On Oct 8., a now-infamous recording surfaced of Donald Trump suggesting he had sexually assaulted women and gotten away with it. “When you’re a star,” he said, “they let you do anything.” The fallout within his own party was swift. In the following days, a number of high-profile Republicans began distancing themselves from their de facto leader.
One might imagine that Democrats would welcome GOP politicians disavowing their party’s presidential nominee with open arms. But that’s not what happened. Instead, a cavalcade of tweets and statements made it clear that many on the left scoffed at such late changes of heart.
But while anti-Trump types may be skeptical of Republicans’ motivations, it’s destructive to mock them for disavowing their party’s candidate. If we embarrass dissenters for dissenting, we encourage people to never change their minds at all.
Our beliefs aren’t just beliefs—they are a part of who we are. The political views we talk about in public signal our identities just as much as the clothes we wear, the music we listen to, and the people we spend our time with. We are judged just as much—if not more so—by the bumper sticker on our car as we are by the make of car itself. As the meme goes, Make America Great Again is your new Air Jordans—both say a lot about our value systems. And when we swap our daily pair of Jordans for some penny loafers, our friends will start asking questions.
But here’s the thing: You (hopefully) don’t hold all of the exact same opinions you held 10 years ago. (And unless you have a really great cobbler, your shoes probably aren’t that old either.)
That’s because your beliefs aren’t absolute—they can’t be you. You are complex. Boxing ourselves into a permanent ideology and belief system closes us off to new information in a rapidly changing world.
Democrats chiding their counterparts for being “too late” to turn on Trump aren’t taking a principled stand; they’re exhibiting a very human desire to humiliate adversaries rather than admit former opponents into the club. Because that’s one of the fundamental underpinnings of what defines any tribe: that the Other Guys deserve scorn, sometimes just simply for being the Other Guys.
Like a dog chasing a car, Democrats who called for Trump’s party to disavow him finally got what they wanted—and they didn’t know what to do with it. That’s because the Democratic identity is, in part, formed by being in opposition to the very people who had come over to their side. That, more than anything, made them unable to accept the victory.
In order not to be the kind of stubborn, dogmatic, short-sighted person we mock, our politics shouldn’t be grafted onto our identity. To crib an idiom: Have strong opinions, weakly held. The “goal” should never be to protect our tribe, our identity, or our party: It should be to be open to finding and following the best path.
The events since the Access Hollywood tape have shown that our divisions are so deep and our tendencies so tribal that political victory alone is no longer enough to satiate us. Our tribal identities have become more important than why we aligned ourselves with those tribes in the first place. Who we aren’t has become more important than who we are, and it’s keeping us apart.
We must vigorously but empathetically engage with those with whom we disagree, yes, but we also need to support them when and if they change their minds. This, in turn, will allow us to sometimes change our own opinions without fear of retribution. If we don’t, America will be boiled down to a small number of tribes that are no longer on speaking terms.
Sometimes we have to extend this courtesy first, without seeing it reciprocated for a long, long time. And sometimes, our opponents may not change their mind at the moment we’d prefer and in the way we’d like. But when this open discourse leads to greater empathy and understanding between parties, it’s worth it in the long run.