Sure, it feels like this Presidential election isn’t about issues and is instead a barrage of insults, anger and ugly revelations. But as anyone who has ever been in a romantic relationship can attest, a barrage of insults, anger and ugly revelations is how you know you’re talking about issues. When you’re having a calm, rational discussion, one person is talking and the other is thinking about what there is in the house to eat.
Past presidential elections have focused on issues like how to structure the income tax, which I don’t know the answer to, since I’m not an economist. Or what the best health care system is, which I don’t know because I don’t even know what someone who studies health care is called. Or how to handle Vladimir Putin, which I don’t know because I am not a former rhythmic gymnast. But this time we’re addressing core issues that divide us: racism, sexual assault, Islamophobia, immigration, elitism, anti-Semitism, authoritarianism and whether to require drug tests before political debates.
The historian Douglas Brinkley, to my surprise, agreed that this election cycle was more substantive than others. “This has been a hellbroth of stew that’s been tacky and tawdry, but the reason a lot is coming out is because we’ve been avoiding the big conversations,” he said when I called to talk about the election. Now, he said, we’re discussing what our culture should be like, how unfiltered we want to be, if we want to engage other countries and whether our institutions are trustworthy. I asked Brinkley when the last presidential election was where we had such a blunt discussion. “Before the Civil War, everyone was trying to make compromises on slavery and not talk about it. When Lincoln was elected, all the issues came to a head,” he said. Then we began the healing process of airing our disagreements, and 2.5% of the population was killed.
Brinkley and I both thought this election has done a lot of good for minorities, women and immigrants by making their plights more obvious. The only hole in my argument was that I had confirmed my theory with a white dude. So I cautiously ran my thesis by Representative Keith Ellison, who is black and the first Muslim elected to Congress. But he totally agreed. “This is about who is included in our nation,” said Ellison, a Democrat from Minnesota. “There’s got to be a reason why no matter what Trump does, he doesn’t lose support.” He argued that because non-college-educated white men are losing power, they have no faith in government, corporations or the media, which they see as dismantling white European culture. Although, based on this, it is weird that they aren’t huge supporters of U.S. symphonies.
Emily May, who co-founded the anti-sexual-harassment campaign Hollaback!, also thought I had a point. She explained that one strategy in social change is polarization, where you create heated moments that force people to choose a side. “This election has created a lot of those moments,” she said. “The good thing is that, for the most part, people have jumped off the fence and into the direction of progress.” Others have jumped off the fence toward progress and condemned anti-progress while still officially endorsing it.
Unfortunately, May then brought up a flaw in my thesis. The election, she said, has mobilized and empowered white supremacists and misogynists. Women and minorities have told her they feel less safe now, she said, adding, “What we’re seeing is a massive cultural campaign to say, ‘Look, it’s fine that we talk like this. It’s even fine that we touch women like this.’ The fear is that it seeds that machine. It’s not like all of a sudden everyone is going to turn into a rapist, but it bumps everyone up that chain.” Talking to Brinkley about Civil War casualties was much more soothing.
Still, even if we don’t know the results of these disagreements, May agreed that we were finally discussing issues that are important. “You can’t win these major social battles without having a massive public conversation and having people say and do things deeply hurtful to others,” she said. “It’s good that we aren’t keeping all this stuff below the surface. But it is hard.” Then she had to go to the airport to pick up her dad, who was visiting. He’s voting for Trump, and she’s not talking to him about it. Although she might not have a choice if he reads this. It’ll be good for them.
This appears in the October 31, 2016 issue of TIME.
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