What we’ve learned from the election – no matter who wins 

By Sara del Nido Budish 


Photo by joguldi is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Election Day has come and gone. At this moment, we sit with anxious uncertainty about the outcome in the Presidential race, as key states continue to count the millions of legitimately cast votes that remain. The color-coded maps are ubiquitous but incomplete, the pundits spin out endless speculative scenarios. And we wait.  

But one result is definitely clear, no matter who is ultimately declared the next President:  the election wasn’t a landslide, for either candidate. There is no emerging consensus among voters that aligns with one candidate’s platform, given the overall closeness of the race. And that brings into even sharper focus the need for doing the work of reaching out to our neighbors who don’t share our worldview—as well as the scale of that challenge. 

Would a landslide victory for either candidate have told us something meaningful? It’s hard to say. The side that prevailed perhaps could have looked at the results in that circumstance and found relief in the notion that “most” of the country shares their views. Assuming a broadly shared interest in achieving a better future for oneself and one’s children, a landslide victory in either direction may have supported the notion that Americans are fundamentally on the same page about what that path looks like. It could have suggested that voters are paying attention to the same things when we think about our future leadership—that there is broad overlap in which data we pay attention to that helps us all make up our minds. There might have been clarity, if not actual comfort, in some indication that the narrative about division in America has been overplayed.   

Today, we must accept that these are not the stories told by the Presidential election. Instead, what we are faced with is the stark reality that there is more divergence in the understandings and views of our friends, neighbors, colleagues, and fellow Americans than we might expect or hope. The ideas that seem intuitive and undeniable from our standpoint are matched by different ones that are equally obvious to many others, and for those of us with a strong sense of right and wrong (which is most of us), this is a tough pill to swallow. Our “ladders”—the salient information, interpretations, and ways of making meaning that lead up to our conclusions—are all quite different. Notwithstanding persistent questions about how to define and measure polarization, the election has been a major data point reinforcing that our worldviews are partial.  

An immediate landslide in favor of one of the candidates may have made this reality easier to ignore.* And so where does this leave us, as we pick up the pieces and move beyond the election? As much attention as we rightly gave the Presidential election, that one event is a deeply imperfect barometer of the complex, diverse perspectives of individuals and groups. How do we even begin to think about moving forward, together, in the midst of division?   

Not surprisingly, there are no easy answers. Indeed, this moment presents urgent and fundamental questions for our field, which we can and should grapple with well after the election concludes. But the tools of conflict management offer a few potential starting points to thinking about the work going forward.  

Check in with ourselves. At this moment, the notion of engaging with others who feel differently than we do can feel daunting, overwhelming, or even angering. Engaging externally might not be the first step we want to think about, let alone take, while the dust is still settling from Election Day. If that’s the case, perhaps the most important (and even the most challenging) work is in exploring what is happening for us internally. What emotions are you feeling around the election results, and where are those coming from? When thinking about engaging with others, what would it take for you to be surprised? To let go of a long-held assumption? If genuine curiosity feels impossible to access for you right now, what are the barriers that are in place? What is at stake, for ourselves, in the choice to engage?   

Face and explore differences, even in the midst of common ground. One persistent question I have puzzled over is a variance in approach to conflict work. Is it more helpful to focus on our commonalities, or our differences? Is this a zero-sum choice? To paraphrase one of our podcast guests, “people don’t become friends based on their differences.” There is data consistent with this notion that common ground is there, if we have the will to find it. On the other hand, I am pulled by the core belief in the facilitation context that it is important to “move towards the conflict,” rather than avoiding it, and from this perspective, focusing too much on commonality glosses over the places in which the challenges are greatest and the most learning can occur. I wonder if we can reject this choice. Common ground can live alongside great divergence, and sitting with that cognitive dissonance may be an exercise in itself, and a way to stretch and challenge our assumptions.  

Translate perspectives back from politics. The election necessarily asks us all to translate our complex perspectives into a few answers on a multiple choice form. The casualties of this process, undoubtedly, are the nuances that become invisible when we look at polls or election results. Can this process occur in reverse? What are the ways in which we can engage with one another to liberate our perspectives from their partisan associations? How can we work on the skill of asking questions that reflect curiosity and make space for surprise? How has political polarization impacted our own spheres, and what are the ways in which we can undo whatever flattening of perspectives or relationships has occurred? 

In some ways, this moment of limbo is fitting. In a year when so many of our baseline norms, routines, assumptions, and daily rhythms have been disrupted, and we have had to find new ways to measure the passage of time, maybe it would have felt oddly out of step to have received a final and decisive result on election night. But this period of waiting is an appropriate harbinger of the work that lies ahead. The election results, whenever they come, will not illuminate the path forward. We are already very clearly faced with the messy, daunting, rich challenge of living with difference.   

* This post was edited on November 9, 2020, from the original sentence (“A clear victory by one of the candidates may have made this reality easier to ignore.”), in order to better reflect the sentence’s intended meaning.


Sara del Nido Budish


Sara del Nido Budish is Assistant Director and Clinical Instructor in the Harvard Negotiation and Mediation Clinical Program (HNMCP), and a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School.
Scroll to Top