The year was 2009, and it was fall in west Texas when a hotdog changed my entire perspective on life.
My kids and I had been attending one of those Army events that people refer to as “mandatory fun”, the ones where the commander shows up in cargo shorts with his impeccably dressed wife and children, and talks about making memories, the kids run themselves tired on the playground, officers and enlisted play football against each other, and everyone pretends the imminent deployment orders don’t exist. So there I was, minding my own business on the sidelines of that football game when my eyes wandered to the left, and I saw it. Someone I sort of knew was giving their son, who couldn’t have been two years old, a hotdog. I was instantly horrified. The choking hazard! The nitrates! What part of what animal is that even made of?! Who eats that?!
When I got home, I did what any judgmental internet mommy would do, and I hammered out the rant to end all rants about “people feeding their kids garbage”, on a message board whose focus was cloth diapering, babywearing, and breastfeeding. The final sentence of that rant was, “What planet are these imbeciles from that it’s ok to feed small children a hotdog?” I hit “post”, and sat back as smug as a South Park resident who just bought a Prius, waiting for my vindication. I was absolutely certain everyone on that site would see this my way. I was dead wrong.
The comments were about 90%, “Well, I feed my kids hotdogs. What’s wrong with that?” and “You really need to chill and stop judging other people’s food choices.” Apparently, to the vast majority of people, hotdogs are a pretty valid food choice at nearly any age. Having never eaten one in my entire life because my parents raised me to believe that processed meats are disgusting and never to be consumed, I had no idea that most people actually kind of like them. What’s more, a lot of those people cannot imagine why I would eat something like tofu. To them, it’s nasty! After the knee jerk cognitive dissonance wore off, I had to recalibrate my thought process. What if it’s all just food?
I have still never eaten a hotdog, nor have I fed one to my children, but the lesson I learned from the hotdog incident has stuck with me. We all come to situations thinking our life experience is the default setting, that we’re the normal ones. Some people do this to a greater extent than others, but we all do it to some extent. When we are conscious of this fact, we can adjust our actions and reactions accordingly, and things can be very different than they are.
Consider that all of us are working with an extremely biased sample. Ask ten people to finish the sentence, “Everyone I know thinks…” and you’re going to learn a lot about what kind of people they surround themselves with, where they come from, and what influences them. The real eye-opening part of this exercise is that there is actually no right or wrong answer. It’s all perspective.
I may say, “Everyone I know thinks Bernie Sanders would have made a great president.”
Another person might say, “Everyone I know thinks that socialism is a way to subjugate the people.”
This is where division happens. We’re a tribal species, and we all think our tribe is the normal one because it’s the one we know best. If we had been born into different circumstances, a different tribe, we would think something else was the normal way. It’s also part of how we end up with surprising outcomes, the sort of thing 2016 seemed full of. Follow me on the Bernie example.
What if I told you that a huge reason Bernie didn’t win the primary is because people like me didn’t show up to vote for him (I voted for him, but most of my generation didn’t show up), and that a huge part of the reason for that is because, according to us, everyone we knew was voting for him? The algorithms on social media that intentionally create echo chambers contribute to this phenomenon as well, but the fact is, a lot of us were in a situation where we didn’t really know anybody who wasn’t voting for Bernie. This made going to the polls seem a lot less urgent than it really was, so a lot of people simply didn’t. If we had been conscious of the fact that our tribe where everybody was voting for Bernie was actually not a resounding majority of the population, this probably would have changed attitudes toward voting quite substantially, and maybe we’d be talking about President Sanders right now.
You can even extend Hillary Clinton’s loss in November to the same sort of mentality. In other words, we didn’t learn our lesson. Sure, Hillary wasn’t many people’s dream candidate. She wasn’t mine either. When a Democratic Socialist was an option, it’s hard to look with favor upon a mainstream Democrat, even for someone like myself, who has voted for countless mainstream Democrats prior to 2016. Even so, everyone I knew thought Clinton would mop the floor with Trump. Even Nate Silver, whose analytics are usually on point, had her winning by a wide margin going into Election Day. “Everyone we knew was going to hold their nose and vote for her.” Or “Everyone we knew wore pants suits and said #ImWithHer.” Depending who we ask. The problem is, of course, that even people who are generally fantastic at analytics totally underestimated the limited scope of “everyone we know”. Voter turnout was horrible. I don’t think that would have been the case if we hadn’t thought, and even been fed by the media, that everyone was already voting for her.
The lesson here is, always show up. If you believe in someone who’s running for office, show up for them even if you think everyone else in town is going to vote for them and your vote won’t matter. If 2016 taught us anything, it is the lesson of the hotdog. We may not be part of the majority we think we are. Vote as if your preferred outcome has a chance, but that every vote is important to fulfilling it.
So why doesn’t this apply equally to the other side? Why do they seem to show up in droves no matter what? I think the explanation lies in neuroscience. Studies have shown that conservatives have an enlarged amygdala compared to liberals. The amygdala is the part of the brain that manages the fight or flight response, and all things fear. To put it simply, conservatives are scared. Of what? That depends who you ask and what everyone they know has observed going on in the world that is concerning, and frankly, the details are really not important in this context. The important part is that that fear stemming from their large and active amygdala, propels them to show up for every election. Large turnout favors the most liberal candidate. Low turnout favors the most conservative. This means we have to count on the fact that most of the conservatives will show up.
We have to counterweight that by appealing to liberal logic. There are more of us. That’s not just what everyone I know says. That’s what polls show. We could elect candidates who will truly serve the people to every elected office. We can’t do it if we don’t show up, though. Everyone you know may be voting for the good guys, everyone I know may be, too. Let’s all remember we don’t know many people, relatively speaking, and show up in November. They’ll be there. It’s on us to determine how much influence they’ll have.