’s presidential nomination—no small feat itself—62 million Americans voted for him to become their president. And while some of his support has softened since, the overwhelming majority of those who voted for him continue to approve of the job he’s doing.

All this makes it easy to despair for the prospects of American democracy What kind of people elect such a man? What kind of a country makes him its leader? The eight months of his presidency have done nothing to assuage such concerns. Trump has proven himself to be—and this is a charitable description—more suitable for Sharknado than for the most powerful position on earth.

In 2004, after Bush prevailed, despondent Kerry voters circulated a map that purported to show that the red states were “low IQ” states compared to the blue states. If we can’t win, the thinking went, it’s because our opponents are incompetent. They are not capable of exercising their responsibilities as citizens. Trump’s election has only bolstered this line of thinking. There must be something wrong–seriously wrong–with the people who voted for Trump. Journalists have already produced a small library of investigations into the mysteries of “The Trump Voter,” treating him or her as a baffling exotic animal just discovered.

There are whispers, some louder than others, that Trump’s election proves that democracy must be restrained. A people that voted for Donald Trump cannot be trusted with governing themselves. A country that made him its leader must adopt new rules designed to prevent something like this from ever happening again. Some of these whispers appear as suggestions offered by leading writers and thinkers, people whose work is meant for public consumption. Some are uttered only between trusted confidants, in back rooms, in small spaces. I’ve heard it be suggested that, in the wake of Trump’s election, states should consider instituting a poll tax, discriminating this time based not on race, but on education.

It is often noted that democracy is on retreat around the world. Trump’s rise, we are told, is but a part of a larger story, in which the tide of right-wing authoritarianism has come in, displacing the lower-case-d democrats. Trump himself frequently displays a stunning hostility toward the niceties of democracy. It would be a terrible irony of history if Trump’s rise caused his opponents to set democracy aside. We can have profound political disagreements with people whom are no more or less competent as democratic citizens than we are. That we disagree with them is hardly cause to move away from democracy. Far from it. The best way to preserve democracy is by practicing democracy.

Much of the anxiety around democracy after Trump is premised on the idea that some voters—his in particular—are fundamentally incompetent. After all, if they were competent, surely they would not have voted for Trump. Or so the thinking goes. Yet this premise is faulty, for at least two reasons. First, it underestimates the extent to which all Americans—yes, even Trump voters—are responsive to and aware of factual information. Second, it misunderstands how people come to form their political beliefs.

For a long time, researchers were convinced that most people knew absolutely nothing about politics. From this perspective, people don’t have political “attitudes”—they have “non-attitudes.” To be sure, the amount that the average person knows about politics is far, far less than we might like to imagine. (And it’s certainly less than the average Democracy reader—if you’ve read this far, you should know that your level of political knowledge is off the charts.) But painting all voters as know-nothings is painting with too broad a brush. Some of the early research on political knowledge was marred by faulty measurement strategies, leading scholars to overestimate the depths of public ignorance. (My favorite example: For years, voters who could not identify the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court by his precise title were recorded as not knowing who he was. Many respondents, however, knew who he was—they just described him in less ceremonial terms. So the voter who described him as “the head honcho” was viewed as not knowing who he was.) Other research has claimed that voters “backfire,” whereby they reject facts that do not align with statements made by their preferred politician.

For their part, Trump voters are not know-nothings. Not only are many of them are well-educated, but many of them could probably answer basic political knowledge questions correctly, too. They also have proven surprisingly willing to accept factual information, even when that information cuts against Trump’s own misstatements.

The point is underscored by two studies I conducted as part of a broader research team prior to the election. In the first study, conducted after his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, we showed people a statement of his about the crime rate that was plainly at odds with the facts. We presented some of those people with information that made clear that Trump’s statement was not accurate. In the second study, conducted right after the first presidential debate, we showed people an erroneous claim he’d made about unemployment in the Midwest. Again, we made clear to some people that Trump’s claim was not correct.

In both studies, the results were the same. Trump voters were happy to distance themselves from the blatantly incorrect statements espoused by their candidate. They didn’t reject the facts or “backfire” in any way. They accepted the empirical evidence, thereby separating themselves from their candidate. However, their views on Trump himself didn’t change at all. That is, Trump supporters who had just learned that Trump’s claims were wrong—and came to accept the empirically accurate position as a result—remained steadfast Trump supporters. His supporters were clearly capable of discerning fact from fiction, of real news from fake news. But that had no impact on whom they were planning to vote for.

We didn’t put Clinton voters through a similar exercise, mostly because she didn’t make nearly as many false statements during the campaign. And while it’s tempting to think that her voters would have behaved differently, there’s no reason to think that they would have. If you voted for Clinton, ask yourself: Had you been aware of a factually incorrect statement she made during the campaign, would you have become any less supportive of her? Or, alternatively, were the stakes too high to merit that kind of reconsideration? Would one misstatement—or three—really have made a difference?

Most Americans do not arrive at their political beliefs by a careful evaluation of the empirical evidence before them. Citizens are not creatures of fact. We learn, often at a young age and often from those who are most influential to us, what values are most important, and which party best reflects those values. We grow attached to that party, and we bring that attachment with us for the rest of our lives. Donald Trump was no conservative before he ran for president. He was only recently a Republican. But he ran, he won the party’s presidential nomination, and his fellow Republicans rose to his support.

We might wish it were otherwise. But if fate had twisted differently, and Donald Trump’s Sharknado replacement, Mark Cuban, had dropped out to run against Trump, and Cuban then won the Democratic nomination, would Democratic voters have sat out? Against Trump?

Rather than leading us away from democracy, Trump’s election should compel us to run toward it. We can do so in our everyday lives. Now more than ever, engagement with our fellow citizens is of paramount importance. The good news, as I’ve sketched out above, is that his election did not usher in a post-truth reality, where up is down and the sky is no longer blue. The more challenging news is that facts alone will not persuade one’s political opponents to set aside their positions.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said that people are entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts. He was right—to a point. Different people place different emphases on different facts. What matters most to me is not guaranteed to matter most to you. With this in mind, when we engage those we disagree with, it is worth doing so with a bucket full of humility. We’re no more likely to persuade them than they are to persuade us. We’re set in our ways, and have been for some time.

So are they. But if we can both acknowledge that up front, we can focus on learning how our values define and sometimes divide us. And we don’t just have to engage in high-minded arguments with our opponents. We redouble our commitment to democracy every time we attend a protest or a rally. If we want others to be better citizens, we can lead by example, as the flourishing of activism since the election has made clear.

To castigate Trump voters for their vote, and to wallow in despair about democracy’s future, neglects the burden that democratic citizenship imposes: to work on perfecting an imperfect union. Sometimes, these imperfections bleed across the page. But to answer them by seeking refuge outside the confines of democracy is not an answer at all.

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Ethan Porter Ethan Porter is an assistant professor at George Washington University. He is the author of The Consumer Citizen (Oxford), from which this essay is adapted.

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