Deplorables Vs. Insufferables
Last week, I introduced my pseudonymous friend Ezra Knowlittle and his contention that conservatives think they’re fighting a long-term losing battle – an observation with significant implications for our current political predicament. There’s a second, related observation from Ezra that is worth exploring further this week: that progressives who want to be more effective and win faster need to re-think tactics.
To dig into that, let’s look at two stories about Trevor – a smart, resourceful, and effective public policy professional – which bookend a period of extraordinary change in American politics and culture.
The first happened in late 2008, over lunch. Trevor (who happens to be gay) and I were discussing the best strategy for achieving marriage equality. I argued that before we achieved full marriage, many people might need to get used to the reality of gay couples living in some form of legal union first, as a bridge to overcoming fears and building broader acceptance (same-sex marriage was opposed 51% to 39% in surveys at the time). Hence, civil unions were a reasonable and realistic interim step toward the longer term goal. Trevor argued no, we need to continue to push for full equality immediately.
As history showed, he was totally right, and I was wrong. Though, to feel a bit better about my misread, I remind myself that we did not disagree on the mechanism of how people would change their minds, just the speed (and I was far from alone in being surprised by the gale force winds of history…recall that just four years before that lunch, Karl Rove had successfully engineered a raft of anti-gay marriage amendments on state ballots to juice Republican turnout – which may well have turned the 2004 election – and just months before, sky-blue California approved a gay marriage ban).
The way that particular change happened – and the way opinion change happens in general – is the key here. Americans came to identify more and more with gay neighbors, relatives and friends, as well as a surge of high profile and relatable celebrities. It turned out they didn’t need to see all those relatives and friends in civil unions first before agreeing on the principal of social equality and being ready to apply it to marriage. The conversion that occurred for many Americans — through comfortable experience — of unknown to known, scary to mundane, was enough to drive one of the most rapid and profound changes in social views in the history of American public opinion research.
Which brings me to the second Trevor story – a story of how to deftly create that kind of comfortable, and comforting, experience. A decade after our lunch, Trevor recounted:
“a random guy just walked up to me and said, ‘You look like Eli Manning. A better looking version. No homo.’ To which I replied, ‘Well I am a homo, so I'll take it!’ ‘Right on,’ he said, then we fist-bumped and walked our separate ways."
In that moment, Trevor could have interpreted the man’s wording as offensive and recoiled, or applied Stetson Kennedy’s mid-20th century bigotry-fighting tactic of “frown power.” That he didn’t was a sign of a savvy advocate applying high EQ and political smarts.
Contrast that with Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” moment. What grabbed people about it was the dismissiveness, seemingly writing off half of Trump supporters as unredeemable bigots. Lost in the hubbub was the rest of her comment, which was to the effect that the other half were people who were likely feeling let down by our government and our economy, and who were desperate for change. “Those are people we have to understand and empathize with as well,” she concluded.
What was so brilliant about Trevor’s interaction was that he looked past the “no-homo” peccadillo and assumed the man he was talking to was someone to understand and empathize with. He decided to apply not frown power, but smile power. What experience did that man walk away with? Did he feel scolded, or coaxed?
All too often, the experience that people are having these days is far different, and it leads them to draw conclusions about how welcoming the left in general and the Democratic party in particular is to them anymore. This was well captured by one of the great contemporary satires, South Park, in which a character joins a fraternity dedicated to political correctness. His wife says “ever since you joined this PC thing all you do is bully people…and wait for people to say anything improper so that you can jump down their throats for whatever words he or she used.” He replies “ ’He or she’ is an a-gender-phobic micro-aggression. You are a bigot.” It’s worth asking, how true, or truthy, does that ring for a big proportion of our electorate?
Now, to be sure, there is a clear and well-chronicled history of right-wing media hyping “political correctness” as a tool to paint liberals as alien snobs divorced from the interests of middle- and working-class Americans. And of course, the apotheosis of this trend was Donald Trump using opposition to “PC” as a deflection from the revelations of the Access Hollywood tape, and numerous other contemptible behaviors.
But again, the hyping only works because there’s more than a kernel of truth in it. If it’s a trap, progressives seem determined to rush headlong into it.
And of course, the unspoken reality about Hillary Clinton’s gaffe is that on some level she wasn’t wrong, certainly not in what she was trying to say. There are many people who are vicious bigots in our country. Neo-nazis and white supremacists are newly ascendant. They must be fought tooth and nail. But those are a very small part of the whole. What distinguishes a “deplorable” is not holding bigoted or antiquated views, it’s being beyond persuasion, learning, and growth. Those who are open to changes of heart represent a far, far greater segment – for proof look no further than fifteen years of polling on marriage equality. Which is what I believe Secretary Clinton really meant: sure, there are some people who are beyond reaching, but I think the vast majority on the other side are not, if we apply empathy and understanding.
The biggest question for Democrats these days shouldn’t be did Russia tip the scales of the 2016 election. It should be, why was it close in the first place? Former Boston Mayor Kevin White once said don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative….well, two years ago Americans did, and 63 million of them thought Donald Trump was a better one (and 40-45% continue to). If their future choices are between people whose views are too extreme on one side and people who disdain and dismiss them on the other, they will continue flocking to the other side.
The point is that there are indeed deplorables out there. There are also persuadables. To win, progressives need to win the long game with persuadables…and we don’t drive social change among persuadables by being insufferables.
There are three things progressives can do to improve tactics. First, show leadership with young people. They are driving a critical awareness of the long road still to go in racial, gender, and other forms of societal equality. We need to ensure that their passion isn’t squandered in self-defeating ways. So people in positions of authority should help to channel their drive in a way that avoids the Fox News trap of “PC Culture” excesses that ultimately drive the people away who we want to persuade. There is good evidence that this change is already happening. Let’s keep it going.
Second, demand actual leadership from our leaders. Democratic candidates need to take the empathy and understanding lesson to heart. They must not talk down to those people who are not all the way there yet, but persuadable. And have the backbone to tell activists who are being less constructive to cool it.
Finally, we can all show some leadership ourselves. Ultimately, the lesson from Trevor and the broader marriage equality movement is that the mechanism of change is a million small interactions – and we all control how we have them. When I asked Trevor about his approach, he told me: “ I’ve believed for a while now that the biggest threat to America’s political system is a lack of empathy, on both sides… [the success of the marriage equality movement] was more about how people felt about gay individuals because once they knew someone it took them out of the abstract. We respected and reflected their values instead of trying to convince them that they were wrong.”
This kind of self-discipline is hard — it demands that we all be smart, strategic, and able to extend the kind of understanding to people we don’t know that we would automatically afford to people we see as in our “tribe.” But if the goal is persuading — and winning — it is well worth it.