The American Electorate

The American Electorate

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A firsthand account

I’m sitting here in a barbershop with my grandpa. We’re waiting for the barber to return from lunch, and grandpa’s talking politics with someone who was already waiting here.

My grandfather is a democrat. Has been for as long as he can remember, save for the decades before the parties switched places. The guy he’s talking to says he’s voting for Trump. His reasoning is that Trump’s not a lawyer, not a politician, and he’s different from everyone else.

The conversation never touches on who my grandpa is voting for, which would likely to lead to trouble as the Trump supporter believes every democrat running for office should be locked up.

He tells us Obama is taking away our guns and wants to run for a third term. Assumptions are made that Obama will succeed on both endeavors thanks to having the Supreme Court stuffed in his pocket.

Comparisons to Hitler are made; apparently 52% of Americans are leeching off welfare, the system used by the Nazi regime to make people dependent upon the government before taking over. It’s a fact, he says, that some precincts in the last election reported 100% of the votes going to Obama — proof that the game is rigged against republicans. The rigging ties into his belief that Washington won’t allow Trump to win the election and further proves the entire government is corrupt. He wants to clarify that we are more corrupt than Russia at this point.

Through all of this, grandpa gives a light laugh at times — noticeable but not inflected with agreement or disagreement. Sometimes he lets out a “yep” to agree that Washington is corrupt. Our own talks would suggest he doesn’t think the corruption extends to Obama getting a third term or taking away our guns. He also doesn’t think the democrats need to be locked up; he was a Sanders supporter at first but has since decided he’ll be on team Hillary. However, he does believe the government is withholding the cure for cancer. The true evil behind the government is the mafia, he’ll tell you, and the rich are poisoning our food to kill off the poor.

I cannot speak to what media is consumed by the Trump supporter. You’d think he rejects it all as he tells you the government only lets the media print what the feds approve, but grandpa doesn’t ask him for his sources because offline conversations don’t mimic internet debates all that often. For grandpa’s part, the non-old western content he consumes comes from C-SPAN, Democracy Now!, RFD-TV, and occasionally Fox News. His options are limited by what DISH provides in their lowest channel tier for our area. As far as non-televised content, his reading consists of Kevin Trudeau books telling him that vinegar cures AIDS and various mailers from shady political or homeopathic groups. I’ve had to stop him multiple times from having his worries about aging exploited in the form of $100 bottles of pills claiming they’ll solve his memory problems with jellyfish extract. Haven’t been able to convince him Publisher’s Clearinghouse will never actually give him the $5000/week they promise if he sends in ten forms a week, though.

When we enter the political debate sphere of the online world, I think we consider people holding these beliefs to be unreal. The information age means almost anybody can become informed about any topic, right? Someone who believes in these conspiracies has got to be a troll or using their anonymity to espouse harmful beliefs they’d never talk about in-person. They’re an edgy teenager, a kid who hasn’t learned to navigate the harmful trappings of the internet; they’re an old codger, still holding onto the good old days where they had all the privilege; they’re just uninformed, and need to study it out.

Approach any of these belief holders and you’ll find they’re fully informed. Plenty of them have just as much time spent online as the most prolific social media celebrities. They’ve spent that time researching the same topics as you and I. Ask for their sources, and you might even be given a wall of links. Studying it out is exactly what they’ve done, and they’re probably more prepared than us. I don’t even have a list of links for any single topic that I can source from for an argument; the majority of my bookmarks are TVTropes pages I moved into a folder after going far enough down that rabbit hole to have 40+ tabs open. My beliefs are pretty strong and founded on research but I guarantee I’ll have to spend a few minutes googling to find something proving my point.

Is the Trump supporter uninformed? Not really. I have a feeling he might have opinions you’d agree with, just like my grandpa. In fact, both shared opinions that I’ll see from all parts of the political spectrum on any given day. Do you think poor people are getting taxed too much? They agree. Do you think property taxes are too high? Ditto. Are there criminals in Washington who get away with murder? I’m sure some of you would toss out the same names as grandpa and the Trump supporter. And I’ve met a fair share of liberals who believe Obama is a war criminal and should be locked up. The Trump supporter at the barbershop might disagree on the details of the why, but shares the common goal of how he should be punished.

