Oversimplification is Detrimental to Constructive Debate

Polarization, fake news, echo chambers. These are three phrases that have been bouncing around the public consciousness since the shocking November election. All three of these have alarmed a local retired school counselor, Frank Lagona, who worked as a guidance counselor at school 69 of the Buffalo Public Schools: Houghton elementary school. He is a conservative with a liberal girlfriend, and together they raise biracial children with special needs. He voted for Trump in the election, while his girlfriend was a staunch Hillary supporter. He does not fit the mold of what one might expect from a Trump supporter: Frank spends much of his time in an urban neighborhood, has worked with all types of refugee and minority children, and asserts that “some of the best and brightest Public School students are refugees.” He does not want to hurt them or their families, but wants to make sure that they are not leaving their own war-torn countries for yet another one; he wants the country to be safe for them as much as for American citizens by birth.

He was talking with a Sri Lankan student one day who said to him, “I’m just glad you don’t have an AK-47.” Frank wants students to never have to deal with that kind of militaristic environment again. He feels very strongly that it is important to give these minority students a safe community and plenty of chances to succeed, but as soon as he admits to voting for Trump, he is demonized online and rejected by friends he has known for years, who should have known that his true values and beliefs were not always in line with the President’s campaign promises.

Frank justifies his prioritization of national security and the necessity of drastic border policies by citing an interaction with a friend of his, whose son was deployed in Syria in the fall of 2016. The son was involved in operations abroad, and told his father that “we’re in real trouble: we know that ISIS has infiltrated the refugee population, but we don’t know how to filter them out.” Frank himself is not anti-refugees, but he sees how difficult, and at times impossible, it would be to vet carefully enough to be sure that no one with ill intentions is entering the United States. He sees it as the first priority to ensure that children here are safe and protected, and that their being here does not end up being no safer than them being in their home countries, where they were persecuted.

Frank was on vacation with his wife back in February of 2017 at a resort in Florida. He was talking with a married lesbian couple, and they were engaging in friendly, grown-ups-taking-a-break-from-the-workplace banter. They talked about roller derby and their kids, sports teams, and hobbies. As the conversation spiraled, they landed on more politically charged issues such as bathroom rights for transgender people. Throughout the conversation, Frank made it clear that he was supportive of equal rights and privileges for LGBTQ people, and he treated the couple no differently than he would have anyone else. Their conversation stayed friendly, open, and easy until he admitted to having voted for Donald Trump.

They immediately appeared deeply disturbed. One of them began saying, “Go, go, go,” staring at him pointedly. When he did not immediately get up to leave, she said to him, “I’m sorry, but you have to go.” He told the women that he was sorry, and that he had not meant to offend them. One of the girls responded that her own father had voted for Trump, and she had not spoken with him since the election. She had gone without a word of communication between her and her father for four months over the results of the presidential election. That is how emotionally charged the political conversations of the recent months have been; the emotional divisiveness has disrupted even the strongest bonds. Family members and friends are actually unable to talk about or overcome different opinions when it comes to election results in many circumstances. In the end, Lagona shook hands with the women and wished them well, but he was glad that it was one of their last days at the resort, because he would have had difficulty talking to the women again after their visceral reaction. He had not intended to be confrontational with the women, and he in fact had agreed with them about many of the needs for greater acceptance and openness with regards to the LGBTQ community. They had heard him say that he supported their rights, that he was not opposed to their lifestyle, and they had seen in his mannerisms that he had not been prejudiced against them. Throughout the political banter everyone was friendly and open, until he made the fatal mistake of admitting who he had voted for. He was not hurt by their reaction, but he felt sorry for the woman, that her animosity towards the president had caused such an insurmountable rift between her and her father.

This has been a common problem for Frank. Friends, both in person and online, and coworkers who had known him and his views for years, (and accepted his conservative viewpoints in the past), suddenly left the room when he spoke up about his opinions, or openly attacked him on social media.

“I’ve gotten used to that reaction,” he told me. He has lost friends over his choice in the election. People will not ask his specific views, instead they immediately assume from his choice that he holds the same positions as Trump on everything, even the most controversial campaign promises. He has been branded a racist and a homophobe. He has been vilified, and he has been called “white trash,” by people that he knows and people that he does not know. He has never responded to the jabs in kind.

“There is no animosity in my heart,” he says, towards those who denounce him as such. He is disappointed, however, that those who ask for tolerance from everyone else “seem to be the most intolerant.” He is not angry; he just wants a different direction. He does not believe that it is just that he is not being judged on his words, actions, or beliefs, but simply on the basis of the ballot that he cast. He feels that people need to be better at respectfully disagreeing. He says that no one asked, nor cared, where his decision was coming from, and instead assumed that he must be a reflection of all of the worst parts of the candidate he had voted for, rather than a conservative who could not justify voting for a democrat who had adopted several near-socialist policy ideas and seemed to be the same kind of candidate we have always had, which never seemed to bring about change or improvement.

“People had no clue where my decision was coming from. I don’t buy into everything that he says, or believe everything that he believes,” he says of Trump.

Lagona reminded me that his girlfriend had not voted for Trump, and there was not any lasting animosity between them over the results. They disagreed, but they did not let the political controversy interrupt them at the dinner table or create a rift between them. He respects her opinion, and their disagreement never posed a problem between them personally.

