On November 9, 2016, I woke up to a bewildering array of text messages. There were the many friends who, like myself, were utterly shocked that Donald Trump was going to be our next President. There were also the fellow teachers hastily scrapping lesson plans so we could talk about the election with our students. And then there was the most unexpected text of all: “I want you to know I didn’t vote for him. I couldn’t do that and still be able to look you in the eyes.”
Nearly two years later, I still marvel at the meaning of that text. It was from an old friend – let’s call him “John” – who’d attended the same high school that I had: a private, Catholic school in sleepy Southeast Texas. A school whose mock election in 2008 found that seventy-five percent of students preferred John McCain to Barack Obama, much like their parents. This friend, like most of my high school classmates, was white, Christian, and solidly conservative.
But John was also friends with me: an immigrant, Muslim, brown-skinned woman. He’d sat next to me in ninth grade World Geography when the teacher told us we could memorize the difference between Sunni and Shi’ite Islam by remembering that Shi’ite sounds like shit. (In case you were wondering, I am Shi’ite.) He’d been eating school lunch with me in the cafeteria when I got the news that I was finally going to become a US citizen, after fifteen years of living in this country. And he maintained a long-distance friendship with me when I moved to Baltimore to teach special education, the same year that the Uprising happened in response to the murder of Freddie Gray and decades of police brutality against African-Americans.
So when a presidential candidate centered his campaign around Islamophobia, vilifying immigrants, and condoning police brutality, John decided for the first time in his life that he could not – would not – vote for the Republican candidate. Knowing me was enough to stop him from voting for someone whose campaign promises, if they came to fruition, would directly harm my family, my students, and myself.
This is why you should think twice before blocking everyone who disagrees with you on social media, or completely cutting ties with all of your friends who voted for that other candidate.
Over the past quarter of a century, American politics have become increasingly polarized. In 1994, forty-nine percent of Americans self-identified as having “mixed political views.” By 2014, that number had decreased by ten percent, while the percentage of Americans identifying as consistently liberal or conservative doubled. What is alarming is that, alongside the increase in Americans moving further from the center, there has been an increase in partisan antipathy. Members of both political parties are more likely now than ever before to consider the other party “a threat to the nation.” Consistent liberals and conservatives are also growing increasingly likely to have friends who share their political views only.
And that’s a problem.
One of the reasons I was so shocked, waking up in Baltimore the morning after the 2016 election, was that I had forgotten what it was like to grow up in rural Texas. I had become complacent, seeing nothing but Clinton-Kaine signs in the windows of the row homes in my neighborhood. I knew that most, if not all, of my friends, coworkers, and acquaintances in Baltimore would vote Democrat. Meanwhile, many of my old high school classmates who had stayed in small towns and suburbs in Texas only knew people who would vote Republican. They were surrounded by Trump-Pence lawn signs outside of houses that almost certainly harbored guns, in neighborhoods where churches were more ubiquitous than restaurants. Chances are that if Clinton had won the election, they would have been as shocked as I was that Trump had won.
However, unlike some of my liberal friends who had only ever lived in coastal cities, my shock didn’t last long. I could understand why my former neighbors, teachers, and classmates had voted for Trump. After all, they had overwhelmingly voted for Senator McCain in our 2008 mock election, and given that partisan loyalty begins at age 18, it made sense that they would continue to vote for Republicans. I still disagreed with them, of course, and I would be lying if I said I didn’t take it personally. But I could understand.
Then there was that one vote that I had influenced, just by existing and by choosing to maintain a friendship with someone very different than myself. It made me wonder what would have happened in 2016 if every Trump supporter had just one Muslim, or immigrant, or Mexican, or LGBTQ, or black friend. How many people would have chosen not to vote for Trump for fear of not being able to look that friend in the eyes again? How many consistent Republicans would have drawn the line at proposed policies and rhetoric directly harming their loved ones? Would it have been enough to change the results of the election?
I have heard many liberals state that the election proved half of the country is racist. I’ve also heard my fellow immigrants and people of color wonder why so many people hate us so much or don’t want us here. I, too, felt in the immediate aftermath of the election that people voted for Trump because they hated Muslims like myself. It took some time and courage to recognize: it’s not about me. It was never about me. To be sure, some Trump voters were motivated by perceived threats to their status and way of life in this country. But the majority had a host of other reasons for casting that ballot, none of which had anything to do with me as a person.
The only thing that did have to do with me as a person was the one vote Trump did not win because of my friendship with John.
I know that the burden to educate others on the impact of their vote should not fall on marginalized populations. And no one should have to be their white friends’ token friend of color or maintain toxic relationships for the sake of preventing Trump’s reelection. But we all should think twice before cutting off anyone who disagrees with us. We might be the one person in their life preventing them from living in a complete political silo.
So please, liberals, don’t unfriend your annoying Republican uncle on Facebook. Conservatives, think twice before cutting ties with your batty Democrat professor. Instead, find areas where you have common ground. Help them see the impact that their vote has on others. Share with them the stories of people for whom politics is always personal.
Then maybe, on the morning of November 4, 2020, we’ll all wake up just a little less shocked.