keep-calm-and-make-history-17We keep hearing about this historic election, which it certainly would have been had the first woman become president. But what exactly do we mean by pronouncing Donald Trump’s ascension “historic?” He certainly isn’t the first white man to assume the presidency. Nor is he the first to lose the popular vote. Do we mean he is the first reality TV star? The first candidate with absolutely no experience as an elected official? No record of public or military service? The first to conduct a campaign primarily through Twitter? The first to prove his point over and over again, at least metaphorically, that he could stand and shoot somebody in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose any votes?

There are definitely many firsts that Donald Trump represents. But the word “historic” connotes breakthrough progress, not a regression to the meanness of Trump’s campaign. To call his election “historic” is to dignify a man who traffics in constant degradation and divisiveness. Such euphemistic language elevates him to a level he does not deserve. It is another in a long string of false equivalencies that have poisoned our politics.


A metal toggle switch with plate reading Listen and Ignore, symbolizing how we choose to pay attention to certain messages

Recently I shared an article on Facebook by a Bernie-supporting Hillary skeptic who articulated his reasons for voting for her. He’d decided the volatile political climate and the increasing unreliability of polls made it too risky–even in “safe” states–to stay home or to vote for a third-party candidate.

I had not heard this argument before, and wanted to inject this thoughtful piece into a discourse largely dominated by bashing from both sides of the political divide.

Right away a Facebook friend I haven’t seen since college commented: “Don’t you think that incessantly hectoring people might have the effect opposite to that desired?”

I was taken aback. My posting rate on Facebook hardly qualifies as incessant. Besides, there was nothing remotely hectoring about this article. Still, there’s no denying that my motivation in sharing it was to persuade reluctant voters to choose Hillary.

I decided to engage with rather than ignore my friend. He immediately replied that he didn’t mean me personally, “but that the daily attacks on the folk who are not gung-ho for HRC, including the accusation that we are women-haters, are really counterproductive.” He likened well-meaning attempts at political persuasion to the noxious proselytizing meant to convert people from one religion to another. Besides, it made him think that Hillary’s supporters lacked the faith that she should and could win, and found their apocalyptic pronouncements about not voting for the Un-Trump unhelpful.

His response reminded me of a party I attended right before the 2004 election. Amid a dozen or so Chardonnay-sipping liberals eternally bitter over the selection of W four years earlier was one lone Nader supporter. Unrepentant, he planned to vote for Nader again.

“How COULD you?” everyone exploded in unison. As we all moved in for the oh-so-persuasive kill, I could see this man’s jaw tighten, his posture stiffen. You can probably guess who he voted for.

I’ve learned a lot since that encounter—if you want to preach outside the choir, it’s better not to screech or beseech. Still, there are reasons to try. Or was my Facebook friend a case in point that such attempts invariably backfire?

Recently I’ve had many conversations with my friend Linda (who also doesn’t like Hillary but who will vote for her). She has been talking with her son and his friends, most of them young, fervent Bernie supporters who care deeply about racial justice. They now feel totally disillusioned by the political process, seeing little difference between the parties and no point in voting. Linda has a lot of empathy for this viewpoint, and mostly listens. But when she does talk, whatever she has to say doesn’t only fall on deaf ears—it closes those ears further.

Periodically I send things with a fresh or compelling perspective to Linda, saying, “What about this? Could this help?” One was a recent column by Charles Blow. Linda was almost persuaded until the last paragraph:

Protest voting or not voting at all isn’t principled. It’s dumb, and childish, and self-immolating. I know you’re young, but grow up!

With those words, Blow blew it. Of course, Linda never forwarded the article to her son, and has wisely stopped talking to him about the election altogether.

Years ago Republican pollster Frank Luntz quipped, “The trouble with Hillary is she reminds everyone of their first wife.” She also reminds people of their mothers. There are legitimate reasons to be skeptical of Hillary, but this unconscious association has gotten short shrift in understanding the level of antipathy generated by the candidacy of the first woman who has a shot at the presidency. Often what mothers say, no matter how wise and well-intended, has the effect of generating resistance. You should listen to your mother, but do you really want to? Middle-aged mothers like me who are trying to persuade others, especially young people, may only be perpetuating the maternal nag problem.

Is it possible to change people’s minds? We are now inundated with 24/7 information and misinformation, and live in silos that reinforce our worldview while keeping out other perspectives. Social science research demonstrates that when people are shown evidence contradicting their firmly held beliefs, they don’t reconsider; instead, they double down.

If one person’s persuasion is another’s hectoring, what’s a mother to do? What’s a concerned citizen to do?


 Have you tried to influence anyone’s vote in this election season? Has anyone tried to influence yours? What works and doesn’t work?



