I’ve been in close contact with more than 500 voters since the last presidential election, discussing everything from gun control to rallies to North Korea to President Trump’s bout with COVID-19. Over and above everything else, I have learned that although there is significant common ground on the issues facing our country, our perceptions of each other are tearing us apart.
Take Marian, a Republican from Rhode Island. “When people ask me why I voted for Trump for president in 2016, I tell them it’s pretty easy: I was just fed up,” she told me. “I watched all of those career politicians in Washington writing books, getting rich, and doing absolutely nothing for middle class people like me. Why not take a risk with an outsider who might blow it all up?”
Although Marian grew up in a family of Democrats, her last Democratic vote for president was for Barack Obama in 2008. While transcribing recordings for an insurance company, she heard stories that changed her perspective. “Every tape I did was a person who wasn’t working and who was living off the system. Someone would have a headache and would sue for $5,000. Another would say he was sick and didn’t think he could work for two months, but he hadn’t gone to a doctor,” she said. “It tainted my views and I noticed this unfairness in other places. I concluded that our country was set up to use my tax dollars to support freeloaders, and we were becoming too liberal.” She voted for Jeb Bush in the 2016 presidential primary and for Trump in the general election. She said, “I just decided to rip the Band-Aid off and try something completely different. I admit that when Trump won the election, I was pretty shocked, and thought, ‘Oh no — what have I done?’ ”
But Marian will vote for Trump again. She detests Trump’s meanness, but she likes that he is obsessed with the one issue she cares about the most: bringing back the economy. And she sees him as a hard worker who loves his family and who is making progress despite obstruction from the other party.
Her vote for Trump is also a vote against Democratic challenger Joe Biden. She sees him as a good man, but too nice, and thus likely to collapse under pressure from “the radical left.”
She thinks Democrats have “gone off the deep end,” pushing to make everything free — from health care to education — and ruining the values that she cherishes, like taking personal responsibility, working hard, and earning your success, as her immigrant parents did. “My parents took out loans, worked multiple jobs, and never got a handout, and for some reason, Democrats don’t think that works,” she said. “I mean, we have all of these elitist socialists who just want to keep giving and giving. ‘You screwed up again? Oh, I am sorry, let’s give you some more.’ And meanwhile, the Democrats want to get rid of the police? And want to take my tax dollars and give them to prisoners, criminals, and illegal immigrants? I am afraid of what would happen if the Democrats got their way. They scare me.”
Anna sees it differently. A South Carolina Democrat, she grew up in a housing project and watched her mother work two jobs to support her three children. Anna was a diligent student, got a college scholarship, and then built a successful career in sales for a technology company. “I was never a dyed-in-the-wool Democrat, but I liked being part of a party that stood for compassion and fairness for others, and if my life is an American Dream story, I want that for others.”
She became engaged politically when Obama ran for president. She saw him as brilliant, passionate, and a model of a great leader. When she voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was partially about her excitement to have a woman president and partially a vote against Trump, whom she saw as “a vile, disgusting, despicable, deranged person.” Her view hasn’t changed. “Our president, on a daily basis, is making a mockery of the presidency with his Twitter nonsense, his terrible hires, his actions to enrich himself and his family, and his racism. Every word he utters makes me feel embarrassed for our country.”
Anna has already voted for Biden. Although her first choice was Senator Elizabeth Warren, she sees Biden as an experienced, empathetic man who will bring sanity back to the White House and watch out for the little guy. She is convinced that he will surround himself with talented advisers and unite our country again.
Her vote for Biden is also a vote against Trump, whom she believes is a puppet for Vladimir Putin, white nationalists, and rich people.
Anna says that Republicans “have gone mad” and she is incredulous that anyone would vote to reelect Trump. “I look at those people at rallies with their red caps and I just can’t figure out who they are,” she said. “I hate to say it, but I see those supporters and assume that they are uneducated deplorables, who sleep with their guns, deny that climate change is happening, and never met a Black person they liked.” In particular, she is distressed that Republicans are rejecting masks, denying the risks of COVID-19 in the same way that they deny the risks of having a president in the White House who is only out for himself. She believes that Republicans have lost their way, becoming “a cult of nasty and alarming humans.”
This is where we are as a country: Like these two women, we are divided. We see Americans in the other party as our adversaries.
Over the last four years, my panel of voters have opened up their lives, dreams, and frustrations to me. I am about to complete this project. I have heard about their families, their challenges, and their successes. At last count, three have gotten cancer, one has died, 22 have filed for unemployment, 18 have graduated from college; 11 have had babies; two lost their homes to mudslides; 12 had to leave their homes due to hurricanes; one left his job as a police officer and ran for state representative (and won!); 16 became grandparents; seven got married. Some went to Trump rallies and sent me reports. Others marched in protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd and sent me photos. They have shared over 7 million words about their personal perspectives and feelings about politics with me.
What I have learned is that there is significant common ground among these Americans when it comes to policy. The majority would support stricter gun control, a path to citizenship for dreamers combined with a physical wall in certain places on the border, a continuation of Obamacare with a public option, and higher taxes on the wealthy. The majority support the right to an abortion, knowing that the decision would be excruciating. The majority are unsure about most foreign policy issues because they don’t feel they have the expertise to know what is right. The majority are just trying to make ends meet financially, stay healthy, and give their children a better life than they have. The majority hate Trump’s tweets and believe that the media is biased.
What strikes me most after these four years is that in spite of our common ground, we are inexorably divided because of what we believe about the other side. We have a divisive president — and the extremes get the air time, both among our political leaders and the media. The algorithms created by our social networks fuel the fire even more. This all reinforces a narrative that people from the other party are crazy, selfish, and focused on the wrong issues. Nobody likes it this way: 490 of my 500 voters tell me they are distressed about the disunity.
Many Americans believe that those in the other party are dangerous. Like our president, we have resorted to calling people names: deplorables, low-information voters, elitists, socialists, radicals, racists, Nazis, idiots. We make assumptions about their values, and we don’t trust them. We believe that the other party as we knew it is dead. And we are afraid of what they will do if their candidate doesn’t win. It’s a civil war, conducted in our minds and documented on cable TV and Facebook.
My voters tell me that they expect violence no matter who wins the presidency, instigated by the other party. Sales of small, concealable guns and AR-15s are at record highs, and the demand for ammunition is tantamount to the run on toilet paper last March.
We need to put a halt to the insanity. In the absence of a clear landslide by one of the candidates, our predicted “dark winter” may not just be related to COVID cases.
It’s hard to know what to do, but it’s clear that promises by either candidate to unite us are not enough. We will need the media to realize the enormous responsibility they have in shaping public perception and to be far less inflammatory and less tolerant of on-air conspiracy-mongering. We need groups like The Lincoln Project to use their communication skills to try to bring us together in the aftermath of the election. We need governors to band together to model what harmony and public safety can look like. We need urgent messages and actions by our representatives in Congress about how hating each other is fruitless. We need the leaders of the winning party to resist the temptation to gloat, scream, and spike the ball in the end zone. Most important, we need significantly more dialogue with each other: a commitment to walking in one another’s shoes, listening hard, and trying to leverage our common ground to create a new path for the future.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Although this might be the most important election of our lifetimes, how we deal with the results may be even more important for the future of our republic.
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html.