“Shame on everyone who allowed Trump to come to power! Because you didn’t vote for Hillary, you are guilty of, at best, accessory to crime or criminal negligence.”
Outbursts like this appear somewhat frequently on my social media feeds. Frustrated or frightened by the Trump administration, members of my network chastise the voters (i.e. small-minded fools or bigots) who brought Trump to office. Because a Republican president was elected, much of this kind of shaming currently comes from left-leaning folks, but I’m sure many conservatives do the same when the tables are turned, blaming an undesirable political outcome on the ignorance, stupidity, or moral depravity of the other side. I refer to this tendency as “voter shaming,” whether or not the shaming is made explicit, because its aim is to change political opinions/behavior by making certain voters feel ashamed of the way they voted. The perspective underlying voter shaming implies that the root cause of Trump’s election is the cumulative bad decisions of individual voters. Coming from a group of people who consistently assert that the root cause of outcomes other than the election (like poverty, for example) is ultimately not individual decisions but an inequitable system, this seems somewhat inconsistent.
In this post, I explore what it might mean to apply the same kind of system-level thinking to the election that Democrats generally apply to other social phenomena. What would happen if we viewed Trump’s election as the emergent result of a complex system, and not the additive sum of individual votes?
Most obviously, we would shift our attention from the individual to the system, and we would be less brash about handing out blame. No single person’s vote for or against Trump made any difference in the outcome of the election. Trump’s victory, in this sense, can be compared to a traffic jam. Although you might feel justified in honking at the seemingly stupid driver in front of you, that driver’s decisions are not causing the bumper to bumper traffic; in fact, they are responding to it. Even if your honking ultimately changes the other driver’s behavior, the traffic jam will continue to exist. And even if we could ensure that all drivers knew the proper behavior for high-traffic situations (e.g. stay in the same lane, don’t accelerate or decelerate quickly), there would still be traffic jams. This is because it is not simply the behavior of individual drivers that causes these backups; incidents on the road, traffic density, traditional work day schedules, etc. all combine to create traffic jams in ways that transcend individual behavior. If you want to prevent traffic jams, you have to look beyond the individual. As with a traffic jam, individuals may be implicated in a system that produced Trump’s election, but they are not responsible for it.
If we recognize that this political “traffic jam” does not distill down to individuals making ill-informed or irrational choices, but is the outcome of a variety of systemic factors, we might also be more humble, especially in considering how we may have participated in and perpetuated the system that has produced this undesirable result.
Consider the analogy of a married couple: Although married individuals always have some personal agency, they are also very much influenced and constrained by their marital relationship, so much so that the behavior of the two individuals can become inextricably connected. There are obviously more and less healthy manifestations of this connection; the point is simply that individuals are not islands, but behave in relation to (significant) others. A marriage too is a system.
If we compare the Republican and Democratic parties to a married couple, the election of Trump might be analogous to one of the spouses “snapping,” getting drunk, and having a colorful affair with a local mechanic. The other spouse might be inclined to consider this behavior irrational and harmful, and indeed it probably is. But the sober spouse might also consider if anything in their relationship could have contributed to this surprising “snap.” If, for example, there had been ongoing verbal or physical abuse, this strange behavior, though still problematic, becomes somewhat more comprehensible, if not justifiable.
While I have been guilty of implicitly asking Trump supporters, “Why would you do such a crazy thing?”, today I find myself more inclined to consider what impelled these otherwise rational people to do it. I might also consider why I found it so surprising. And I recognize that I may be implicated in the answer. Have I alienated or ignored the concerns, values, and lifestyles of these people? Have I been unintentionally abusive in one way or another? Has our relationship always been welcoming and loving?
A simple example of how I have been ignorant and neglectful of the same populations that voted for Trump: As an educator, I have researched and taught in urban schools composed mostly of African-American and Latino students. There are whole conferences about “hip-hop pedagogy” and “raza studies,” and when we talk about “culturally responsive/sustaining” forms of instruction, we almost always refer to inner-city and immigrant populations. These are conversations worth having but we should recognize that we tend to focus, perhaps myopically, on certain demographics— which happen to lean left politically; I have yet to discuss how educators might be culturally responsive/sustaining in teaching students in the suburban Midwest or rural South. While I have made plans to incorporate freestyle rap and basketball statistics into curricula, I have never considered drawing on hunting culture or NASCAR, both of which are entirely foreign to me. The danger here is that educators like me have been like Rousseau’s hypocritical cosmopolitans in that we selectively care about certain groups of people so as to be spared having to care for others.
This self-reflection is not, of course, to excuse any acts of hatred perpetrated by any of these individuals. And I wholeheartedly believe that there are legitimate concerns with the self-centered, shameless, and senseless rhetoric President Trump and some of his supporters have promulgated, which has sometimes seemed to hinge on deep-seated prejudice. But that prejudice is not the whole story or the only story, and we suffer from myopia if we believe it is. (And even if it were, there is reason to believe that shaming Trump voters would not actually change their minds.)
As I conclude, let me make two “meta” comments about what I’ve said:
1) I have employed a typically Democratic way of thinking to defend Republican voters. If Republicans appreciate this particular application of this lens, they might consider applying it in other contexts in which they would tend to attribute responsibility to individuals. If Democrats still believe they are justified in shaming Trump voters, they must explain how the election is different in kind from other outcomes where that individualistic approach would be considered anathema.
2) This post may seem to imply that voting for Trump was, in fact, irrational. While I refused to vote for him and still have concerns about his administration, I also believe that there were perfectly legitimate ways to weigh the options thoughtfully and, perhaps with some distaste, to vote for Trump. My point here is simply that even if voting for Trump were objectively crazy, as some people seem to think, it still would not make sense to pursue a voter shaming strategy.