Monday, September 26, 2016

Hillary's enduring challenge.

The Tweet: Hillary's words and tone repel voters she needs to win. The election may be won by the candidate able to pivot away from their own worst rhetoric.

Hillary has seen a bit of a bounce since the debate last week. But as well as she did in that debate, her bounce may have been as much about Donald Trump's determined effort at self-immolation as any material improvement in Hillary's own favorability ratings. Just as Trump manages to boost his own unfavorability ratings by late night tweets and other unforced errors, Hillary has proven to be her own worst enemy.

"Why aren't I 50 points ahead?" she wondered aloud last week, words that now headline a new Trump commercial. "If you do know somebody who may be thinking of voting for Trump," she continued, "stage an intervention." Well, I know a number of people who are thinking of voting for Donald Trump, and I am quite sure that an intervention would be about the worst possible strategy to walk them back from the edge.

None of them are under any illusions about who Donald Trump is. And by and large they are not deeply hostile to Washington, DC--or at least don't imagine that it is something he could fix--or believe that trade deals, Muslims or Mexicans are the cause of whatever ails us. I am quite convinced that it is Hillary herself--not Benghazi or her emails--that they find off-putting. It is the disdain her words convey--in tone and in substance--toward those who have not embraced her.

This is all of a piece with Hillary's earlier speech to a room of LGBT activists in which she described a broad swath of Trump supporters as deplorable, or worse, as irredeemable.

Irredeemable is a harsh word. Americans believe in redemption. If the congregants of the Charleston, S.C. church could forgive Dylann Roof for shooting their friends and loved ones, who is Hillary Clinton to say which of her opponent's supporters are beyond redemption.

Hillary's words were particularly striking, standing as she was before an LGBT audience. No doubt there were many in that audience who had loved ones in their lives who had difficulty accepting their gay or transgendered child or grandchild, who would have fallen into Hillary's basket of deplorables, yet who found redemption through their love and ultimate acceptance of their LGBT family member. Belief in redemption, and appeals to the better angels of our nature, has been essential to our continued growth as a nation. Imagine if, instead of the language she chose, Hillary had used that occasion to elevate the election year discourse, with words along the lines of the following:

“You know, we have come a long way as a nation, as the LGBT community knows better than any other. Yet we have far to go. This has been a harsh election campaign, filled with too much rhetoric blaming others for our setbacks and fears, and not enough compassion for those whose lives and communities are different from our own. It is time that we step back from blaming others, and strive instead to be a nation where--as my husband used to famously say--we feel each other’s pain.

"This year, during the Republican primary season, several candidates reached out to communities that have been beset by heroin and opiate abuse. Those candidates showed far greater compassion to those who were suffering than Republicans had, as a general matter, in years past. For many years, 'Just Say No' was the official Republican response to those individuals and communitieslargely communities of color back then—that were being ravaged by drugs. Now, they have shown a greater ability to feel the pain of working class white communities that are suffering, and suffering deeply. 

"And so must we all. Your communities, the LGBT communities, understand perhaps as well as any others, the pain of silent suffering, of being shunned or shamed. Therefore, your communities should have the greatest capacity to reach out and demonstrate empathy to others who are suffering, however different those communities might be from your own. 

"This is what our nation needs now. This is a time when we must expand our capacity for empathy, rather than stigmatize or lash out at communities whose experiences and perspectives are different from our own. We should remember that each person's struggles, each community's pain, is as real as our own, and as worthy of compassion. And we should never let the daily battles of our politics obscure the fact that it is through that compassion, through that capacity for empathy, that we grow as a people and as a nation.

In the two upcoming debates and in the final weeks of the campaign, it remains Hillary's challenge to recognizeand seek to get pastthe not-so-subtle arrogance that she demonstrates all too often in her language that implies that she somehow occupies a morally higher ground. This is the language and disposition that sets many people’s teeth on edge when Barack Obama, for all his gifts as an orator, talks about “teachable moments,” a term that in no unsubtle way says “I am the teacher, I know more than you do.”

That is the tone and stance that pushes away my friends who might otherwise vote for Hillary, who are otherwise likely to vote for Trump. I understand this, and I respect both their perspectives and their choices. No doubt we will discuss it and argue about it through Election Day, but these are political choices, not a disorder of some kind that warrants an intervention

The essence of democracy is the belief that each vote matters, and, in asserting that, confirming that each person matters. It is an enduring puzzle of Hillary's candidacy: how could the woman who has lived her entire adult life with a man who knew instinctively how and why to “feel people’s pain,” be so apparently lacking in a gut sense of connection with and empathy toward so many people in the world around her.

This is a year when both major candidates, each in their own way, have stigmatized and labeled the other, to their political advantage. There certainly is nothing new in this, after all, four years ago, the 1%, the 47% and Americans clinging to guns and religion were each used as political props. But this year's language has reached new extremes. Now, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are in a tight race, each seeking ways to make themselves acceptable to segments of the electorate--notably white, suburban women, who may yet tip the balance. The winner in remaining debates, and the winner in the election, may well turn out to be the one who is most able--or least unable--to pivot away from the worst of their own rhetoric, and demonstrate the capacity to connect, just a little bit, with those whom thus far they have chosen to disparage and disdain.

Artwork by Jay Duret. Find him at

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