This Election Has Created an Unprecedented Opportunity for Dialogue — If We Choose to Listen

The week before the election, my high school in western Pennsylvania — Redbank Valley High School — was featured on ABC’s “Nightline.” After graduation, I left town and went on to two of those “elite” universities: MIT and Columbia Law. I lived in blue metropolitan areas and traveled to and worked in some of the most hurting places in the world, including Haiti. I now find myself planted in a wealthy, highly educated suburb. I know the blue places and cultures on the electoral map intimately. Yet, I find myself at home and not at home in both places.

As ABC’s Terry Moran found, the Redbank students overwhelmingly supported Trump. Their support was intense but not isolated, as the election proved. Many blue parts of the country are now in shock and struggling to understand how and why Trump accomplished one of the most surprising electoral victories in American history.

The answers aren’t as complex as they seem, but understanding requires real listening.

The Redbank students weren’t supporting Trump because they are racist. They weren’t supporting Trump because they hate “foreigners.” Moran asked them two questions and their answers highlight exactly why they voted as they did: They feel that their concerns and lifestyle are mocked and dismissed by Washington. They supported Trump because, like me, they all know someone out of work and struggling to survive and thrive in a down economy.

They also told Moran that they are all gun owners and that Clinton wants to take their guns. My friends on the Left claim publicly they are not trying to “take their guns” while in conversations with themselves they lament America’s “gun culture” and plot ways to remove guns from our country. I grew up with kids having hunting rifles hanging on the gun racks in their pick-ups in the school parking lot and no one ever grabbed one and shot up the school. Yet, when I try to talk to friends in the blue about that, they come back with memes about rednecks and militia groups. It is difficult to vote for the candidate representing the people who make fun of your way of life, choose not to try to understand you, and dismiss your family’s struggle with work, hunger, and health care as the whining of uneducated white men.

It is difficult to vote for the candidate representing the people who make fun of your way of life, choose not to try to understand you, and dismiss your family’s struggle as the whining of uneducated white men

These students watched the political ads and talked about the candidates. Then they rejected Clinton. They didn’t feel heard by her. Last summer, I spent time back home listening to people. Folks didn’t like Trump. They didn’t trust him or support the haters he attracted, but they trusted Clinton less. They were tired of being ignored, of being told by Washington what was in their best interests, instead of Washington listening to their ideas about how to solve the problems in their communities. They didn’t vote for hate; they voted for a chance to be heard.

When Trump’s victory became apparent, I knew many on the Left would blame it on racism. But when I watched Erie, Pennsylvania (north of where I grew up) flip from blue to red, I saw the story of 2016 unfold.

In 2012, Obama won Erie 57 percent to 41 percent. In 2016, Clinton lost Erie 47 percent to 49 percent. Erie is no secret enclave for the KKK. In fact, it’s a welcoming haven for refugees from places like Syria. It’s also a town with a lot of people looking for work and hope. In 2012, the people of Erie thought Obama was the candidate of hope and change. This year, Trump convinced them that he was that candidate.

If both sides choose to listen to “the other” this election can create an opening for an unprecedented dialogue between the Left and Right. Many people on the right care deeply about injustice, poverty and income inequality and always have. Working for the good of others alongside those with whom we disagree doesn’t lessen one’s convictions. We might not always agree on the means, and the conversations might get contentious, but without real listening and dialogue, the divisions we decry will only deepen.

I’ve been reminded frequently over the past year how important it is that we listen to the pain and anger coming from African-American, immigrant, Hispanic, Muslim, and LGBTQ communities, among others. And that is important. There are stories that need to be heard, experiences that must be validated. Really hearing those stories builds the relationships necessary to move forward together.

If both sides choose to listen to “the other” this election can create an opening for an unprecedented dialogue between the Left and Right

To a wide swath of America, however, it feels like the Left isn’t listening, especially to its own admonitions to listen. Folks who voted for Trump also have stories that desperately need to be heard. I keep reading things like “fear and hate won Tuesday.” To an extent that’s true. Many people voted for Trump because they feared a Clinton presidency. They felt unheard. They worried about her values, her comfort level with corruption, and her desire to address their concerns.

But what many on the Left don’t want to admit or hear is that these are people who are out there everyday helping others, who speak out against violence and hate, but still voted for Trump. They are providing meals to those who are out of work, fostering children born addicted to drugs, and quietly collecting housewares for the new refugee family down the street. They aren’t loud about their service. You have to be listening to hear them. I’ve heard a lot of calls for people on the right to vocally reject hate — but many have, with their actions as much as their words.

I would ask my liberals friends to stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and think about your words before you say them. In our home, we have a sign that reads THINK Before you Speak Is it True? Is it Helpful? Is it Inspiring? Is it Necessary? Is it Kind?

Yes, conservatives should be kind to those who are afraid of a Trump presidency. But liberals should also be kind to those who voted for Trump. Remember that they are your neighbors, too. You may feel they unleashed a demon, but that doesn’t free you from your own obligation to practice kindness. You may be horrified and appalled by someone’s vote—but did you stop to ask her why? Have you ever known her to be a racist bully? Or have you known her to be someone who loves the people around her no matter their parents, their country of origin or the color of their skin? Stop and listen to her, really listen.

You may be horrified and appalled by someone’s vote—but did you stop to ask her why?

And, yes, Trump’s acceptance of abhorrent supporters has to some extent unleashed the misogyny and racism that have long flourished, hidden in plain sight, in both liberal and conservative circles. I’ve flown in liberal “professional” circles and can attest that crude, sexist and racist jokes and actions prevail there as much as in red country. Trump’s own statements aside, he has allowed the ignorant voices that follow him grow and have a voice. It doesn’t matter necessarily that he doesn’t personally call for discrimination if he stands idly aside as others do. But that’s only part of the story. Even if Trump himself is a repellent racist, misogynist and sexual predator, Trump voters clearly are not and many of them will continue to fight those things under a Trump presidency as they have under an Obama one.

Regardless of how we feel about Trump, his tactics, and his supporters — virtues such as love, compassion, justice, and mercy are found on both sides. And it is through real relationships with “the other” that those ideals thrive and lead to real solutions.

So please stop telling your children that fear and hate won Tuesday. Teach them that good people disagree. Teach them that while Trump stirred up the crazy some people felt so strongly about a Clinton presidency that they prayed and hoped for the best with Trump. They did so not out of disregard for others but out of desperation for themselves.

Trump may well become what many fear and he will need to be confronted and condemned. But spend time listening before you speak. Listen to voters in Erie and across America who took a chance on a black candidate and are now taking a chance on Trump.

Kimberly Hart is a contributor for Opportunity Lives.