artwork for Dave Clapper's nonfiction

How Shame Shaped the American Presidential Election
Dave Clapper

Most of the people reading this are progressives, I imagine, because we progressives enjoy things like literary magazines, while conservatives enjoy things like boycotting an acclaimed Broadway musical that’s sold out for the next two years.

Already, I’ve fallen into the very trap I intend to write about. Let me start again. I’d like to talk about how deeply we have become addicted to public shaming, and how destructive this addiction is. Almost all of what follows is anecdotal, rather than scientifically researched and footnoted, but is also illustrative of what I found when Googling things like how different Briggs-Meyer types react to shame and how those types sort out politically—and a host of other searches on shame and shaming; that way lies an hours-long rabbit hole.

It’s not surprising that a nation founded by Puritans, who took public shaming to a level that included burning women at the stake, should whole-heartedly embrace the idea when given a platform like social media. The fact that, via self-selection, we find ourselves in echo chambers of like-minded people further contributes to a mob mentality. Should someone from outside the echo chamber venture in with an opposing viewpoint, that person is often subjected to a written litany of shame.

Over the course of the primaries and the presidential campaign, I’ve seen a tidal wave of shaming. Yo, Bernie Bros: casting a third-party vote shows your privilege. Hey, Hillarybots: you’re voting for Hillary only because she’s a woman. Excuse me, Trumpettes: you’re misogynist racists. And yet, per polling by the Pew Research Center, the most important issue for supporters of all three, by a wide margin, was the economy.

How much of the conversation that you saw among supporters of different candidates was about what each of their candidates would do regarding the economy?

I’ll briefly trace my own progression since April 12, 2015, when Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy.

April 2015: Hillary knows more about policy than perhaps any candidate in the history of the United States. She’s more hawkish than I would like, a bit too friendly with Wall Street, and, with the exception of women’s rights, has been slower to adopt progressive change than I’d like. Overall, though, I’d be happy to have her as president. She mostly fights (and fights hard) for the same issues I fight (less hard) for.

May 2015: Oh, my God! Bernie declared! I love Bernie! When he was a regular on Thom Hartmann’s show, “Brunch with Bernie” was always a highlight of my week. Back when Facebook displayed people’s political affiliation, I stated mine as “slightly to the left of Bernie Sanders.” I’m all in! He won’t win, but if he does well enough, he’ll push Hillary to the left. Bonus!

Every day from the point that Bernie started looking competitive, I witnessed waves of shaming by Hillary supporters. Facebook: He’s unelectable. Don’t be so naïve. We have to unite behind the only candidate who can win. Do you want another Ralph Nader? This is too important! You’re a sexist Bernie Bro!

Sometime during all of this, I caucused for Bernie, became a precinct delegate in Washington State’s 36th Legislative District, then a district delegate, then fell a couple votes short of going to Philadelphia, but I did so eagerly as the Bernie caucus pushed through eight wildly diverse delegates, while the Hillary caucus pushed through eight white people. Sorry, just fell into the shaming trap again. To be fair, the Hillary delegates I met at the caucuses were mostly great. The small number of truly awful people was about the same for both candidates.

June 2016: Hillary clinches the Democratic nomination. Facebook: Why aren’t you posting effusive praise of Hillary? You cannot say anything even moderate about her. Hitler Hitler Hitler, you fucking baby! You’re destroying the country!

July 2016: Donald Trump wins the GOP nomination. Facebook: Do you want Hitler?! Stop being such a baby! Why are you complaining about Debbie Wasserman Schultz?! Grow up!

During the course of all this, I went from feeling OK with Hillary as a candidate to leaning toward voting third-party to eventually coming back to my initial, mostly favorable feelings toward Hillary—albeit strengthened when I watched her acceptance speech at the convention, and I realized how much she embodied the positive traits I admire in my mother.

The reason it took me as long as it did to come back around to Hillary was: shaming.

Common reactions to shame are silence and anger. At one point, even before Bernie lost the nomination, I made the decision to stop posting about politics on Facebook, and to engage in political conversations only in person. I had some luck swaying voters to Bernie, but only from one-on-one conversations. I didn’t keep that promise to myself for long, alas, and I entered back into the Arena of Public Shame. And once Hillary clinched the nomination, I remained mostly silent on Facebook about her, instead focusing my attention on down-ticket candidates I thought were awesome and the awfulness that is Donald Trump. I was all over the shaming of Trump supporters to a degree well beyond what I was with Hillary supporters.

I don’t share the above to say that Bernie supporters suffered some special level of shaming. I believe my experience was pretty common for supporters of every candidate. As it turned out, most (90 percent, according to The Washington Post) Bernie supporters ultimately voted for Hillary. But I would argue that many of them voted that way in spite of having been shamed, not because of it.

