Recalling Old Lessons

Reflecting the pain of shattered assumptions...

Reflecting the pain of shattered assumptions...

Yes – Tuesday’s election results were a surprise for most of us. I, too, bought in to the “conventional wisdom” that Hillary’s machine would allow her to break the ultimate glass ceiling and become President Hillary.

However, I stopped watching cable TV news in the month running up to the election because I couldn’t stand the echo chamber nature of us talking to ourselves about our shared understandings. And that should have been my clue that the election was not what it appeared it would be.

Today I’m bootstrapping to tap into my normally excessive optimism about the future to figure out where to focus my energy and I’m starting with some old lessons that still prove true.

First, a disclaimer and a definer:  I am a privileged white woman who has benefited greatly from the hard work of those who came before me. My grandparents were educated farmers with college degrees earned in the late 1800s – gentlemen farmers, was the preferred term. They enjoyed classical music, were active in their communities and produced children who aspired to the professions.

My father and mother provided my brother and me with music lessons, organized sports team memberships, and all the attention and support children of the 1960s and 1970s could want. We both had access to fully funded higher educations, and I’ve been fortunate with my career opportunities – again, because women before me carved a path.

That career has been focused on the science and art of storytelling to influence behaviors, more commonly referred to as public relations, marketing, corporate communications, or public affairs. We all – companies and individuals – have a story to tell about why we exist, why we do what we do, and how that can make a difference for those who interact or purchase from us.

From consumer products to health care, public companies to non-profits, I’ve learned there are some core truths to this work that I ignored during this election.

1 – We buy – and vote – based on how we feel, not what we know.

This has been true as long as America has been the messiest of all forms of government, a democracy. We have to feel deeply to show up at a polling place and convince five to ten of our friends to do the same, which is a winning formula.

For a number of reasons – including the echo chambers of pundits and experts that convinced us Hillary would win – voters who resonated with Trump’s view of America felt far more motivated to show up with friends than did the Democrats.

It’s the same with consumer products. Is there truly a factually different impact from one hand cream over another, or do we buy what our mothers and friends use because it feels familiar and comfortable? I buy glasses now from Warby Parker because it makes me feel good to know that my purchase provides free glasses to someone who needs them, even though they’re not necessarily any better than those I can purchase from my eye doctor’s office. And yes – I recognize that my choice of Warby Parkers can be perceived as privileged and reflecting an elitism that would frustrate many who voted for Trump.

“What’s wrong, lady? Costco not good enough for ya?” Of course it is – but given a consumer choice, I will choose to make a purchase that I feel can make a difference, even if buying Warbys is also the trendy choice.

2 – It’s never about facts. It’s about story.

Now that neuroscience is unlocking the workings of our brains, we have the proof that humans respond better to stories that elicit feelings than facts that explain.

It’s ancient hardwiring that enabled us to survive despite large carnivorous animals and warring tribes who wanted our lands. For thousands of years, we have created myth and legend to explain the seasons and natural phenomenon. Even our religious books, including the Bible, are filled with imperfect humans wrestling with God or gods to overcome human disasters.

This always makes my university faculty friends crazy. They live in a world of scientific fact and data which will never be as persuasive as a well-framed story about a life improved because of their science. It’s powerful and important to understand that stories involving other humans are far more compelling and influential than stacks of data or facts.

It explains how the facts of Trump’s multiple business failures and shady or fraudulent business transactions had significantly less influence than the image of his business success projected by the big Trump jet, the big Trump buildings, and the gilded lifestyle he appears to lead. The image of the poor little rich boy who built an empire populated by attractive women and well-dressed progeny told a story that no facts could shake for voters who wanted to vote for an image of their own potential success. 

3 – We cannot hear or understand what we do not believe, or we only hear what we believe.

My friends and professional colleagues live and work in a world where calling people names, demonstrating overt racism, sexism, or denigration of anyone with a different past or belief is simply not done. Anyone who showed hatred would be ostracized if not fired or demoted.  So it was impossible for us to believe that anyone could hear Trump’s hate speech(es) and still support his campaign. We just couldn’t understand how any rational human could vote for hate.

And we weren’t paying attention to the right cues. His supporters were keying in on his “Make America Great Again” mantra, interpreted as they each believed he meant those words.

Yes - there are a few of his supporters – represented by David Duke and the KKK- Nazis – who want it to mean “Make America White Again”, and they need to be carefully monitored and rejected now.

But they are not the majority. Most of his rural, exurban, small town American supporters believed he was talking about making America understandable again and slowing down the pace of disorienting change.

My hometown is one such place that has lost its manufacturing base and a large swath of its middle class, while watching home prices decline and schools struggle. The professional class that’s left – the doctors and lawyers – are frustrated by the incomprehensible nature of health care reform and by regulations that make running a business more difficult. My peers remember robust civic institutions that brought cultural events to town, and we remember when the drug problem was a few longhaired guys who smoked pot behind the high school – not a rampant heroin and opioid epidemic striking down the “good kids”.

They’re scared of what’s hard to understand or manage or control, and a man who projects confidence that he can get it done can be comforting. When you believe your world is at risk, that everything you have believed in is changing for the worse, and you are living with an underlying fear of a group of radicals in foreign lands who are out to eradicate our western way of life, then you interpret “Make American Great Again” as a call to return to a time when things made sense to you. When buying a home was an investment in the future, not a financial burden. A time when schools were places to learn and grow, not just manage a range of behavioral issues resulting from neglect or abuse at home. A time when the challenge of technology was learning to use a remote, not losing a manufacturing job to a more productive robot.

In that environment, voters simply didn’t care that their candidate spouted language and engaged in behaviors that were beyond the boundaries of societally acceptable. When the world as you know and understand it is falling apart, screw society and vote as if your life depends on it.

Those are the lessons of my profession that I ignored this year. Now it’s time to help my clients and friends learn to navigate through the next few years.