During this election, the empathy Stanford preached was not the empathy it practiced. Immediately following the election, our Facebook newsfeeds saw an avalanche of practically identical posts expressing sadness and anger. Students reacted as if the election results were a personal insult from which they would never recover. From their dorm rooms surrounded by palm trees on Escondido and Mayfield, they claimed to be too distraught to take finals. Meanwhile, auto industry workers in my hometown of metro Detroit feared being laid off from their jobs and not being able to provide for their families.
Unfortunately political dialogue on this campus has lately reflected a disturbing trend in national politics: privileged groups’ substitution of unproductive emotional reactions for substantive and empathetic policy discussion. In the immediate aftermath of an incredibly polarizing election, emotional reaction is understandable. But defensively defriending every Trump supporter and calling out Trump-voting relatives at Thanksgiving are exactly the opposite of what this country needs to recover. Petty refusal to empathize, tolerate, or understand why the other side voted as it did will only hasten America’s decline. The Review has always argued for reasoned dialogue, but it cannot take place if we refuse to even listen to our opponents.
Donald Trump is of course the poster child for emotional reaction instead of reasonable discussion. But Stanford students and the media were often just as guilty. Instead of using the election to discuss Trump’s and Clinton’s immigration policies, plans that would actually affect many thousands of foreign and American parents and children, students more often shared offense over Donald Trump’s latest shocking tweet. This approach to politics was reminiscent of New Student Orientation: sitting in a circle and sharing feelings rather than probing each other in orders to learn and arrive at truth.
This attitude, ironically, helped usher Trump into the Oval Office. While Stanford students decided between internship offers from Facebook or Google, the average American voter was worried that her child might not find a steady job after graduating from community college. American voters are worried about the economy. Before the election, Gallup’s economic confidence index found perceptions of the economy in the negative numbers. A CNN survey found that 56% of voters expected their children to be worse off financially than themselves. Unlike out-of-touch ivory-tower types shaming them for micro-aggressions and belief in God, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders seemed to share working- and middle-class Americans’ concerns like disappearing manufacturing jobs and ballooning student loan debt.
Seventy percent of Stanford students come from families with incomes of over $100,000. Many had the luxury to write off anyone who didn’t unquestioningly support Hillary Clinton as racist and sexist, doing little to shift the conversation toward policy. Instead of responding with facts and rational analysis, Stanford students turned to identity politics. There was an opportunity for reasonable analyses of Trump’s economic promises, just as many of Sanders’ far-fetched proposals had been earlier debunked by a coalition of economists. Why didn’t lengthy, clear pieces analyzing Trump’s economic proposals make the rounds on Facebook? Because anger spreads faster than any other emotion on social media, and few tried to overcome their cognitive biases.
Talk of the economy seemed to have left the mainstream. Few discussed why a 35% tariff on goods imported from Mexico would decrease the average consumer’s purchasing power by increasing prices on so many everyday goods. A Gallup study thatfound that Trump supporters were not necessarily disproportionately affected by trade and immigration offered an opportunity to explain why more than 90% of economists agree that tariffs and import quotas harm the economy. Instead, Trump voters who didn’t know the economic arguments for free trade wrote off opposition to Trump’s economic policies as another plank of left-wing, anti-American globalism. Some of Trump’s economic proposals would be disastrous if enacted, but much of the left couldn’t see past personal attacks on their identities to explain why.
Students could have tried to argue that fiscal conservatives shouldn’t vote for a candidate proposing to build a wall that would drastically increase our already-unsustainable national debt, or that former Tea Partiers shouldn’t support a candidate that seemed to neither respect nor understand the Constitution. As a student body, we could have “gone high,” given Trump supporters the benefit of the doubt, and talked about real issues to his candidacy and practical solutions.
But students who claim to stand for toleration and understanding didn’t try to understand and address the concerns of those supporting Trump, more often than not treating his supporters with disdain and disbelief. Instead they tagged his supporters as hillbilly white nationalists, immediately preventing any serious discussion (despite the fact that fewer whites and more Hispanics and African-Americans voted for Trump than Romney). Shockingly, many students here have met one or none Trump supporters. For an institution that calls itself the Farm, we barely engage with rural America.
Certainly a president’s character matters. The media must report the criminal or immoral activities of candidates for our nation’s highest office. If Donald Trump abused or raped women, he should be jailed. But even before his most shocking comments about assault, obsessive talk of email scandals and tweets obscured serious discussion of policy.
Since media outlets are incentivized by page views, we as private citizens especially have a responsibility to shift discussions towards the economy and foreign policy and away from identity politics and clickbait. This duty, of course, extends to both sides of the political spectrum. There should have been more discussion of the feasibility of both candidates’ proposed economic and military policies. Unproductive and petty communal emotional reactions from a largely privileged and sheltered group replaced these conversations. If we truly care about improving the world, our empathy must extend beyond El Camino Real.