What often counts as being informed is the information you’re willing to stand by. The information age’s biggest flaw is how all information is treated as equal in value. Take, for example, the recent Planned Parenthood scandal:

A group known as the Center for Medical Progress published videos which claimed to show Planned Parenthood associates engaging in the sale of body parts from aborted fetuses. The videos were proven to be edited and falsified, with members of CMP impersonating government officials and having created a dummy corporation that pretended to deal in the very same body parts PP was accused of selling.

Texas held a grand jury to potentially indict Planned Parenthood. Instead, the creators of the videos were indicted and Planned Parenthood was found to have committed none of what was levied against them.

Has any of this made a difference? Multiple states are still voting to remove any funding of Planned Parenthood, cutting a lot of people off from their only source of healthcare. Congress is still considering stripping the company of all funding. Any comment section or Twitter thread you visit about Planned Parenthood is likely to have a lot of people calling them baby killers selling baby parts. A shooter in Colorado went on a killing spree at a Planned Parenthood and used those same words when he was arrested.

Just because the information is there, doesn’t mean the person reading it will believe it. And this is, again, nothing particular to any part of the political spectrum. I’m not going to believe anything I read from certain sites and I’m going to dismiss most of what gets said on certain channels. That means that there are times I’ll refuse to believe something that is objectively true. The same is done by you, by grandpa, by the Trump supporter, and everyone else. Only when there’s a consensus from sites I trust will I feel comfortable repeating what’s claimed. Those who believe Planned Parenthood are baby-killing flesh merchants believe any claims to the contrary are part of a conspiracy, because the sites they trust haven’t told them the videos were confirmed to be falsified.

We would do well to remember that the person on the other side of the screen exists. There’s a good chance they’re objectively wrong. They have harmful opinions and agreeable opinions. A few opinions might be well thought out, with reputable sources backed up by research. More will be based on hearsay from a mailer, television, a tweet, a comment, or someone they trust.

Sometimes, their opinions will result in erasing the existence of someone else, denying them their humanity. We need to universally take a stand and build common ground in saying this is not ok. Your opinions never outweigh the real, living being you’re sharing them with. The moment you catch yourself typing or saying the words “You’re not a real…” is the moment you need to stop the conversation; anything that follows is almost guaranteed to turn a person into an imagined, paper target. There is little chance that a constructive conversation will follow because you will both be trying your hardest to force each over the emotional cliff.

The same ground needs to be covered in denying someone’s existence because it’s uncomfortable or hard for you to understand. You won’t find an easy set of words to watch out for when this happens; the ingredients that make a person are infinite (and not always customizable). What you can do is accept that just being different doesn’t make someone inhuman. Disagreeing with that difference will happen to all of us at some point. Expressing that disagreement can lead to learning, even if it doesn’t result in understanding or total acceptance.

But if you are not prepared to “lose” — to learn, be proven wrong, or come to a civil stalemate — then you are not prepared to accept the other participant as a person. Find another discussion to have.

Grandpa and the Trump supporter (trademark pending) are two real people who had a political conversation in a barbershop. When one of them recognized that the conversation was going nowhere, they switched to a topic they could agree on. By the time the barber came back to the store, the Trump supporter was talking about work being done on a nearby creek and the prevailing cut-it-with-a-knife tension had disappeared. He got his haircut while all three men shared stories from the old days about basketball and barns.

The American electorate is a strange beast. It’s scary to think that the over-the-top rhetoric and conspiracy theories you see in any comment section or blog represents a real person with the right to vote. Sometimes, they truly are a troll. Maybe they’re lashing out for personal reasons. Could be that they’re just edgy.

I’d like to hope we can tame the beast if we err on the side of caution and speak to each other as people. It’s going to be hard. I’m not the first person to say this, certainly won’t be the last, and don’t expect to impact of change a single mind out there.

But I won’t forget that time I met a Trump supporter in real life, watched my democrat grandpa hold a conversation with him, and nobody was threatened or told they weren’t human.

You can reach Colby Klaus on Twitter or via email.