Understanding the Conservative Voter & Finding Common Ground



Retake Our Democracy’s primary goal is to make it easier for supporters to use their voice effectively, providing you a quick and easy opportunities to raise your voice. But some things simply can’t be that easy. Effectively engaging and educating people who have very different perspectives is something that requires deep thinking and relearning some basic communication strategies. Not easy, but learning those communication skills and coming to a better understanding of the perspectives of those who don’t share our views will only strengthen our movement for the long haul. This page provides insights into the perspective of the conservative American. It also describes how the use of moral language and framing can be used to help bridge a divide between some conservatives and progressives and find a common moral ground.

There are many kinds of conservative voters and some clearly should be feared, exposed, and opposed. But many conservative voters supported Trump because they felt abandoned by both parties for the better part of 40 years and came to the view that government simply doesn’t work. Many of us share this view, while arriving at very different conclusions. As this short article with links to video of Sen. Sanders conducting a Town Hall meeting with Trump supporters demonstrates, many Trump supporters were drawn to the themes of Sen. Sanders campaign but viewed the Clinton campaign as more of the same old approach to government that had ignored their needs for decades.

Many conservatives understand that they are being screwed by the system and that corporations are demanding more of them while providing less in return. They have suffered first-hand from bad trade agreements and the Corporatocracy’s stranglehold on the workforce. Some of these individuals harbor racist views, often informed by misinformation from the media, fundamentalist religious institutions, extremist organizations, family members, and from living in communities that tolerate and even foster the expression of racist, misogynist, and violent views. No matter how much reading we do and training we receive, we will never reach many segments of Trump supporters. But there is great potential for engaging and educating a significant number of them, and in doing so widen the progressive tent and erode the conservative base.

strangers-inStrangers in Their Own Land. Below I provide excerpts from an illuminating Mother Jones article by Arlie Russell Hochschild who spent five years living in rural Louisiana to reach a better understanding of the views of the kind of people who ultimately voted for Donald Trump. I also provide a more hopeful perspective with a link to the story of four former white supremacists who for different reasons transformed their lives and formed a non-profit, Life After Hate. The group conducts research to develop strategies and solutions for preventing racism and creating pathways out of organizations dedicated to extremism. Click here to read their stories. It provides evidence that even those holding the most extreme political views can be reached and can change.

I encourage you to watch the video below from George Lakoff, a noted linguist, cognitive scientist, and political thinker who has studied how the human mind understands language and how the brain ‘frames’ information. His eye-opening book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, describes how the GOP, has over several decades, reframed political discussion in terms of moral values, which has resulted in millions of Americans voting against their own economic and social interests for decades. Further, the Lakoff video sheds light on how to use our own moral language to persuade others of the wisdom of progressivism generally or of any specific policy initiative. Retake Our Democracy will be providing communication training informed by Lakoff’s insights to help us use language more effectively, but the video provides a good introduction. See below.

Let’s go to southern Louisiana with this excerpt from Hochschild’s Mother Jones piece. It captures what she describes as ‘the deep story’ that informs the world view of many Trump supporters:

“You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line stretching toward the horizon, where the American Dream awaits. But as you wait, you see people cutting in line ahead of you. Many of these line-cutters are black—beneficiaries of affirmative action or welfare. Some are career-driven women pushing into jobs they never had before. Then you see immigrants, Mexicans, Somalis, the Syrian refugees yet to come. As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re being asked to feel sorry for them all. You have a good heart. But who is deciding who you should feel compassion for? Then you see President Barack Hussein Obama waving the line-cutters forward. He’s on their side. In fact, isn’t he a line-cutter too? How did this fatherless black guy pay for Harvard? As you wait your turn, Obama is using the money in your pocket to help the line-cutters. He and his liberal backers have removed the shame from taking. The government has become an instrument for redistributing your money to the undeserving. It’s not your government anymore; it’s theirs.

The deep story reflects pain; you’ve done everything right and you’re still slipping back. It focuses blame on an ill-intentioned government. And it points to rescue: The tea party for some, and Donald Trump for others.”

The full article describes the lives of many who share different forms of the back story described above. Given that for many of us, we have only the most distant view on the lives of people who share this back story, it is important we achieve some understanding of how this back story operates and the personal and political contexts in which it has been formed. Click here for the complete article which describes the lives of many Trump supporters in rural Louisiana.

Most of us understand that many of the people described in the deep story as ‘cutting in front of Trump supporters’ are even more exploited by the same capitalist system that is exploiting Trump supporters. Most of us also can see that the real reason there is no movement in this line is our corrupt political system, bad trade deals, media misinformation, and two political parties who have largely ignored us.

Most of us have also had the experience of trying to explain with facts and figures how it is not the immigrants, women, or blacks who are consigning you to an ever more challenging life, but a corrupt system. Even though I feel I have all the logic and all the facts on my side, I find my facts, logic, and research deflected time and again. Here is where the work of George Lakoff is so important, as it unravels the cognitive processes that ‘frame’ human understanding of information and organizes it into the kind of ‘deep story’ that Hochschild describes so vividly. If we are ever going to make inroads with people who share many of the same concerns we have about our country but who have reached very different conclusions, we must learn how to communicate more effectively with those people. The video interview with George Lakoff serves as an excellent introduction to how we must reshape our communication strategies.

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