Three steps for more civil political debate in the Trump era
Following Donald J. Trump’s surprise election as president, there seemed to be a nascent desire among many Americans to better understand people on the other side of the political divide. Reporters were deployed to Middle America to discover what motivated voters to vote the way they did. Even the liberal comedian Jon Stewart, known for his cynical sense of humor, preached empathy and mutual respect.
Last spring, as I began to travel the country for Trump’s America, a four-year reporting project that takes the pulse of voters in eight counties that were pivotal to Trump’s election, I felt a glimmer of hope that after the most turbulent presidential campaign in recent memory, Americans were ready to engage with one another to unite the country.
I am no longer as hopeful. I am finding more and more people who say they have fallen out with friends and family members over politics and have simply stopped trying to understand those with whom they disagree. Many have retreated to their ideological bubbles, in terms of both the media they consume and the people with whom they associate.
Many have retreated to their ideological bubbles, in terms of both the media they consume and the people with whom they associate.
During a recent trip to a rural area in northeastern Iowa, I met a university professor who said he uses President Trump as a filter when deciding whether or not to befriend someone. “If I don’t know you and you come out with that Trump sh—, I really don’t want to get to know you,” he said.
I also spoke with a conservative couple and their progressive neighbor who separately told me they had fallen out over some politically charged Facebook posts.
Another woman became emotional while recalling how political conversations with a group of longtime female friends at her country club had become extremely tense. The tension sometimes erupted into outright hostility rooted in her exasperation over her friends’ unflinching support for Mr. Trump.
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These anecdotes seem to reveal a larger trend. As the headline of a recent USA Today poll put it, “On Trump, we can’t even agree on why we disagree, and we assume the worst.”
People are purging their friend groups of anyone outside their political tribe. Trump administration officials are being refused service or harassed at restaurants. And I have noticed more opinion pieces like a recent one in the Jewish magazine The Forward titled, “No, we don’t have to be friends with Trump supporters,” whose author argued, “When they go low, stomp them on the head.”
The media deserves much of the blame for our deep political divides. Just as politicians win votes by stirring up their base voters, many media outlets play to their core audiences’ sense of outrage. Then there is social media, which has a special power to bring out the worst in people.
Many media outlets play to their core audiences’ sense of outrage. Then there is social media, which has a special power to bring out the worst in people.
This leads me to three ways we can start to engage again and move forward to a more civil political discussion.
First, spend less time discussing politics on social media. It is much easier to have civil, respectful conversations when we are speaking in person, not through the anonymity of social media.
Second, make sure you are engaging for the right reasons. Are you offended by your liberal friend’s belief that Mr. Trump is a racist simply because you do not want to grapple with what that might say about you? Are you challenging your friend’s support for Mr. Trump’s immigration policies because you wish to understand that person’s view or because you want to prove that your friend is a “deplorable” person? If it is the former, your task is easy. It requires only that you ask fair questions and listen, and then listen some more.
Third, embrace the struggle between what may first seem to be competing truths. I am not talking about “alternative facts.” I mean allow for nuance in assessing the merits of a policy or a president. It means recognizing, for instance, that Mr. Trump is a narcissistic bully while also acknowledging that he has done some things right. Or it could mean believing that Barack Obama was a flawed president without also embracing the myth that he is a Muslim or was born in Kenya. I use that example because it is exactly the argument I heard from a former Obama voter turned Trump supporter. For her, rejecting Mr. Obama meant entertaining the worst slurs made against him.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
When it comes to our political discussions, what we have right now is a dysfunctional nation. Our political tribalism is making us stupid and ruining our relationships. The remedy is not only to engage our political opponents but to do so with humility, patience and a real desire to understand.