There’s a disconnect in the United States: Donald Trump was the least-liked candidate in U.S. history and 62 percent of voters view him as unqualified. Regardless of all of this, Trump won. The shock Democrats — including myself — feel comes from not knowing, not talking to and not listening to people with opinions different from theirs. If we can’t understand where the other side comes from, we can’t push forward as a united country — we’ll just polarize ourselves even more. We are stronger together as a country, and we can’t work together without understanding what happened last week. We have to listen to each other.

This starts by not writing off Trump supporters as racist, for this, in part, creates a culture of non-discussion, one that creates political echo chambers, selectively diminishes facts and promotes anti-intellectualism. Believe it or not, voters do not like being called racist and sexist, and whether or not there are aspects of that in a vote, conversation breaks down as soon as those labels are thrown around. This is the exact atmosphere that allows a candidate like Donald Trump to ascend to the presidency. The “silent majority” that emerged is strikingly reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s. The social progress of the 1960s created a hostile environment for dissenting opinions, in a similar way the past decade has suppressed opposing positions in the name of political correctness. We saw last week, like back in the ’60s, dissenters shrunk from the public eye because they were afraid of being labeled, only to voice their concerns at the ballot box. 

Simply put, by not engaging with but simply writing off half the country, we lose the ability to persuade and communicate. There will be friends and family members who you cannot get through to, whose beliefs are centered along racial and gender lines. There is no doubt that race played an incredibly important role in this election, and xenophobic and anti-change forces fueled a lot of Trump supporters. At the least, many supporters simply ignored these tendencies because they did not directly affect them. But I believe this is not indicative of many Trump supporters, many of whom voted for the Democratic candidate in past years.

The consequences are dire, and we must reach out to the rest of the country now. The Democratic Party finds itself in dark days. After failing to capitalize on vulnerabilities, the Senate remains Republican, and based on who is up for re-election, 2018 could be even worse. For 18 of the last 22 years, the Republican Party has held the House of Representatives, and that doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon. Democrats have only 16 governors in charge of state politics, as Republicans inch toward their 1922 record of 34 governorships. Republicans will have control of at least 68 of 99 state legislative chambers across the country, an all-time record. To top all of that off, Democrats have lost the White House to none other than Donald Trump.

The Democratic Party has to revamp itself. To engage voters, to shed the elitist label and to reach out to the people who no longer associate the party with populism, the party must become the grassroots army it has the potential to be. There are two steps to this: shaking up the status quo leaders of the party, and generating the excitement and passion that creates a movement. Not only will the party be able to reach more of the country, but it will help the plague of non-voting and down-ballot defeats Democrats have suffered through for decades.

One of the first fights in this direction will be over the Democratic National Committee chair. The DNC chair is a position that sets the tone for the entire party, in charge of fundraising and organizing. The leading candidate is currently Keith Ellison, a representative from Minnesota, a Black male who was the first Muslim member of Congress. I have qualms about his selection, primarily because he’s a member of Congress. As such I fear Ellison would not be able to dedicate enough time to the job and that his history with Muslim groups could make him a target for controversy, whether such controversies would be well-founded or not. Aside from this, he has a view toward progressive organizing that could be exactly the change the Democratic Party needs, having been endorsed by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Ellison knew well enough to warn Democrats that Trump could win, when they just laughed at him. He pushed the Sanders candidacy, and following the election, he immediately tweeted out: “Don’t mourn, organize. And keep organizing. And don’t stop.” This weekend he went on ABC and reiterated his belief that we must focus on everyday Americans and a grassroots effort down to the precinct level, rather than a focus on big-money donors. His history of exciting his base in Minnesota and impressively high fundraising from low-money donors shows he can do it. His progressive platform, history of organizing from the bottom up and ability to shake up the DNC make him the most viable candidate to indicate he’s running. Now, with endorsements from establishment guys Chuck Schumer, now the Senate minority leader, and former minority leader Harry Reid, he can bring both flanks of the party together to advance a more collective mission. 

The first step to recovery is an overhaul in leadership and strategy, and the second step comes from the people. To those who lost, to those who feel anger about the person we just gave the type of power that few have had before — it’s time to start working. This is our political system, this is our country, and if you want to make change in our system and in the hearts of Americans then don’t just talk about it, do something about it.

“You’ve got to get in the arena with her,” Obama said of Clinton at the Democratic National Convention. “Because democracy isn’t a spectator sport.” Feel sad, feel angry — but use it as fuel and go out and fight for the change you want to see.

CJ Mayer can be reached at mayercj@umich.edu.

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