I’m going to discuss a topic that at first glance might seem to be a poor fit for a blog where we discuss stories. But bear with me, I think it has more resonance with our narrative obsession than might be readily apparent.
I recently read an article on 538 exploring the question of whether people choose candidates based on their current beliefs or whether they change their beliefs to conform with a candidate of their party. Hovering in the air, in the media, in private conversations there is increasing concern over the every more tribal nature of politics, so this seems like a valid question. Furthermore, we have a strange suspicion of people who change positions and values. In part this is warranted. We can’t trust people who tell us something one day and another thing the next.
In short Matt Grossman, the author of the article in question, asks if we choose teams first and then follow our leaders into more and more extreme territory, or do we select leaders based on our long-held values? The answer, given the studies that are referenced is somewhat nuanced, but concludes that after people choose their candidates, they change their own beliefs to line up with the positions of their candidates, moving further left or right. (Please go read the article. It’s hard to list all the conclusions adequately in this space.)
His caveat is that there are foundational positions which may lead voters to join either the GOP or the Democratic party in the first place. For instance, Grossman links to studies showing that when it comes to general racial issues, people who feel more comfortable with white people became republican.
But on more specific racial and gender issues, voters became more like their party’s candidate. Democrats, more than republicans, changed their viewpoints on issues, moving more in line with their candidate’s positions, becoming more sympathetic to Black Lives Matter and more concerned about gender equality issues, while Trump’s sexist comments made his supporters more willing to tolerate and repeat these views.
The point of Grossman’s article seems to be that political parties are divided and that they continue to move away from one another, with voters increasingly following the views of their candidates to more extreme positions.
The article comes to this conclusion:
The Trump administration, liberals’ resistance to it, and the 2018 campaign cycle give us no reason to believe that the divisions in our society will narrow anytime soon.
It’s a conclusion I’ve seen often. There’s a huge divide in politics. It’s getting worse and people are becoming extremists. That’s where we leave it.
But this conclusion doesn’t really get to the “why” of the matter. Why did people change their views to match those of their candidates? Why did democrats show more inclination to change with their candidates? Is it possible that watching the racist treatment of Barack Obama over the years allowed the people who voted for him, and even some of those who didn’t, understand that racism was alive and well? Is it possible that watching Donald Trump treat Hillary with such contempt actually proved her point?
Is it possible that as the candidates talked about the stories of police brutality that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement that people who were listening reacted with empathy and changed their views accordingly? Honestly? Not as a matter of partisan extremism?
I’m not criticizing Grossman here. The point of his article was to discuss the “what” of partisanship and how it happened. But as someone who voted moderate and largely republican before the Obama years, I know that stories can change the way you feel about almost everything. Listening to other people tell their stories, trying to empathize with their humanity, can be a life and values changing event. And refusing to listen to the stories people are trying to tell and listening instead to the stories of people who are othering them has the opposite effect.
In this era of social media and smart phones, we have the opportunity to really listen to other people, to really see the world from their point of view. This will change us if we let it. And that’s a good thing. Stories lived in real time are compelling to people who can listen with empathy and frightening to people who cannot.
These stories lived in real time are compelling to people who can view the stories of others with empathy.
Julie Carpenter is the creator of the Sacred Chickens website. She is dedicated to telling stories and making sure that indie writers and publishers have a way to be heard. She uses narrative, her own and others’, to help interpret the world. She has a Master of Professional Writing from the University of Memphis, with an emphasis in Composition Theory. She wants to bend reality one story at a time. Julie’s work has appeared in Fiction on the Web and will be included The New Guard. She is currently working on a novel.