Mental Health and Presidential Politics

presidents-mental-illnessWith all the furor over the presidential candidates’ physical and mental health, I found myself wondering not about the ethics of armchair analysis or the quality and timing of the information released so far, but another question: What would happen if the medical records of someone running for president revealed any current or past treatment for mental health issues?

In 1972, Democratic Vice Presidential nominee Thomas Eagleton had to step down when news surfaced about his prior hospitalizations and electroshock treatment for depression. What would happen today if there was a notation about ECT, Prozac, Lithium, addiction, or the like in a candidate’s chart? Would it be disqualifying? Should it be?

Given the stigma and discrimination that still surround mental illness, it’s not surprising that very few politicians and no presidential candidates admit to struggling with or seeking treatment for psychological problems. This does not mean there haven’t been plenty of afflicted presidents; a 2006 study found that nearly half of 37 presidents whose historical records were reviewed met the criteria for psychiatric diagnoses. Some, like Lincoln, rank among our greatest presidents.

It’s a shame that stigma and discrimination discourage proactive and responsible responses to many treatable conditions. It’s not the presence or absence of a mental illness (or life circumstance) that counts, but how someone deals with it. As any therapist knows, what’s worrisome is not the person who knows something is wrong and seeks help, but the person who doesn’t.

Not all mental illnesses are the same. Nor are all jobs. Military personnel and commercial airline pilots routinely face the quandary that acknowledging significant psychological distress may derail their careers not only because of stigma, but due to legitimate concerns about risk to self and others.

What about the presidency, a high-stress, high-responsibility job if ever there was one? People often quip that you’d have to be crazy to want to be president. It’s no joking matter, though: for decades there have been serious proposals for an independent and impartial evaluation of the physical and mental health of all presidential candidates. Assuming we could find such examiners and eliminate stigma, though, diagnosis is an imperfect art and poorly predictive of performance. (Thomas Eagleton, for example, went on to have a long and distinguished career in the Senate and academia.)

Anti-social personality disorder, malignant narcissism, and paranoia have been commonly cited as conditions that ought to raise alarm, if not disqualify someone from the presidency. There is often a partisan slant to these opinions. But even if an official and impartial diagnosis could be made, why would it be persuasive when the traits and behaviors in question are already perfectly obvious for all to see? Besides, such characteristics may or may not have anything to do with a candidate’s mental health.

Perhaps we should be more concerned about the ill state of the body politic: We are too often split into polarized camps, divorced from reality, and suffering from anxiety, paranoia, withdrawal, and despair.

These problems are much more difficult to diagnose and treat.


What are your thoughts about this?


When Will It Be Over?

giant-meteor-2016Please! Make it stop!

That’s how a lot of people are feeling about the 2016 presidential election. So I had to chuckle when I saw the novel solution to this endless and demoralizing campaign season proposed on the above bumper sticker.

Still, planetary annihilation seems a steep price to pay, especially when you consider that the race will actually end one way or another in just a few weeks.

So rather than clutching our heads and moaning, “When will it be over?” a better question is “When it’s over, how do you want things to be?”

For me, the choice is easy.

For starters, I’d like a president who actually believes that climate change is real, so will try to do something to prevent planetary annihilation.  Or not bring it about more catastrophically than even a giant meteor would:

“I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”  — Tony Schwartz, the repentant ghostwriter of  The Art of the Deal, in conversation with Jane Mayer of The New Yorker.

On a less dire note, I’d like a president with steadiness and grit.

I’d like a president with lifelong dedication to public service and fighting tirelessly to improve the lives of children, women, families, and ordinary Americans.

I’d like a president who will appoint Supreme Court justices who will uphold a woman’s right to choose and overturn Citizen’s United.

I’d like a president who will build upon and improve Obamacare so that everyone can have high-quality and affordable healthcare.

I’d like a president who will make college more affordable and create good-paying jobs for the world we live in now.

I’d like a president who is famous for the ability to listen, do the homework required to understand complex issues, work collaboratively even with people whose views are different, and find solutions to vexing problems.

I’d like a president with experience, heart, keen intelligence, and respectability on the international stage.

I’d like a president who doesn’t insult and mock people, incite violence and prejudice, cheat people, lie routinely, drive businesses into the ground, and require 24/7 attention.

That’s why I’m voting for Hillary Clinton. And spending my free time volunteering to help elect her.

Sure, I’m not thrilled about her hawkishness or the self-inflicted wounds we sometimes see. But even if she’s not my ideal candidate, I’d vote for her even if I didn’t think her opponent would be an unmitigated disaster whose elevation to the highest office would reward and reinforce all that is worst in America.

Fortunately, I like and admire Hillary, and think she’d make an excellent president. But if you share only my misgivings about Trump and not my enthusiasm for her, you can still vote while holding your nose.

That’s it. That’s the choice. No third-party votes or staying home to “send a message.”

Because that message might result in President Donald Trump.

I’d rather withstand a giant meteor.