What do you say, what do you do, a week from today if you wake up in the morning and discover that Trump still controls the Senate and the House of Representatives?
What do you do when you see Trump on steroids, calling out the uncontrollable mobs of Democrats, who are “too dangerous to rule,” at his own raucous rallies? Or when he demands that we observe the principle of innocent until proven guilty while the crowd in the background chants “Lock her up, lock her up?” Or when he derides the media as “the enemy of the people,” while telling his supporters he’s going to “act nice,” in a childish tone that lets everyone know that the nice guy moment really is just an act?
What do you do, what do you say? Whatever the outcome on November 6, you might want to consider some deeds and words that you haven’t considered for the last two years or so. At this point whatever you have been doing hasn’t been enough.
I’ve been thinking about how best to affect the public realm. I did a recent column on Princeton Future and realized how some residents could influence their neighborhood, and how the neighborhood could impact the city. Over the summer I reported on the challenges facing Trenton and noted the small steps that could signal that progress is possible. Earlier this year I interviewed an author who urges cities to take a bottom-up approach to such global issues as climate change, arguing that they can take up much of the slack left by a disinterested federal government.
As this midterm election approached, I wondered if a bottom-up approach could help solve the ever-widening political divide, which will only become worse with an impulsive president unchecked by either house of congress and probably not by the judicial branch, as well, judging from the Supreme Court’s current composition.
Literally as I was composing this column, I was visited by an angel, in effect, who had already done a lot of serious thinking on this subject. It was a group called Better Angels, a nationwide nonprofit aimed at defusing the political climate. It was brought to my attention by an active member in Princeton, Marcia Willsie. She has arranged for the founder of the group, David Blankenhorn, to speak at a Princeton University class on Friday, November 9. Willsie is hoping that some public workshops can be arranged in town. We will keep you apprised of that, but meanwhile the time seems right for this column to consider the organization’s views.
First we really are polarized, the polarization is worse than ever, and the causes are too many to be blamed on one side of the divide or the other. The website, www.BetterAngels.org, has a list of contributing factors. Among them:
The end of the Cold War, and the loss of a global enemy to keep us united; the rise of identity-group politics, as opposed to values-based groups; increased religious diversity, including growing secularization; growing racial and ethnic diversity; and the passing of the Greatest Generation, which embodied concern for the general welfare and a shared civic faith.
You could summarize the change in world view by quoting two celebrities from different eras. After the election of John F. Kennedy in 1960, staunch Republican actor John Wayne said, “I didn’t vote for him but he’s my president, and I hope he does a good job.” After the election of Barack Obama in 2008, talk radio’s Rush Limbaugh said “I hope he fails.”
But rather than wring our hands in despair, what can we do or say to change our fortunes, if only a little?
Better Angels draws its name from Abraham Lincoln’s 1861 inaugural address: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory…will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
To elicit the better angels in all of us the organization has developed a set of communication strategies to create a common ground on which people can exchange opposing views with a minimum of rancor. The details include common sense tips from tone setting skills (offering something critical of your own side and something positive about the other side) to listening skills (paraphrasing what you heard the other person say so he knows he was understood) and speaking skills (using “I’m concerned/worried/troubled” expressions rather than definitive “This is what will happen” statements). Better Angels reminds participants that stories “humanize issues and make passionate political people come across as human beings who care.”
Better Angels offers some skills for “difficult moments” — appropriate these days. Stay focused on a topic when the other person jumps around; don’t answer baiting questions — instead, just restate your viewpoint; do not return provocative statements in kind; agree to disagree; and if the conversation reaches an impasse, exit the conversation in a low-key way.
Good advice, needed now more than ever. I would like to add some rhetorical pointers, collected since writing a column shortly after the 2016 election. At that time I advised the people who were in anguish over Trump’s election to stop the whining and get to work to change the political direction. I immediately got a note from a U.S. 1 reader and occasional contributor, who berated me for, yes, whining about the results. He was a hater of Hillary, a Trump supporter as a result of that, and sick and tired of liberal posturing.
So lesson No. 1: Never assume you know someone else’s views. And never assume they know yours.
Another lesson: Let the other side play the “what about” game, and don’t waste your time trying to re-litigate old scandals. But after the other side is done bring the discussion back to the here and now.
Two Princeton faculty members with mostly opposite political views who normally engage in productive dialogue got mired in “what about-ism” during the Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings. Politically and socially conservative professor Robert George tweeted some “what about” comments about one of Bill Clinton’s alleged liaisons:
“Juanita Broaddrick . . . bravely told the story of what Bill Clinton had done to her — and what Hillary Clinton said to her — Dianne Feinstein said . . . ? Dick Durbin said . . . ? Other prominent Democrats said . . . ? When Kathleen Willey stepped forward . . .”
To which Sam Wang, left-leaning neuroscience professor (and savvy aggregator of polls and data that form the basis of the anti-gerrymandering movement), replied:
“When Senator Franken’s accuser stepped forward, Democrats acted. When Harvey Weinstein’s accusers stepped forward, the movie industry acted. Times change…haltingly.”
Which brings us to the lesson of Brett Kavanaugh. Barring proof of criminal action, let’s agree to ignore teenage and even young-adult indiscretions. Even jerks deserve redemption. Once the charges against Kavanaugh couldn’t be corroborated, it was time to move from past to present. Kavanaugh presented plenty during the hearing itself to disqualify himself — lack of empathy for a woman who in her mind had been violated by someone, turning questions back at the questioner, deflecting the conversation to conspiracies and the Clintons, and the overarching disdain for the process, which had clearly become inconvenient for him. Profile of a liar, not a justice.
But all that lack of judicial temperament was lost amid the he said/she said accusations. Too bad.
One more thing to keep in mind when you wake up the morning after the election:
Support your local police. Last Friday night, as news reports were aired about the capture of the “MAGAbomber,” I marveled at all the other home grown terrorists who had been corralled by police in just the previous week. The next day I marveled again when Pittsburgh police halted the carnage and captured the shooter — alive!
Many years ago I listened to the audio tape of President Kennedy confronting Governor George Wallace before Kennedy ordered the National Guard to ensure the entrance of two black students to the University of Alabama. I marveled at the resolve in the president’s voice. Times like that were the reason for a strong federal government. Now, as I witness the words and deeds emanating from the highest reaches of the federal government, I realize that times like these are the reason for fair and effective local law enforcement. Times have changed.
Oh, and vote.