America is dazed and exhausted.
For many, the victory is bittersweet. Liberals anticipated a blue wave across the nation that never materialized. Moderates and conservatives who opposed Trump yearned for an outcome that would force a reckoning within the Republican Party. His unexpectedly strong performance only encouraged GOP leaders.
Now we’re left with the painful work of trying to understand this moment. That should begin with a clear-eyed look at the rise of white nationalism, the vast reach of online disinformation, and the popularity of QAnon. Liberals and conservatives tempted to write each other off simply cannot ignore the threat posed to democracy by these forces. None of them will disappear when Trump leaves office. They’ve already done lasting damage to public trust and will inflict even greater harm if left unchecked. One way to deter them is through an alliance of diverse Americans who reject these ideas in unison and work together to achieve common political goals.
No one wants to hear this message right now, but there’s no time to waste. This is not about lecturing liberals for their supposed elitism, shunning conservatives who opposed Trump but once believed in their party’s righteousness or forcing the most vulnerable Americans to empathize with those who hate them for the sake of unity in name only.
Instead, what this moment demand is a vision for collectively reclaiming America from Trumpism. That cannot be done along partisan lines. It can’t be done without reaching persuadable Trump supporters, who must choose to leave what is arguably a cult. American democracy won’t survive over time unless some of those voters change their minds.
This isn’t an impossible mission. One way to make it a reality is through deep canvassing, a technique for engaging conservative voters that research shows can be effective. It’s also an approach Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed in the wake of the election. People’s Action, a nationwide network of grassroots organizations, has been sending progressive canvassers trained in nonjudgmental listening to small, rural towns since 2016. Their task is to knock on doors and start a conversation with whoever answers. They don’t conceal their progressive views. For their own emotional well-being and physical safety, they don’t persist when residents are hostile.
George Goehl, the group’s executive director, says volunteers begin their training skeptically. They often assume that conservatives won’t listen or participate. Some believe Trump supporters are flag-waving white nationalists. The reality is much more complicated. Goehl says the most productive conversations begin with some degree of vulnerability, which yields breakthrough moments where participants begin to reevaluate their preconceived notions on issues like immigration and the economy. Those discussions lead to invitations to join ongoing political organizing around local concerns like the minimum wage and factory farming. Volunteers also learn how to openly talk about race and racism.
Goehl sees this strategy as a tactic that contrasts with dismissing these voters altogether or trying to win them back by avoiding race or using racist dog whistles as reassurance, like a centrist might. For him, there is no choice but to talk to them: “If you don’t even care about healing the country, but if you want to win, guess what, you just have to do it.”
Goehl admits this work isn’t for everyone. Nor should it be the primary focus of an electoral strategy for Democrats, sacrificing the needs and priorities of the Black voters who delivered the election for Biden. Deep canvassing can happen in conjunction with investing in and empowering Black-led voter mobilization and racial justice groups, which are equally critical to strengthening America’s democracy.
Online disinformation and right-wing media, however, pose an immense challenge to deep canvassing efforts. Reaching conservative voters for 20 minutes on their porch is a promising start that could be quickly lost if they go back inside to watch Sean Hannity or connect with their QAnon community.
This is where shaming can play a powerful role. Yet the humiliation should be aimed not at each other but the companies that enable the spread of disinformation.
Jennifer Jacquet, an associate professor in the department of environmental studies at New York University and the author of Is Shame Necessary: New Uses for an Old Tool, argues that elevating shame to an institutional level is the first step if we hope to quash the dangerous disinformation and QAnon conspiracy theories that pit Americans against each other and feed the growth of right-wing militant groups. Color of Change, a civil rights nonprofit organization, has pressured tech and social media companies to overhaul their practices to eliminate hate groups and content for years. The #StopHateforProfit campaign has specifically targeted Facebook. Jacquet says that one recent effort that prodded the Murdoch family, which owns and operates Fox News, to “flip a switch and shut off the poison,” offers a similar model.
Jacquet says the key to success is making shaming tech companies as “artful and satisfying” as punishing individuals, who may be strangers or even bots. While it’s obviously ineffective to go after bots, Jacquet does believe that people should get into the daily habit of holding accountable and fact-checking their friends, family, and acquaintances online and offline. That includes pushing back on disinformation and asking for reputable evidence to back up false claims, without lobbing personal insults.
“That does put more responsibility on us as individuals and it’s not ideal,” says Jacquet.
The battle ahead, she adds, is about “realigning our values so that we see we’re in [this] together.”
Though America is divided, there are more opportunities for liberals, centrists, and conservatives to make that realignment a common cause than one might expect.
The Lincoln Project, for example, has committed to defeating every one of Trump’s enablers in Congress. Its conservative leaders also say they’ll back reforms that strengthen voting rights for all. They’re a relatively small bunch compared to the 70 million who voted for Trump. While there’s an ongoing discussion over the success of The Lincoln Project’s strategy, post-election data may show that conservatives and independents sank the president’s chances in battleground states by abandoning him while voting Republican on the rest of their ballot. If groups like RVAT and The Lincoln Project can persuade those voters to join certain efforts that also draw liberals, it will be a powerful rebuke of Trumpism.
Sarah Longwell, founder of Republican Voters Against Trump, is personally interested in making sure legislation that protects DACA recipients is passed quickly and pressuring the Republican Party to develop a plan to respond to climate change instead of pretending it’s fake. The focus groups she’s conducted with evangelical women also point to surprising possibilities. Many of those participants said they want their pro-life beliefs to extend to issues like Black Lives Matter, coronavirus, and criminal justice reform.
“They were saying their eyes had been opened,” says Longwell.
She wants the Biden presidency to be successful, a prospect that will worry progressives given his moderate record in public office. Indeed, efforts to bring liberals and conservatives together might fail for numerous reasons. People on both sides may be asked to betray fundamental values and beliefs. The Republican Senate’s obsession with maintaining and wielding power at all costs effectively rules out a meaningful compromise. Liberals face their own internal struggles over messaging and the Democratic Party’s willingness to desert Black voters if it polls well. But if Americans from across the political spectrum can find nothing to agree on and fail to provide an inspirational model for what America is post-Trump, authoritarianism, paranoia, and white nationalism will fill the vacuum.
“I feel like we’re in this amazing period of becoming the next version of America.”
That collective work can’t be branded as traditional bipartisanship or rooted in calls for civility. Those concepts papered over the ugliness of corporate politics, racism, misogyny, and other malignant influences. For the Americans who’ve spent the last four years patiently talking to racist family and friends, this isn’t a call for more of the same. They’d do better to focus their energy on institutional and structural change, like deep canvassing, shaming the companies that enable misinformation at a mass scale, and joining coalitions that aim to make America a stronger, more equitable democracy.
Goehl says that his goal is to help people “make meaning of the changes in America,” a project he doesn’t want to “forfeit” to the right any longer.
“I feel like we’re in this amazing period of becoming the next version of America,” he says. “Doing that is going to be really hard, but it’s happening. So many things on that path are beautiful, and it’s going to be met with backlash.”
Despite Biden’s election, democracy isn’t saved just yet. The next four years will depend on whether reasonable people who disagree remain willing to fight for America together.