Stories of President Trump’s approval ratings less than one year into his term focus on how historically low they are. A Gallup poll taken after the Charlottesville violence shows Trump’s approval rating at a dismally low 34%. However, Republican support for Trump’s handling of the Charlottesville violence was 62% – way above the national number of 28%.
The question that runs through my mind is not why Trump’s support is so low, but why it remains so high? To me these polls do not indicate that wide swaths of Republican voters are sympathetic to the arguments of neo-Nazi dorks with Tiki torches. It’s that some of these voters have integrated their 2016 presidential vote into their identity and find themselves stuck defending a bad position (this doesn’t apply to all Trump supporters since some honestly believe he is doing a great job).
Once your vote holds a similar place in your mind as your sense of who you are – your values, the values you share with your family and closest friends, your belief or unbelief in the divine, etc – you can find yourself squirming uncomfortably while defending a president that you know in your heart is unsuited for the office and failing. Psychologists call this feeling “cognitive dissonance“, which is the discomfort someone feels when they hold two conflicting ideas at the same time.
On one hand, you may have loudly proclaimed your complete support of Trump to friends and family during the election (most agreed with you and this made you feel good). On the other hand, you privately understand that many of his Charlottesville comments were ridiculous. It’s a tough place to find yourself when a pollster calls.
And although these issues are most obvious among Trump voters right now, they are not limited to them. Both parties have their True Believers who would rather go down with the ship than jump into a lifeboat with their political enemies.
Over time, I have reduced the importance of political opinions in how I view myself, and like a zealous convert to a healthier lifestyle I want to share it with everyone.
Part of my own evolution is rooted in my past military service, when I swore an oath to the Constitution. The military is better than the political world at keeping the main thing the main thing. When my unit was sent to fight in Desert Storm in 1991 we didn’t spend any time worrying if we agreed with President George H.W. Bush. The commander-in-chief gave an order, and we went.
Over time, I became more attached to conservative viewpoints, opinion writers, and news sources. I thought deeply about conservative ideas and on the balance found them to be cogent and healthy maps for our country’s future. In many cases I still do.
However, I began to realize that I was starting to identify too much with my party and too little with my country – an insight that came upon me gradually rather than suddenly. Once that insight became more apparent to me, I realized I was forgetting the best tradition of the military: that we are citizens of a country rather than members of political tribes.
This is not to say that we should behave like we’re in the military or shouldn’t hold political opinions, but there is power in reducing our emotional attachments to those opinions. Changing my mind on an issue when confronted with new information is now in alignment with my deepest values rather than in opposition to them. That feels good.
If you want to reduce how partisanship influences the deepest sense you have of your identity, I offer four suggestions:
- In matters of public policy, think of yourself first as an American rather than a conservative or liberal.
- Expand your news sources.
- Find one issue where you can see the other side. Practice talking about this out loud in front of others. They’ll still love you.
- Read an essay on this topic from computer scientist and venture capitalist Paul Graham called “Keep Your Identity Small”.
This is a journey, and like any journey it will take time. I’m still on it. Most won’t be interested in making this journey – they are happy to belong to their tribe and spend their days reveling in righteous indignation about this or that issue. But as the saying goes, there is a more excellent way.
Good luck travelers!
Published in August, 2017.