All this week, we’re highlighting how our fellow Seattleites have reacted to the 2016 election. Yesterday, we introduced you to Matt Kiser, the founder of What the F*ck Just Happened Today. Today, we want to re-introduce you to reader Bo Zhang, who last year pulled together a group of 24 people—12 Hillary Clinton voters and 12 Trump voters from across the country—to talk about American culture and politics over the course of President Trump’s first year in office.
Each month, she gave them a discussion prompt to respond to in a private online group. Her project, Between Americans, is a look at the conversations those folks had over the past year, and what she learned from them. It launched on Wednesday, the anniversary of Trump’s election and we’re stoked to share it with you. We talked with Bo about what she learned from her yearlong journey.
It’s been a year since you first started Between Americans. What was most difficult about getting started?
There were quite a few Trump supporters who thought about [participating] and didn’t feel safe enough. One said my boss hates Trump and I wouldn’t want them to find out who I voted for. Another one, who was from what I would consider a red part of the country, said her church and job industry is very blue. They didn’t want to deal with the social consequences of their vote being known. That was one of the things that made it hard to find 12 Trump voters to participate in the project.
What was challenging about these conversations?
The direction took a different turn than what I was expecting. It became a lot more about how we connect people on the Internet. Yeah, it was political, the content was political, but the politics was a vehicle to reveal why it’s so freaking hard [to talk] and why we’re so polarized.
It was incredible. There were these long periods of silence. Behind the scenes, what was happening was people were writing something, deleting it, holding back for a week. … What that says to me is that we think of the Internet as this democratic place because anyone can post. But the Internet is not representative of us. I think the Internet amplifies certain voices who have no problem stating their opinion or having time to write long, nuanced essays—and that’s not most of us.
What surprised you most?
It surprised me how much people brought up the topic of loneliness or isolation. That made me think of politics in a different way. What occurred to me was that a lot of people seemed to be talking about loss of American community… It really felt like the common theme was loss of connection. It seems like both sides have blinders that they both need to acknowledge… We’re not so much political as just human.
It was also interesting to see the differences between people talking online and on the phone. Over the phone, more vulnerability comes through. You understand the meaning of silence when somebody’s listening or thinking. Whereas on Facebook, you don’t know if silence means someone is ignoring you or thinking or listening. When we’re talking about politics on the phone, we work out [problems] in real-time. [This makes you] realize how much gets lost when you have a political dialogue online.
The diagnosis people make for why Internet conversations spiral into negativity so quickly is incomplete. They say people are nasty because they’re anonymous. But really, the Internet selects people who are more comfortable talking that way. There’s a polish to it. Some people get frustrated that they can’t compress their thoughts so easily.
How do you personally feel about the 2016 election one year later?
It sort of exposed something that was always there that we chose to overlook. It basically comes down to had the election gone a couple percentage points another way, we would’ve thought “Yep, the country’s exactly what we thought it was.” I see the election as a really weird awakening. Almost scarier than the election results was how easy it would’ve been to act like nothing was wrong had the election gone the other way.
I like the analogy of plate tectonics. I think of mid-life crises in the same way. Discomfort builds and you have to reckon with it. You can either put it off or you can deal with it as it comes up. But either way a reckoning has to happen.
It was a giant wake-up call for wisdom.
What’s next for the project?
I’ve specifically chosen to not have a plan for what’s ahead. I’m just interested to see what emerges. You never know when you put something out in the world if you’ll connect to the collective psyche. If so, I’ll figure out where it wants to go and I’ll support that.
What do you hope people get out of this project?
In a strange way, I want it to feel healing, like a cathartic therapy session when you’re confronting a difficult truth. This is a collection of American voices. It’s not a representative collection, but it’s a collection. It becomes clear that when you listen to all 24 of the interviews that there is literally no way all of them could get on the same page. I hope that is a healing truth. I hope we can let go of this idea that everybody needs to believe the same thing, that we can get to a place where no one person can have the complete picture and understand that we all have blind spots. I hope that comes through in their voices.
When we have permission from each other to be imperfect, then that gives us the ability to contribute our unique gifts without being enslaved to what the zeitgeist thinks we should be doing.
Check out Bo’s project here. Know of a project launched by a Seattleite in response to the presidential election? Let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll add it to a list we’ll be sharing out soon.
This story has been shortened and condensed for clarity.