I recently sat in on a Zoom session with some old (and new!) Fayette County friends who were on the losing side of the West Virginia elections. Losing is hard, but politics is a bit like baseball: failure is a big part of the game. Even the best players make an out three out of four times at bat. Most anyone who has run for office or supported a candidate knows what it’s like to lose. It can break your heart.
This post-election conversation, barely a week after Election Day, focused on trying to understand why so many Democratic candidates from all across the state came up short. Was the party’s message too liberal? Did the campaigns work hard or smart enough? Could different candidates have done better?
One thing became clear from the discussion. These diehard Democrats want to be on good terms with their fellow citizens on the other side of the partisan divide. When they see their neighbors at Kroger’s or at church or at the school bus stop, they want to feel connected, not divided.
My Democratic friends are puzzled about why policies designed to help people — health care protections, clean air and water, support for public schools — do not win more support among West Virginia voters when there seems to be widespread agreement on these issues. But most elections are only partly about issues. For the last few years, especially, voters on both sides seem increasingly motivated by resentment and distrust. That magnifies differences of opinion about issues and makes it hard to find common ground.
Unless these feelings of resentment and distrust can be overcome, political differences can easily become personal. How can we keep this from happening?
One place to start is for both sides to take an honest look at themselves to figure out why they might be resented or distrusted. Do we express our beliefs as if they are intellectually or morally superior? Are we too quick to stereotype our political opponents, for example, as racist or elitist? Do we expect the worst of one another?
This sort of self-examination takes work. If most of your friends and acquaintances share your political beliefs, it is easier to simply blame the problem on the other side — they are clueless or brainwashed or, worst of all, evil. Fortunately, in close knit communities like Fayetteville, Oak Hill, or the dozens of other towns in Fayette County, there is plenty of opportunity to engage with others in order to discover something about how we are perceived, if we are willing to risk the effort of listening to those with whom we disagree.
Of course, at this point we are all relieved to have the elections over, and no one wants to talk politics. But as life gets back to what passes for normal in 2020, it would be a mistake to simply paper over the differences that were revealed on Election Day. After all, despite the fact the the TV election maps show West Virginia as solid red, there are still plenty of Democratic mountaineers. According to returns published in the Tribune, Republican candidates for House of Delegates received about 28,000 votes, but almost 20,000 votes were cast for the Democratic candidates.
Without the pressure of an election, we can approach the work of bridging our political divides in a low key manner while we work together in the choir or the food pantry or the concession stand. The challenges facing West Virginians, and all Americans, require that we work together to find common ground, just as we have done so many times in the past.
Rob Abbot grew up in Fayetteville and spent most of his career as a school teacher in Arlington, Virginia. He currently resides in upstate New York with his wife, Claire Cifaloglio. He is a loyal subscriber to The Fayette Tribune.