Imagination and the 2016 Elections

Original image located at

Original image located at

We often think of imagination as this activity we encourage children to practice. Or we might think that imagination belongs to creative people. Little credence is given to the idea that imagination plays a significant role in our social structures, from governance practices to economic polices and everything in between. Yet, for some reason marketers around the globe, as well as PR people in corporate and public offices, know that with the right message–verbal or visual–one can capture the imagination of millions of people and wield it into a powerful force. The 2016 presidential elections reveal something about this phenomenon.

How? You ask. What does imagination have to do with a Trump 2016 presidential victory? Everything. Consider the market numbers across the globe immediately after Trump’s victory. Why did they plummet? Share holders began to imagine a world based on a Trump Presidency. Despite the fact that Trump won’t be president for another two months, his election hasn’t kept shareholders from imagining the worst right now.

Not convinced? How about something closer to home, say, your knowledge of your neighbors’ lives. What do you know about your neighbors? Let’s say you talk to them, even invite them over to dinner. You learn something about their professions, where they send their kids to school, maybe had a chance to meet the parents and grandparents. Armed with this information (which by the way is very little) you feel you know your neighbors. You’ve created a picture about them, but not a picture full of holes, no, you’ve got a comfortably whole picture. Why? Do you really know them? Most likely you don’t. You have probably imagined much about what you know about them. Your brain has filled in the gaps.

Research has shown how our brain fills in gaps for us. We know that our brain enables optical illusions by filling in gaps of information. Why would our imagination be any different? Of course, it isn’t. Scientists have shown that similar brain activity occurs when we perceive with our eyes as when we imagine within our minds (without seeing).

Still not convinced? Fine, I get that. Let’s try a simple experiment. Trump has just won the 2016 presidential election. What do you think his presidency will mean for the nation? Can you see the future nation under Trump? What does it look like? What does it feel like? Take a moment to explore this.

Wether you voted for him or not, I am willing to bet that you have already, even before my prompt, imagined what the nation might look and feel like under Trump. Yet, you have not traveled to the future. You don’t know much about the majority of senators and representatives who have just won offices in Congress. You don’t know anything about the leaders he will choose to run his cabinet, or to run major federal directorships. In fact, you don’t have any concrete information whatsoever, but you know, oh you just know, what Americans are in for, don’t you?

Truth is you don’t know, not really, or at the very least, not fully. Your imagination has given you a vision, a snapshot, and idea of what might be expected. This same scenario has played out in millions of individuals across this country during the 2016 elections, and I believe that the inability of both the DNC and the RNC to create an inspirational vision for the future enabled Trump’s campaign to capture the fear and anxiety based elements of people’s imagination.

Let’s face it, not many individuals will do their due diligence as voters and dive into bi-partisan explorations of issues and candidate qualifications and platforms. The majority of the public has never relied on critical research to help fill in the gaps of missing information needed to make a sound voting decision. As much as we would like to believe that we do this, sadly no. It’s not true. We vote, most of us, with limited information, relying largely on how our imagination fills in the gaps left by  the information we receive.

In the 2016 elections the only counter to Trump’s fear and anxiety-based campaign, which sparked a strong sense of doom and gloom in the imagination of millions of people tired of status quo politics, would have been, could have been an equally strong hope and inspire-based campaign capable of sparking a bright future in the imagination of millions.

Of course, many believe (and I am one of them) that Bernie Sanders sparked this type of imagined future in many people. Hillary simply didn’t. In fact, I would argue that Hillary never inspired the public, making her an easy target to tactics that created an imagined world in which things would be worse under her. Sanders galvanized people. Why? I believe because people could imagine a world under his leadership in which hatred, bigotry, exclusion and more could be eroded, if not eliminated. Hillary didn’t spark such hope. She offered little inspiration.

Between imagining a Trump presidency that would shake up the status quo (despite his inflammatory commentary) and a Clinton presidency filled with status quo insiders helping themselves, people chose the former. Had their imagination been given the opportunity to envision the type of change and hope that even Trump supporters yearn for, the results of the 2016 elections may have been different. Let’s hope that both the RNC and DNC find a way to build a hope and inspired-filled vision we can all imagine and vote for in 2020. In the meantime, perhaps we, the people, should work across partisan lines to help them build such a vision.

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