De-Voting: Deconstructing the Process
Friday, December 9, 2016
Like many many others, I have been reflecting about the 2016 vote and the election of Donald Trump to the US presidency. But rather than analyze the demographic that voted Trump president—the white males over a certain age—and the probability that some common themes speak to that demographic like, it is time for a change, America belongs to white males (of course many Trump supporter deny racism or sexism as a motivation), women should not be presidents, undocumented Mexicans should go back home, American jobs should stay in the US, for example–I spoke with my own tiny community of clients in therapy. Voting, after all, involves a psychological process involving affect, beliefs and decision-making.
In that quiet, safe setting, I have the opportunity and privilege to listen, in more detail, to what motivated individuals to vote for one presidential candidate over another—some voted for Hillary Clinton, some for Donald Trump, and some for a third-party candidate. In this microcosm of voters, not one person seemed happy about the choices on either side of the aisle. The reasons for that unhappiness concerned two distinct aspects: the perceived questionable characters of the candidates, and fears that the concerns most highly valued by these voters, might not adequately be promoted by either one or both, of the two main candidates. Only a couple of people were single issue voters. Most had multiple concerns.
When you deconstruct voting—the process of coming up with a decision about whom to vote for—you begin to see its multidimensional structure. We, as voters, pick a human being for the role of President, but the process of assigning to one’s chosen human candidate (I guess no dogs will ever run for President), those qualities which represent important and various interests a voter holds dear, is complicated. How do we rank in order of importance, the perceived character integrity of the candidate versus how successful we think he or she will be in deliverables we want? Where in the order of priorities do we place fitness for duty and past work experience? Where do we rank our prejudices (which we might not even realize as prejudices, such as “a woman just can’t be President)? To what degree do we value the importance of keeping money in our pocket or the state of the environment, or the value of thinking forward to the health and welfare of our future generations?
The dimension of character integrity has never reared its head so profoundly and with such pronouncement as it did in this election. My clients did not “trust” that one or both candidate’s public personae aligned with their “back room” persons-on-the-ground. And yet, few realized that the “person” for whom they would ultimate cast their vote cannot but be anything other than an illusion, a brand built by campaign managers, an almost caricatured version of media sound-bytes and images strung together.
Not only did we end up voting for these abstractions of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, but it is an incredibly abstract process to make the intellectual leap from what matters to you, to voting for one of these “animations.” Our great, wizard like imaginations, allow us to fill in the blanks—and there were lots and lots of blanks—about the candidates, their platforms, and what they might accomplish in the trenches (I do need to give Hillary Clinton points for a clearer, available, published platform).
Although there are likely additional determining dimensions for the process of casting a vote, a second most important one, and it sometimes ranked above character, is what matters to us. What matters—well-paying jobs, secure borders, equal opportunity, affordable healthcare, trade relations with other countries, pro-choice/pro-life, gun rights with/without regulations, big government/small government, etc.—express our deeply rooted values and beliefs. We have a bias toward thinking that our values are “right.” And we imagine that our values and beliefs, what matters to us, will have a big impact on our own personal quality of life as well as on the life of our country, our society.
We feel it imperative to defend our way of life, and in this election, we saw and see this playing out with vehemence, and in some cases, sadly, with aggression. Clients reported to me that they were subjected to harassment in work places, that they themselves had “de-friended” former Facebook friends, that Christmas parties had been cancelled due to extended family antagonistic divides along Blue and Red lines. This election created antagonism; a competition that became a battle.
As the perceived character of the candidates intersected with the desire to vote on what mattered to individuals, voters sometimes opted to overlook perceived character flaws so they could vote for their deeply held concerns. And sometimes, voters could not overlook perceived character flaws in whom would have been their candidate, and voted in an alternative manner. And this resulted in quite a few people who voted without much satisfaction in so casting their ballot. Or they voted with the hope that. . .”Trump’s advisors will rein him in,” as one example. Or they voted with the caveat that they, themselves, were not racist. Or sexist. We might call these defensive votes, or we defensive voters. Insecure voters. Among my little community, the happiest voters were the ones whose imaginations overrode data. An absence of accurate information did not stop some people from voting for the candidate they imagined and personified, almost like we personify stuffed animals, planets, or cars. They took poetic license in visioning the country they imagined might evolve from such a vote.
One of my clients wondered how we might vote in this country if, during the debates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had been in separate booths, headphones on, and had only been allowed to respond to the questions asked, and had not heard each others answers. If there had been no mud slung back and forth, what might we have thought, platform concern by platform concern. But in this past election, issues of national and international concern wove wildly between issues concerning character. This prompted many debates between friends, family members and coworkers where apples, oranges, and gosh knows what other kinds of fruits were slung back and forth chaotically.
The other day I pulled a book from my bookshelf which I had not perused for a long time, on Values Clarification (Values Clarification by Sydney B. Simon, 1972). In the introduction it says, “A value has three components—emotional, cognitive and behavioral. Our values are based on our feelings. We don’t just hold our stronger values; we care deeply and passionately about them.” We are most often recruited or “inculcated” into our beliefs and values, but upon becoming aware that we have some choice about what values to which we subscribe, we may rethink the ones we have unconsciously inherited.
The introductory chapter goes on to say, “Finally, we act upon our values. We don’t just say some things are important to us, but those beliefs or preferences are clearly and consistently discernible in how we live our lives.” (p.10)
This is simply an anecdotal attempt to deconstruct some elements of the psychological process of casting a presidential vote. The 2016 election highlighted for me the difficulty that many sincere voters experienced in navigating the intersecting of the dimensions of candidate character and voter-held values, and therefore, of the meaning of their votes. It also illustrates how abstract such a process as voting is, and how much cognitive fill-in must occur, to translate what one values into a vote for a candidate who is just a confusing conglomeration of invented descriptors.
Camel Saddle: What are the values you hold most dear? How do you live those in your private and public life? What is most important to you about the character of those you vote into office? What elements of public life affect you the most—economically, educationally, in terms of your health, your job opportunities, your safety, etc.?