Which brings us around to how shame gave us Donald Trump. FiveThirtyEight, the constantly refreshed site of political junkies and those terrified of an unthinkable outcome, talked about the possibility of “shy Trump voters” when analyzing reasons the polls might be off. In general, the idea didn’t take hold. Perhaps the FiveThirtyEight writers believed that the only Trump supporters were the kind of intensely vocal (I’m being nice here) people seen at his rallies.

However, in an election season so heavily marked by public shaming on social media, shouldn’t we have have seen this coming? What, after all, is often the first effect of shame? Silence.

Silence, or failure to disclose, wormed its way into people’s responses to pollsters. Throughout the campaign, the number of “undecided” voters was much higher than at the same point in every previous election. Perhaps this was because the two major party candidates were the Number 1 and Number 2 highest candidates of all time in unfavorable ratings—a situation almost certainly influenced by the shame echo chambers. Or … perhaps it was because people who had been routinely shamed didn’t want to confess to how they were going to vote. Regardless, undecided voters broke overwhelmingly, and shockingly, for Trump.

The vast majority of voters, it should be noted, are not political junkies. There are spikes in voter attention to the election during the conventions, the debates, and shortly before the election. After Bernie was knocked out, I grappled with whether to vote for Hillary Clinton or a third-party candidate for about a month. For most voters, that’s longer than the collective amount of time they spend paying attention to the election during the entire process. In other words, the period of anger over being shamed is, for a huge number of voters, at its peak when they cast their votes. Can we guess how their decision is swayed during this moment of truth?

It’s easy for a progressive to be enraged by that, and to have good, factual reasons to be outraged by it. But consider also the Bernie supporters going after Hillary supporters with cries of “I told you so” and the Hillary supporters going after Bernie supporters with cries of “This is all your fault.”

Since the election, the political part of my Facebook feed is filled with concrete things that progressives can do to push back against Trump—phone trees of various politicians’ numbers, and what specifically we should be calling about, organizations to which donations would have the greatest impact, etc.—and continued shaming of Trump’s supporters.

I am not saying that a number of Trump voters have nothing to be ashamed of. A few I know personally are bigots, racists, and homophobes. Rather, my point is that, as good as it can feel to engage in shaming, that’s about all it does—make the shamer feel more powerful, more justified, more righteous (something the Puritans knew a little about). Shaming, unless the person being shamed has remarkable resilience and self-awareness, is most likely to only further cement feelings of anger toward, and alienation from, the people doing the shaming.

And I don’t mean to shame the shamers. I’m a shamer myself. I would ask that we consider what our goals are when we engage in shaming. Are we truly hoping to change the behavior of the person being shamed? Or are we trying to elevate ourselves by lowering others?

I also know that I’m in a position of enormous privilege—I’m a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male—and that from that perch, it’s a lot less dangerous to step back and look askance at our behavior. People who are not at the top of the intersectionality pyramid are facing the real dangers of losing access to health care, losing self-determination, losing residency in this country, and even losing life to crimes of hatred. How do we address those very real dangers in a way that will bring about the changes that are vitally necessary?

When I look back at times of real change, of real progress, those changes were brought about, I believe, by engaging empathy. People saw firehoses being turned on peaceful protesters, and were appalled, and felt for people they didn’t previously know. A naked child burnt by napalm was photographed running down a road; people hugged their own children a little closer—and turned against the war. People came out of the closet and became known to friends and family, and those friends and family learned about the challenges their loved ones faced.

There are very real dangers to be faced now. It’s imperative that we engage with our representatives to make our feelings known, and to engage with one another to ensure one another’s safety.

When we say, “I hurt,” there will be some bullies who will try to hurt us more, but most people (I must believe, or what is the point at all?) will feel empathy. Some will be moved to help. But when we say, “It’s your fault,” many of those same people who would have otherwise felt empathy will turn further away from us.

I’m going to do my damnedest to redirect my anger and fear toward communicating one on one with people, to hearing and sharing people’s stories, to reminding myself that change requires hard, compassionate work rather than scoring points with allies by inflicting hurt on those we disagree with. I will fail a lot. This is a mission I have chosen for myself. I will not demand that others, particularly those in the most danger—minorities, women, LGBTQ, Muslims, Jews, etc.—take a similar path.

I don’t know if my efforts will bring about positive change. I only know that shaming brought about the opposite.

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FRiGG: A Magazine of Fiction and Poetry | Issue 48 | The Shame Issue | Spring/Summer 2016