by Wallace Kaufman
Newport, Oregon – When people with a conflict come to a mediator they are often like voters who favor distinctly different candidates—say Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
As my family and friends know, I love debate, and I sometimes pursue it roughly and competitively. I also spend a good part of my professional life as a mediator whose first obligation to clients is to listen carefully and respectfully without taking sides. When I listen to supporters of Clinton, Sanders, and Trump, it’s clear that what they say they want and what the candidates say they will do are almost irrelevant to what their supporters need—and thus why they will vote for Clinton or Trump.
Sure, some Trump rants and off the cuff remarks are exaggerated, silly, vulgar, mean, cruel, and untrue, and he often reverses his positions or denies he ever held them. Sure, Clinton has lied, gets paid $8,000 a minute by Wall Street for words she won’t disclose, does favors for donors, trashed women who accused her husband of misconduct, and has been on both sides of many issues. This is a rare election where almost no one will say, “I don’t vote for the party. I vote for the person.” So what are they voting for?
The endless analyses of what voters want, do not explain why voters want Clinton or Trump. We have to look behind what they want and talk about what they need or what they believe the nation needs.
Most Trump and most Clinton voters don’t have a great commitment to what the candidates say they will do—not to the specifics. Nor are they very interested in defending the character of the candidates. The Trump voters are convinced the nation needs to reverse course. The Clinton voters are convinced the nation needs to stay on course, at least of the course of the last eight years.
We can measure almost everything the candidates say about hot issues in those terms. Clinton supporters feel the White House has been right on most questions, and that by and large we can improve existing government programs and approaches to social questions, especially if the Democrats take over Congress. Trump supporters feel that during the last seven years and in many cases much longer, government hasn’t work and is fundamentally flawed, even corrupt. They feel that the last thing we need is another establishment president adjusting the same old policies and programs.
Would Trump really reverse course in this way or would Clinton really stay on course—no one knows for sure. Their voters know they are taking a gamble, and many try to convince themselves the risk is small. The way they reassure themselves that their vote for a deeply flawed candidate is reasonable is by seeing the other side as less than human—at least bigoted, corrupt, fascist, ignorant, stupid, naïve, elitist, hard hearted, America haters, etc.
This is the most divisive election I’ve seen in 70 years. The candidates merely bring to a head the divisiveness that has been growing through two administrations. This campaign has become a kind of civil war.
People who do not understand each other and who demonize each other cannot work together even when the battle is over and when common ground is obvious. The election will be over in three months, but we know the truth that while there are some just wars, there is never a just peace. A United States bitterly divided within, will also be a weak leader without—whether we lead by example or by position.
As in most highly impassioned mediation each side accuses the other of lying, being ignorant, dishonest, bigoted, deaf to reason, blind to fact. In a political campaign about the fate of the nation, this kind of talking past each other has serious national and international consequences.
To avoid a political civil war and its aftermath, Americans have to stop calling each other and the candidates names, hurling epithets, and posting simpleminded and dehumanizing memes worthy of some cynical propaganda machine in a third rate pseudo democracy. We don’t have to agree with each other, but to continue as a functioning nation we have to understand each other. We have to reverse the course of this campaign even while we continue to set the course of the nation by the belief that our freedom to disagree unites us.
Wallace Kaufman is a former resident of Chatham County, NC.