After the Election

Looking for lessons.

I write this from my office in London, where I sit following a largely sleepless night. Before the first polls closed on America’s historic election night, I hosted a lovely dinner with a handful of friends and colleagues where, mercifully, very little conversation was devoted to the campaign or the potential results that were only a few hours away. Once home, I went to bed, harboring some trepidation over what I feared could be the outcome, but remaining hopeful (naively, as it turns out) that the perspective I hold would be the one to prevail.

My three children, dotted across the US for work and for school, were the prime contributors to my sleeplessness. They acted as my eyes and ears throughout much of the night with their periodic, disbelieving, and occasionally fearful text messages which had me repeatedly opening my eyes to respond to them and then do my own checking and confirming about what was unfolding.

I have made it a point not to write about politics in this blog as this campaign has raged over the last two years, since I’ve wanted to hold this space is for other ideas and musings related to how human beings develop and grow, and the things that happen when they come together in groups. 

Things are different now, and we are all trying to make sense of it. What does my experience as a social and applied behavioral scientist help me to see?

As our political landscape has become more polarized, we have nurtured in ourselves the inability, or perhaps it is just the unwillingness, to discover and truly hear the full scope of what others who do not share our views are saying. In this case, it was the so-called liberal elites in the Democratic party and in much of the media who did not tune into the desperation and anger of so many in the middle of the US. It is a great example of confirmation bias: where the seer only perceives what she is looking for or that which confirms her existing beliefs. Through these election results we have been reminded of the dangers of using only our own perceptive lenses to view the world and the risks that attend when we don’t realize this is what we’re doing.

We are also witnessing a tremendously reactionary response to societal and cultural trends of the last 30 or so years. This reaction is certainly without any coherent political agenda, other than returning to some idealized past, and finds its physical, emotional, and psychological embodiment in our President-Elect.

To put it another way, the dominant group in our society — the white, middle class — realizing it was right on edge of no longer being in the dominant position, lashed out in fear and anger over what it was losing and grabbed hold of someone who looks like them and who made promises to restore the group to dominance. 

Obama has been held up as virtually the polar opposite of this dominant group. With him, we have had eight years of a true progressive champion who was high-functioning at a level of complexity very few can appreciate or comprehend. We now have a racist, misogynist, nationalist who can’t see how the world fits together and who prides himself on not preparing to be on the biggest stage anyone could ever inhabit. (Sorry, I think I got a little partisan there.)

Optimism is my natural, resting state and it is being tested as it never has before. This is because so much is different, and even more than that, so much is uncertain. So much of what we thought was solid is now being called into question. If I can allow myself to let go sufficiently these worries I have, I know that uncertainty is a necessary prerequisite for learning and growth. I hope I’m up to that challenge.