He does not think it is right when people declare that Donald Trump is not their president. When he did not agree with the decisions and actions of former President Barack Obama, he still respected the office, and accepted that as part of a representative democracy he would sometimes be unhappy with the course the head of the state is taking.

“There has been a loss of civility, a loss of dialogue, and a loss of tolerance,” he tells me. Whether the conversations are in person, in the classroom, or over social media, he has seen evidence of many liberals talking as though their policy (both social and economic) is entirely right and there is no room for compromise. If someone disagrees with any of their stances, as is the case with Lagona, they are branded a racist, a homophobe…vilified and labeled “white trash.” Lagona has found that agreeing with any selection of Trump’s ideas means that he will immediately be supposed to believe and support all of the worst of them, whether or not he has displayed any evidence of such a belief. Anger has pervaded all opposing political discussions, to a degree that has not been endured before in recent elections. The problem with this divisive polarization is that it creates anger, oversimplifies both a problem and a solution, and destroys the possibility for constructive civil debate. Both sides do have valid concerns if you cut through all of the showmanship of either the party politics or the campaign rhetoric, and the fact that Trump was elected means that enough people have fears that need to be addressed before we can move forward.

BBC news has a great video describing the process of polarization in America in recent years.

Lagona praised former President Obama’s farewell address, saying that he showed true leadership in focusing on unity and the importance of democracy. He agrees with Obama’s message that we must come together as Americans, all of us, and move forward together. He says that Obama’s humility throughout the speech was admirable, and was the correct way for someone to react to a loss or defeat in a democratic society with a two-party system, where half of the country is experiencing such a defeat every four years. Lagona’s main hope is for unity in the future.

Watch highlights from Obama’s farewell address here. 

“It should not be so important who is a democrat and who is a republican; great leaders put that aside,” he says. Proof of Lagona’s bipartisanship is in his former appreciation for democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, who had been a hero of his in the past. Lagona’s respect for Schumer has diminished in the past months, because he feels that the Senator has fallen into a rut of obstructionist party politics. He is not so upset about the concept of the head of the Democratic Party disagreeing with Trump and doing his best to represent the public’s interest, but he is against a blanket statement of opposition, in which Schumer refuses to consider any of the proposals made by President Trump whether or not they are in the interest of the people. He cites the questioning of Neil Gorsuch as one piece of evidence that Schumer’s work has decreased in effectiveness due to party obligations; the line of questioning was unprofessional and consisted of fluffy and irrational questions for the sake of wasting time. The integrity of the process is lost when one side becomes bent on blocking the other, rather than asking questions and finding solutions.

“Time magazine had a headline recently that read: Do Democrats Really Matter? With a picture of Schumer on the front. Of course, democrats really matter, yes, they do,” Lagona says, He thinks that disagreement and debate are important ways of making sure that the best solution gets put forward, and that the interests of all people are represented. The problem is when people can no longer disagree in a civil manner, when both sides are shouting past each other. Lagona wishes for a greater emphasis on common goals and a common good, which he admits will not necessarily mean “America first,” despite his choice in the election.

He is open to constructive discussion with those of different viewpoints, but the negative reaction of those around him has been exceedingly intense. Friends on social media or that he works with would walk out of the room when they found out who he voted for. Frank says he is not one to post a ton of political banter on his Facebook page, but he would like or comment on things occasionally. He thinks it is important to be able to discuss opposing views, so during on conversation on Facebook with a former student he asked her about her views on abortion and provided a counterargument. Her and her friends instantaneously attacked him on the social media platform. Frank felt there was no room for discussion; they did not want to hear his views, they just wanted to shout him down. He does not know if social media is making the problem of polarization and the difficulties of civil discussion worse, but he says fake news definitely is (while pointing out that fake news is not the mainstream media, as Trump is trying to brand it, but rather the people who blatantly post fabricated stories). He hopes for Americans to be better able to express their views to each other. Sharing views is important, and he sees the left as being extremely intolerant of opposition.

He wants to remind people: we all want healthcare, education for our children and good jobs. Many of the positions he has are more moderate than you would expect if you assumed that people nowadays are on one side of the political spectrum or the other, which has been equated to voting for Trump or not voting for Trump. Instead of realizing that both sides agree on many things and differ simply on priorities which we have disagreed about for centuries, people are talking past each other, and branding the opposition as entirely wrong. Lagona believed that while in office Trump would learn to compromise, to work within the system, and to follow the advice of people who have spent their lives serving in public office like Newt Gingrich. He believed that Vice President Pence and Ivanka Trump would keep him “in line.” He thinks Trump should get off Twitter, and that the media should be slower to crucify him over every little thing. Instead of propagating this unproductive polarization, we have to recognize that we all have similar end goals, no matter what we disagree on, and we have to come together to make the decisions that are best for the country.

Lagona was dissatisfied with Trump’s inauguration speech, but thought that his first speech to Congress back in February was exactly what he wants to see from the president: healing campaign wounds and stressing unity so we can come together and support a safe, prosperous, unified nation. Lagona stresses that Trump has to be the one to show unity and respect. At times, he has not done so, but that is what we need to focus on building as a nation. It is important that both sides of the political spectrum show tolerance for opposition, and that we as citizens remember how to use that opposition to debate in a constructive manner that will allow us to find the best possible solution to satisfy everyone’s needs and concerns.

Watch the highlights of Trump’s speech to Congress here.


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