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Self-awareness and the 2016 US Presidential Election

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I’ve been thinking long and hard over the last week on how to write about Election 2016. Not in generations has the US seen such a tumultuous and turbulent election. Perhaps not since the 1860s, a decade that brought us to Civil War. Election 2016 was ugly, personal, and divisive. It brought out raw emotions and feelings about the direction of society, not the typical adjustments of policy that typified previous elections.

Books will be written about Election 2016, its causes, and its aftermath. We are living history and it is very difficult to see where you are in the paragraph when the pages of history are being written.

I recently finished a book in business management entitled “Managing the Unexpected” by Karl Weick and Kathleen Sutcliffe. This book was written to help managers identify their place in corporate turmoil and not only survive, but often turn the situation into a learning experience and prosper.

According to Weick and Sutcliffe, sensemaking is a huge part of situational survival. A big part of sensemaking is self-awareness. Over the last few days, I have tried to deconstruct not only my thinking but also the thinking of those around me to see why America is currently in the shape it is in.

From the beginning of the campaign season until August, I lived in Tampa near the University of South Florida. Not only did the Tampa metro area vote overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, but universities are predominantly liberal environments. I’m not looking at why right now, just that they are.

If you had asked me before August, I would have said Donald Trump didn’t stand an ice cube’s chance in hell of winning.

After my lease expired July 30th, I moved in with a friend in Inverness, Florida, an hour and 20 minutes north of Tampa. Not only were there Trump signs everywhere, but there were Confederate flag rallies on Sunday afternoon on Main Street. This was not the multi-cultural, urban environment I was used to. I’m sure if I asked, they would have given Hillary Clinton the same ice cube’s chance in hell.

But given the Confederate flags and Inverness’s intolerant history, I wrote off the region as fringe – uneducated, rural Florida, in no way indicative of the general voting public.

While I was in Afghanistan, the US Military deployed giant blimps around the capital city of Kabul. These blimps were used to track terrorists and keep an eye in the sky. I’m not sure how true this is, but I was told when the blimps first went up, uneducated Afghans who never saw a blimp thought they were dragons.

In Afghanistan and everywhere else, uneducated people will buy into dragons and boogeymen and conspiracy theories of Illuminati and Muslim takeovers and anything else that helps them make sense of a complex world they are unfamiliar with. It is basic human nature to attempt to process the unknown through ideas you already hold.

It was easy to dismiss the Trump movement the same way: uneducated and willing to believe the boastful generalities of a real estate mogul / media savvy reality TV star. He was rich and arrogant and willing to say whatever he had to to rile up the people. There was no doubt Trump’s threats of invading immigrants and Chinese global growth had the ears of rural America, where the economy hasn’t recovered and suicide rates and drug use is increasing.

A few weeks later, I continued my gypsy wandering and began staying with family in middle class, suburban Melbourne, Florida. While some members of my family have always been conservative, I quickly sensed they weren’t the only ones on the Trump train. There wasn’t a Hillary lawn sign to be seen in Melbourne and Facebook friends from the area constantly posted anti-Hillary and pro-Trump messages and memes.

This was Melbourne, Central Florida, about as Middle America as Florida gets. Mostly white. Mostly suburban. Not as rich as South Florida and not as rural as North Florida. And it seemed predominately, if not overwhelmingly, pro-Trump.

After a few weeks in Melbourne, I started to think Hillary Clinton was more the ice cube than Donald Trump.

It didn’t make sense. People in Melbourne were educated, they had jobs, and they were basically tolerant of others. The basic preconceptions I could use in rural Florida didn’t apply.

But the people in Melbourne seemed to support Trump not for who he was, but for who he wasn’t. He wasn’t Hillary Clinton and he wasn’t a Washington insider. Hillary was untrustable and unforgivable. Even with all his faults, Trump was going to put money back in the pockets of middle class Americans. He was going to lower insurance premiums and taxes. And if he got rid of “political correctness” along the way, even better.

The American middle class walks a fine line and they know it. They don’t want to lose their ground and they thought Hillary was going to move them the wrong way. Their beliefs might not be social conservativism as much as they are financial and status conservativism.

Pundits called Trump’s election a “repudiation” of Obama’s administration. According to Edward-Isaac Dovere of Politico, Obama’s vision of America was “educated and pragmatist, multicultural, cosmopolitan and globalist“. I am highly educated, to include a master’s degree in International Affairs, have worked and studied with people of foreign cultures, lived most of the last 10 years in a city, eat in ethnic restaurants more than domestic, and listen to more historically black music than historically white music.

Obama’s vision was my America.

To me, America has never been greater than it is now. I believe in progress, innovation, and moving forward. Trump’s claims that America is a disaster did not resonate with me at all. Not one bit. From the moment he declared his intention of running, there was nothing I agreed with him on.

His America was not my America. But his America is the America of more Americans than my America is.

That’s a tough pill to swallow.

Does that mean the ideas of progress are gone? As bad as emboldened bigots are under Trump, the odds are very low that America will digress into ISIS-controlled Syria in four years. We will probably not be executing women in public squares for adultery or chopping off hands for robbery. Even public hangings will probably not come back, despite Trump’s advocacy for law and order.

Change, especially social change, is slow. While progress is inevitable, humans were programmed with an innate fear of the unknown. They are not comfortable with change. For some, this fear and discomfort is more pronounced than in others, especially when resistance to change is tied to social or religious fabric.

But change does come. For example, there was a time when Americans didn’t know what recycling was. Now it is second nature. Kids today don’t know a world without it. Yet according to RedOrbit.com, the first Earth Day in 1970 was called “a Communist trick” and others said it was a “subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them”.

Now, barring a major Supreme Court reversal, men can marry men and women can marry women legally. This decision and its support was the result of decades of social campaigning and the acceptance of LGBT people by a majority of Americans. Even those who might not fully accept it know someone who is gay, even in small town America.

What we saw in Election 2016 was bubbles on both sides pushing against each other.

In one bubble, there is a fear of losing traditional American values, individual independence, communism, and stifling by Big Government.

In the other bubble, there is a fear of a repressive society driven by one dominant group and culture.

Like the Big Bang, the resulting matter of two highly energized bubbles crashing into each other could be something totally unfamiliar. This is the ground some political prognosticators are now observing, like scientists at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe. But instead of magnets, the speed and direction of America’s social bubbles are accelerated by media, propaganda, confirmation bias, and echo chambers.

So where am I? I am still called a communist by my conservative friends and still told I am not liberal enough by my conservative friends. That’s ok. One friend told me years ago that he was “Right in the Middle and Left Out”. I think that is a good place to be.

Despite the popular rejection of my urban educated version of America, the nation will continue to progress. It always does. Education is slow, urbanization is slow, and progress is slow. America is a wide nation, with many different viewpoints. Cosmopolitan America isn’t for everyone. Liberal educated America isn’t for everyone. Globalism isn’t for everyone.

But of the vision of the Obama platform, multicultural progress and civil rights should not be given up on. Those should be advocated and protected. Our world is too connected and our inalienable rights too guaranteed to limit the rights of anyone due to race, creed, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. This should be a moral calling not only in America, but across the world.

There may be Afghans who reject an international government and the presence of foreign influence in their country, but I’m sure one day all Afghans will know a blimp isn’t a dragon.

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