By Thornton Blount (7/22/16)
In the months leading up to Cleveland, I had always known that the RNC was going to be a strange and wild experience. My expectations were not disappointed. But beyond the characters I interacted with on the street (some pleasant and others not) and the overwhelming energy from the sheer size of the crowd and the seemingly twice as large population of police officers, I noticed two very odd, nuanced political phenomena that deserve some investigation.
As mentioned above, I spoke to a lot of people in Cleveland. In fact, the very first thing I wanted to do upon my arrival at Cleveland-Hopkins Airport was to just talk to people – locals and visitors alike – to try to get a read on the atmosphere and mood of both the convention and the city. Politics is ultimately about people. As a student of political science, a field that is near cousins with sociology, anthropology, and even psychology, you are taught that the best way to study the subject is through interpersonal interactions. Throughout the week, I spoke with dozens of people – protestors, policemen, media, delegates, and elected officials, and one thing I noticed amongst seemingly every Republican there was that they all supported other candidates in the primaries.
One man, for example, was giving an impassioned defense of Donald Trump to me, but when I asked him who he supported in the primaries he told me Sen. Marco Rubio. Another man, wearing a red ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, was a volunteer on the Cruz campaign several months prior. It left me wondering – where are the Trump supporters that won him the primary? His victory is still an enigma to me, so being unable to find any original Trump supporters in Cleveland confused me even further.
You’ll recall that Trump won the primaries with approximately 45% of the popular vote, around 15% more than the second place candidates on average*, which isn’t a massive margin in reality, so it is quite possible that I simply missed running into any original Trump supporters around Cleveland through natural error and other factors. But that seems unlikely.
Although I still have no idea where Donald Trump’s primary supporters were this weekend (and have no theories either), this whole phenomenon is an interesting microcosm of the state of the party currently. Despite some remaining disunity amongst party elite and elected officials, as publicly displayed in the Ted Cruz drama on Wednesday, average Republican party voters are indeed coming together in support of their party’s nominee – contrary to what optimistic democrats and non-Trump supporters may want to believe. Although this group that were a majority in the primary have no shame in admitting who they previously voted for over Trump (and that they’d still prefer that candidate today) few Republicans seem to really be struggling to rally around their new nominee. This can be seen in recent polls that place Donald Trump only five points behind Hillary Clinton, a position that would be impossible to attain if large swaths of Republicans were still holding out their support for the nominee*. As atypical as this election has been, after Hillary Clinton accepts her party’s nomination on Thursday, the nation will descend into a relatively traditional general election.
The second phenomenon I witnessed was more psychological, but nonetheless crucial to our understanding of party politics. Usually, when people of differing beliefs and political leanings interact, they tend towards the middle. For example, people hush their more extreme beliefs so as to avoid any tension, disagreement, and subsequent awkwardness – especially if they are not well-acquainted. They argue for centrist stances although privately they may lean further left or right than they portray. We’ve all done this – this should by no means come as an earth-shattering revelation, but it is rarely thought about or investigated. This occurrence produces an interesting dichotomy, and begs the question: what is someone’s true political identity? Is it what they’re thinking when they’re surrounded by those with similar beliefs, or is it the rational, more-moderate stances that they take to level with those they disagree with?
My experiences at the RNC this week would suggest that it’s the former. People with whom I could’ve held rational conversation (as a democrat) in any other situation outside of the convention suddenly became radical conservatives. They felt comfortable expressing a variety of more extreme stances to me, under the impression that I was a republican myself.
Is this phenomenon unique to hyper-partisan events such as the convention – and the type of people that attend them – or does it apply to everyday situations? Is there a way to reconcile these alternate identities? — and is there a need to?
Personally, I think this is a nasty condition, and to at least the last question – the answer is definitely yes. What is the point of displaying a political identity that is different from what you believe in private? To achieve true bipartisan progress and compromise we need to challenge the deeply rooted convictions we have, not a set of artificial stances we display on the surface. I believe that part of the reason people feel uncomfortable voicing their deeper opinions is because of the concern that their counterpart will respond aggressively or brashly out of disgust, or even try to silence their opinion. Anytime we find ourselves in the position of being that hypothetical ‘counterpart,’ we must combat temper ourselves and not resort to these types of responses. When we hear things that we deem to be ‘grossly offensive’ or ‘blatantly false,’ we must exercise the utmost patience because the alternative is subdued dialogue and your dissenter only further strengthening his/her convictions – thus counteracting bipartisan progress. Your conscience might be saying that the person is an ‘idiot,’ ‘bigot,’ ‘apologist,’ ‘communist,’ ‘racist,’ etc, but it is imperative to stay committed to the kind of calm and rational dialogue that has the ability to produce results. Yelling and arguing and anger and name-calling is not conducive to progress.
While I both strive to keep my private beliefs consistent with those that I defend publicly, and preach endlessly about bipartisanship – I could very well be as guilty as anyone of this trend, and I continue to challenge myself and my attitudes and temperament. As an ardent supporter of bipartisanship and zealous political scientist, I am eager to discover if I will experience this phenomenon in Philadelphia next week as well.
* This polling could also be due to low voter-turnout that is anticipated in November in response to two extremely unpopular candidates.