“How can anyone vote for him?” “How can anyone vote for her?”
In a contentious election between candidates with historically high disapproval ratings, voters across the country are asking such questions, incredulous that their fellow Americans could be on the other side this time. These questions are encouraged by the rhetorical strategies of both campaigns, which have focused on establishing their own candidate’s character and credibility while demonstrating that the opponent is unfit for office. And these questions signal the challenge we will all face the day after the election, no matter who wins. How do we repair the divisions wrought, or exposed, by this election? How do we understand the diversity of political views in our nation?
Writing at The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf seeks to explain “How Millions of Good People Can Vote Differently Than You Will.” His thought experiment, which he addresses to Clinton supporters and Trump supporters alike, asks the reader to imagine being a completely different person: shaped by different genes, different parents, different religious beliefs, different strengths and weaknesses, a different educational and career path, different friends, a different part of the country, a different social media feed.
In short, he urges, imagine being a “bizarro-you”: “You believe multiple lies you now know to be true and know truths you regard as lies.” A vote for Trump or Clinton by bizarro-you “would mean something totally different” than your vote for the same candidate. “That’s how millions of good people can reach a conclusion different than yours. What their choice means is very different than what it would mean for you to make it.”
Friedersdorf’s goal seems to be to make Americans more tolerant of their fellow citizens’ diverse political views. That is a worthy, even noble goal, within limits. Friedersdorf assumes, and I agree, that the present election falls within those limits: A vote for either Trump or Clinton does not necessarily make you a monster, a traitor, or a dangerously ignorant rube. It is a question on which reasonable and good people can disagree—vehemently, perhaps, but for legitimate reasons.
But Friedersdorf’s thought experiment emphasizes how we come to disagree, rather than our grounds for disagreement with one another. In so doing, it implies that diverse political opinions are simply the result of diverse formations. It implies that there is no rational basis for voting for either candidate—that voting for one or the other is just the effect of how you have been (passively) formed by your environment—that there is no such thing as individual deliberation or political persuasion, just epistemic and behavioral determinism.
Perhaps Friedersdorf does not really think such things. He himself is a person whose understanding is not simply determined by formation and environment. He lives in a politically homogenous enclave (coastal California) and says that he “could never vote for Trump.” But he values viewpoint diversity, seeks to understand it, and then re-presents it through his writing. As a journalist, he has frequently demonstrated his capacity for sympathetically investigating a broad spectrum of opinion on many contentious issues, from campus activism to populist support for Trump.
But his audience is those readers who are so trapped within a political subculture’s echo chamber that they don’t know anyone who will be voting for the other candidate. Friedersdorf must think that this account of otherness—the recognition that another individual is totally different from you—is the best, perhaps the only way of convincing his audience to be more tolerant of political diversity.
Is diversity in formation the best explanation for political disagreement? And is Friedersdorf’s thought experiment the most effective way to convince Americans to tolerate each other?
Formation is nothing if not formative. But the 2016 election has demonstrated that even within a single subculture, individuals with similar backgrounds, similar values, and similar goals can come down on different sides in matters of prudence and politics. (Witness the divisions within and among the various communities on the religious right.) Perhaps, then, some of our fellow citizens have come to a decision that we find abhorrent, through the exercise of their reason, individually and in conversation with others.
If we accept the account of human nature given by the Western theological and philosophical traditions—that we are free, rational beings, limited and imperfect, prone to diversity of opinion and errors in judgment—we may be more inclined to be not only tolerant but gracious and loving toward those with whom we disagree.
Friedersdorf’s argument relies on a more modern assumption: that what is other or different is, as such, good and lovable—or at least tolerable. Having understood that someone is different from us, we should respect and tolerate that person as the first step toward putting our divided country back together again.
But this assumption is flawed, in that it fails to explain why we should love or even tolerate those who are different from us. Why should I not hate or condemn what is totally other than myself?
Perhaps I might see that we are all rational animals, faced with similar limitations in experience and judgment, but capable of examining, deliberating about, and changing our beliefs. Such an understanding would prepare me to embrace my fellow citizens despite our disagreements. Friedersdorf’s thought experiment, by contrast, relies on the same belief that undergirds multiculturalism—the very creed that has helped propel Trump’s populist campaign and fueled the alt-right. However well-intentioned, and however successful as a purely intellectual exercise, its scope is severely limited by its underlying assumption.
Perhaps such assumptions are required by Friedersdorf’s (mostly blue-state) audience, and perhaps such assumptions will be more effective than an argument from the Western tradition’s account of human nature. If so, Friedersdorf may have succeeded as a rhetor, but for a reason that bodes ill for any longer-term attempt to heal the divisions of this election, regardless of its outcome.
Pavlos Leonidas Papadopoulos is a doctoral candidate in political philosophy at the University of Dallas.
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.