After the last presidential debate, I wrote on Twitter that the whole experience had left me wanting to take a shower… in sulfuric acid. Looking for an anger beyond fear, anger and despair, I made four donations – to a US NGO, an international NGO, a progressive candidate for the US House of Representatives, and a libertarian Republican candidate for the North Carolina state senate. I wrote about my decision to do this on Twitter and Facebook, urging my readers to find a way to do something that made them feel positive and affirmative about this increasingly terrifying and alienating election cycle.
A smart, considerate friend who is deeply informed about North Carolina politics took me to task for my support of Greg Doucette, the Republican I’d given the princely sum of $50 to. Doucette, she explained, is challenging a Democrat with a record she sees as admirable. Beyond that, the North Carolina GOP, as a whole, is taking terrible steps to limit the rights of transgender people. How could I provide any support to such a horrific party?
I’m not sure she’s right, nor am I sure she’s wrong. I was frustrated that my gesture towards personal friendship and bipartisanship suddenly put me in a position to justify the collective actions of a party I’d never vote for. And I felt embarrassed that I’d made a simple, quick personal gesture without consideration of the larger political implications, or without educating myself about Doucette’s opponent in his race.
I had some of the same feelings again today. In response to the horrific firebombing of a GOP field office in North Carolina, a group of progressive and democratic friends raised over $13,000 to help rebuild that space. On a mailing list that these friends and I frequent, a debate is now raging about whether this lovely gesture just creates fungible funding for the GOP, who almost certainly have insurance, and who will use this gift of progressive money to further conservative agendas. Again, I feel lousy – even though I wasn’t quick enough to join the campaign, which raised the money in 40 minutes! – and I wonder whether there’s any way to make even a symbolic kind action at this angry, bitter and partisan moment.
I decided that I’m going to try to shape my thinking with three rules to help me make decisions on questions like this over the next few weeks.
Action over inaction
My deepest fear over the 2016 election is not of revolution or armed uprising by angry Trump supporters, but merely a continuation of the long, slow process of disengagement with civics and politics as a whole. I’ve been writing and speaking for months now about my sense that the dominant trend in politics globally is mistrust of institutions, and that mistrust leads naturally to disengagement and a sense of disempowerment. Because the default is inaction, engagement over disengagement is a good rule to try and follow.
It should go without saying – though, this crazy year, nothing goes without saying – that I am advocating non-violent action, whether that’s protest, volunteering, canvassing, donating, making media, etc. It should also go without saying that informed, careful, considerate action is better than thoughtless, spontaneous action without considering the consequences. But it’s easy to fall into a cycle of critique that leads to paralysis.
People over party
I desperately want Donald Trump to lose this upcoming election. And I believe Hillary Clinton will be an excellent president. But I’m deeply frustrated that our political system gave us two candidates who are so widely disliked, guaranteeing a best case scenario in which a Clinton presidency is dogged at every turn by an angry, recalcitrant Republican house. I’m sick to my stomach thinking of another four years of paralysis, and frustrated that I have no answer for friends who wonder when will be the election cycle that we break out of a two party system and consider a wider range of alternatives.
I’ve voted Democrat all my life (with the notable exception of supporting William Weld over John Silber in 1990), but have always tried to understand the positions my Republican friends have taken. A foundational experience for me was visiting a Republican friend who’d been named chief of staff for Kansas senator (now governor) Sam Brownback in his new office in the Capitol. I intended for us to have a friendly visit, crack a few political jokes at each other’s expense and move on. Instead, my friend said, “Do we have any business to discuss?” I laughed and asked what issues Sam Brownback and I might possibly have common ground on. My friend immediately came up with two – increasing H1-B visas for high-skilled immigrants, and seeking increased funding to protect against violence in Central Africa. It was an amazing lesson that people can find things to agree on even when parties can’t.
I supported Greg Doucette because he’s a decent human being who shares many of my positions and values, especially around issues of criminal justice. But I supported him also because he’s running as a Republican, and I was thrilled to see an opportunity where I could support someone on “the other team”. Even if Clinton wins in a landslide, at least 40% of the US voting public is going to feel frustrated and alienated. I believe that building ties with people of like minds and good hearts across the aisle is work worth doing and has importance far beyond whoever wins or loses individual seats in this election.
Kindness over everything else
If you are a sentient being, Democrat, Republican or otherwise, this has been a tough election cycle. Many of my conservative friends are deeply dissatisfied with their nominee, and some are growing frustrated that their failure to support Hillary Clinton has lumped them into a basket of deplorables. Many of my progressive friends are angry at being told to support Clinton less apocalypse occur. Many women who are survivors of sexual abuse are triggered by Trump’s persistent and casual misogyny and bullying. African American friends are still reeling in anger from the continued stream of unarmed black men and women killed by police.
This is an ugly moment in time. Being kind to one another is one of the few things that’s unambiguously the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean just being courteous and polite. It means actually stopping to try and understand why people hold the beliefs they do. This excellent piece – provocatively named “How Half of America Lost Its F**king Mind” – is a good start, at least as regards understanding why people in rural areas of the US are feeling so forgotten and disrespected.
It’s also possible that kindness is the single most important and powerful thing you can do to make change in the world. Consider the story of Derek Black, who inherited a leadership role in the White Nationalist movement from his father, the founder of the Stormfront message board community. A fellow student at New College in Sarasota, Florida reached out to Black, inviting him to an interfaith shabbat dinner, not to confront him about his beliefs, but simply to reach out and include him. This kindness proved transformative – at great cost to his relationships with his family, Black has forsaken white nationalism.
Kindness works. I’m less sure that anything else does.
Also published on Medium.