We must see those who disagree with us not as “un-American”, not as “traitors”; but as people who disagree with us in good faith, even if we feel they’re very misguided.

Following the deadly attack on a Pittsburg synagogue, President Trump did something rather unprecedented, for him.  He spoke as a unifying leader of the nation, rather than as the voice of a movement.

“The language of moral condemnation and destructive routine, these are arguments and disagreements that have to stop. Those engaged in the political arena must stop treating political opponents as being morally defective.” – President Trump

Trump’s usual demeanor, contrasted to this exceptional behavior; is symptomatic of what is tearing apart the soul of America.  We’ve reached a crisis in American pluralism.

For much of our nation’s history, democracy has functioned by having various competing interests and groups of people having a voice in the policy-making process. Nobody gets everything they want, but everybody gets something.

When American democracy is healthy, we see each other as “loyal opposition.”  This kind of civility was strong during the Reagan era when Republican hero Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neal were able to strongly disagree on policy, yet compromise.  They often poked fun at each other. They did negotiate hard. But they saw each other as fellow Americans. Reagan often described Democrats as “our liberal friends”. 

The Rise of Hate

Some trace the severe incivility in our current political climate to Newt Gingrich.  During the 1990s, with the rise of right-wing talk radio, we did see a more combative attitude from the “right” than we saw from Reagan in the 80s.  At this time, Newt Gingrich reached the height of his political career as Speaker of the House and faced several show-downs with President Bill Clinton.  However, they were able to compromise, eventually, and implement policies, such as the Welfare Reform Act, and four years of budget surpluses.

The rhetoric became increasingly hostile, however.  As Bush became President following the disastrous Florida 2000 election, a louder and angrier voice emerged from the left. There was plenty of “not my President” and “Bush stole the election” going around. Then came the 9/11 attacks, and it got worse.  Bush tried to speak as a unifier, even standing up for Islamic Americans. He repeatedly described Islam as “a religion of peace.”

Then came Obama. Obama, likewise, tried to speak as a unifier.  The anger from the “right” was about to boil over, however. I remember seeing a reporter on the news interviewing ordinary people in a very red district in Texas. When the lady was asked what Obama could do to make her happy, her response was “resign.”

This is where we are now.  We no longer see the whole of the American people as “the people.”  I’ve noticed now that when someone says “the people”, what they mean is “people who think the way I do.”

As a new class starts that I’m teaching, I’m seeing this from some of my students also.  Most of them are just coming of voting age, so it’s hard for them to ever remember a more civil political culture. We just had a discussion on pluralism; it’s very early in the semester, and I’m hoping I can get the message across to my students that “the people” are actually very divided, and are made up of many smaller groups.  

There is no unified will called “the people”.  But if you ask the average Trump supporter whether Trump represents “the people”, they’ll predictably respond with a resounding “YES!”.  Ask the average Trump opponent, and you know how that goes. But they’re both wrong. Trump represents about 35-45% of “the people”. But whatever group you are in, chances are, you see those in your group as “the people”, and you see competing groups as “the other”.  

We need to embrace “the other”

Whenever “the other” gains the upper hand in our pluralistic system, we don’t see it as a mere election loss.  Susan Page with USA Today reveals the terrible, divisive truth.  It’s seen in the headline and throughout the article, “Both sides warm the future of our democracy is at risk.”  Page does an excellent job of detailing this mindset that dominates our political landscape today. What it all boils down to is that we don’t see each other as “fellow Americans who disagree” anymore.  We now see each other as exactly that, the “other”.

In 2011, Parker Palmer wrote an excellent book that is even more relevant in 2018 than it was then.  “Healing the Heart of Democracy” was in some ways a personal book for him, but in other ways a rather objective look at the political climate in America.  He describes our democracy as a “broken heart”. Broken hearts can lead to growth, or they can lead to toxicity. The motivation for Palmer’s book is to encourage growth.  For that, probably the most crucial component of this is to embrace “the other”, to find value in “otherness”.

Palmer discusses everything from dissenting points of view to alternative facts.  I discussed this book in a small group. This group of people, their politics on average were left-leaning.  But I was pleasantly surprised to see how many of them, instead of immediately chastising Trump voters; realized that Trump voters ARE “the other,” to them.  This group of people began to remove the beam from their own eyes before they would remove the thorn from their brother’s. Whatever happens in these midterm elections 2018, we need to heal the heart of American Democracy.  

Humility

A good start is to get back to the thinking of Reagan and O’Neal.  

We must see those who disagree with us not as “un-American”, not as “traitors”; but as people who disagree with us in good faith, even if we feel they’re very misguided.

The next step is to hear them.  If nothing else, if you understand where “the other” is coming from, you can hope to persuade them to your side.  You aren’t going to convince a rank-in-file Republican to care about the environment by hugging a tree and wearing tie-dye.  But what if you speak of responsibility? What if you speak of conserving, and protecting, what’s ours? That’s their language!

But I implore you to go further.  Consider for a moment the possibility that “the other” might know something you don’t.  Don’t just hear them in the hopes of persuading them to your side. Actually be open to the possibility that you can learn from them.  If you learn from them, they might also learn from you. But it all has to start, by stopping the hate.

Read Also:

Stop The Hate: Elections 2016

Will 2018 Be A Conventional Midterm For An Unconventional President?

Copy Of The Letter Trump Sent To Paul Ryan

Richard Wagner

Richard Wagner is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at Florida State College at Jacksonville. He conducts independent study on the American conservative movement and foreign policy. When he is...