By Frank Blechman
I am going to begin this column with a confession. I had a really hard time deciding how to frame this conversation. In this blog, I have tried to present myself as a grumpy old guy who knew something about history and politics and who was qualified to explain about or comment on how some things in Virginia got this way, and what some procedures are now. I have tried to stay away from grand philosophy questions or speculating about what other people are (or might be) thinking.
Yet, in the aftermath of the general election last week, I have gotten a lot of questions asking me to explain:
“What are those people thinking?”
“How could a candidate lose so badly with over $100 million dollars to spend on a campaign in a small state?”
“Why didn’t the President ever try to expand his base?”
“Are people in the Midwest just dumb who voted for Trump this time, after all the economic mayhem and destruction he has caused?” “Can’t they see what’s going on?”
I don’t think the folks who asked me these questions expected me to have simple or easy answers. I can’t read the minds of others. I won’t try to deliver any answers.
But I will say that I think this election should teach us all some lessons.
If [voters] voted in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, we are the ones who aren’t asking the right questions. We are the ones who don’t understand what’s going on. . . . When we find that we disagree with others, we like to believe that we-know-something-that-they-don’t-know-that-if-they-knew-what-we-know-they-would-agree-with-us.
- Voters are not dumb. If they voted in a way that doesn’t make sense to us, we are the ones who aren’t asking the right questions. We are the ones who don’t understand what’s going on. In 2016, Clinton didn’t relate to or connect with blue-collar or rural voters. This year, Biden did a better job, and got some razor-thin margins in key states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. However, Democrats have not convinced most of those voters that the programs they are offering are really going to help much. Even here in Virginia where we take a lot of pride in “turning Virginia blue,” we have not reached those rural and blue-collar voters. Change in the Commonwealth has come from growth of the urban/suburban crescent, where we gained among college-educated women. If progressive candidates want to have durable influence, they must understand far better the votes they did not get.
- There are limits to altruism. Everyone may want what is good for most folks, but that has to include #1. We want everybody to have opportunities, but we are not enthusiastic about sacrificing our children to benefit others. Progressives have to do a much better job articulating and explaining how their ideas will really work to benefit not just all but each segment of our society. Otherwise, those grand ideas are open to the critique that a given program is really just a payoff to them.
- You can’t control the crazy guy. Industrialists in Germany in the 1930s thought that if they got Hitler elected, they could control him. He might say a lot of crazy things, but once in office, the responsibilities and their influence would pull him to the center. In the last week, I have heard from many business people here who have said to me that while they don’t like Trump’s behavior, they think he is fundamentally a business-man like them who they can work with. In contrast, they see Biden as basically somebody who does not speak to them, much less answer to them. They may not like Trump, but cannot abide Biden.
Maybe it all comes back to my first point above. When we find that we disagree with others, we like to believe that we-know-something-that-they-don’t-know-that-if-they-knew-what-we know-they-would-agree-with-us. As much as we hate to consider it, we have to accept that there is another terrifying possibility: They-know-something-we-don’t-know-that-if-we-knew-what-they know-we-would-agree-with-them.
If we respect democracy, we have to respect voters. That means when they vote in a way we don’t understand, we are then ones who have some lessons to learn.