Political civility during the Trump administration

civilityIf one assumes that “divide and conquer” remains the ruling class’s favorite weapon, many leaders must be applauding Donald Trump for having done such a thorough job of polarizing the populace. Trump’s vicious rhetoric has encouraged people across the political spectrum to turn on each other with extraordinary ferocity and contempt. Racist stereotypes abound; study political cartoons of African-American youth or clueless, tubby Joe Six-Pack.

Such blistering attacks not only make it harder to create common ground to better protect ourselves, our families, our nation, and our planet, but also generate so much emotional static that it is difficult to think clearly. For example, blaming the election outcome on the “white working class” is a variant of “white trash baiting.” That analysis conveniently ignores how many middle class and upper middle class whites supported Trump. It also enables some smug liberals to blame the victims.

It is equally misleading to equate an average voter’s beliefs with the most odious members of their Party. Neo-Nazi support for Donald Trump does not make every Trump voter or supporter a fascist. The same applies to viewpoints about religion. Anti-religious atheists like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are intellectual provocateurs, not to be equated with skeptical agnostics who try to pursue a spiritual life of kindness while suspending judgment on such great questions as the possibility of God, science-defying miracles, and life after death.

On the other hand, it is hard to stay polite when so many are so vicious. You become a softy in a harsh world. Outrage is necessary when our nation is acting so recklessly and cruelly. As someone who has long been disgusted by the devolution of our land from a flawed but hopeful, wealthy republic into an anxious, poorly informed herd prodded by billionaires and their hench-people, I have developed guidelines to prevent me from habitually falling into the divide and conquer trap:

Be very wary of political and economic leaders, whatever their purported ideology.

Republicans versus Democrats is often a tribal con. The economic and political elite run both Parties, permitting the citizenry to fight over Culture War crumbs. Be skeptical of any polemic that starts “Republicans are…” or “Liberals think…” Unqualified political analysis is often insultingly overbroad. Madison said that a republican citizenry remains virtuous so long as they never blindly trust their superiors.

Be equally wary of intellectual leaders and media figures, whatever their background.

The priests of power residing in the media, think tanks, and academy are rewarded for developing arguments and slogans that legitimate the status quo. The five major corporations that own most of the mass media constantly regulate the scope of acceptable argument. How often has the New York Times or any other major news source published articles describing NATO expansion and aggression in Eastern Europe?

 Don’t have double standards

A lot of Democrats understandably got very upset because children would be adversely influenced by detailed revelations of Trump’s sexual predations. But where was that disgust among the Democratic elite when Bill Clinton introduced the concept of oral sex to another generation of youngsters? If you supported Trump because you thought Obama was unwilling to enforce the law against corporate criminals and Hillary would be equally pliable, demand that Trump drain the swamp. Many Democrats loved Wikileaks when it exposed Republican war crimes but are outraged now.

Develop sympathy for most followers

Most people aspire to be decent, performing an often-tedious job, helping family members, being with friends, and enjoying some aspects of life. Not everybody who disagrees with you about important political issues suffers from greed, fear, racism, sexism, or false consciousness. Many divisive issues are polarizing because “partial justice” exists on both sides. We need each other to form a supermajority to avoid environmental and/or nuclear catastrophe. Most Americans have been poorly educated. Pervasive advertising helped mold their cultural consciousness, while their schools mandate Test-driven regurgitation of abstract concepts like “division of labor” which have been stripped of history, context, qualification, and critical analysis. These distracting, isolated concepts and facts are worse than useless.

Criticize extremists and avoid trolls

There are always some followers worth criticizing. If someone joins the Ku Klux Klan or any other organization that romanticizes terror and bigotry, they truly are an “enemy.” If a fanatic acts violently, they deserve severe punishment. The white supremacist murderer Dylan Root and the four African-American sadists in Chicago have deeply hurt our society. If you reject the electoral system, as flawed as it is, you need to change your viewpoint.  Do you really think an even more unaccountable political elite would be more responsive to the average person’s needs and interests? Trolls are at best worthless, at worst an emotional drag.

Try to find some common ground with friends and family who are on “the other side.”

This is the most important point, because these people are the emotional center of our private lives. Try to prevent public issues from destroying domestic tranquility. While often failing, I attempt to avoid political discussions with those close to me unless they express quite a bit of interest, don’t want to get into a shouting match, and don’t play intellectual “gotcha.” First, try to find issues you agree on. There should continue to be elections. Domestic political violence is bad. Political dissent must be protected. If they don’t accept these basic democratic principles, there is no reason for further discussion.

Perhaps you can move to more contentious issues. Systemic torture is vile, counterproductive, and a threat to our troops. Americans should not be left to starve to death. Clinton and Trump both have flawed characters. Florida should not go under water. Nuclear war is a bad idea.

If you run into a political bully from either side, politely inform them in private that you prefer to discuss something else. If they continue, point out that they are causing you emotional discomfort even if their motives and intentions were good. You might deter continued harassment by describing how they are not respecting your wishes. If they persevere, calmly exit. You might even wait a couple of minutes, so they won’t get the pleasure of thinking they rattled you. There is no reason to put up with such abuse.  Of course, you may have to do this many times with certain family members.

Preserve patient hope

Some of you may have not been all that interested in politics. It often is a dirty business. Now that you have become involved, you may expect things to change quickly. Good luck with that. Patience is a political as well as a personal virtue. You must maintain hope that we can improve, but you might want to reduce expectations that major advances will happen, much less happen soon.

We can be quite certain that things will get much worse if decent people capitulate. The good news is that the emergence of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders indicates that the neoliberal, imperialist ideological monolith may be cracking up. This is an interesting time. For decades, millions of us could not find a single politician or television program reflecting our viewpoint.   But we should remain wary of all politicians, including Warren and Sanders. Will they join or oppose the Democratic leadership’s promotion of a second Cold War with Russia?

Be kind to yourself and others

It may not seem like much, but smile at people who appear to be on the other side. There are a lot of anxious Muslims and defiant white males walking about. A non-political joke goes a long way. Whenever you encounter an internal wave of misanthropy, despair, or bitterness, don’t lacerate yourself with shame or self-hatred. Otherwise, you turned these recommendations into another debilitating version of “political correctness.” Nobody is perfect. For instance, you may have noticed that I already violated these strictures by castigating “some smug liberals.”

Sadly, both sides have so much fury in common. Perhaps we can address that shared reaction by asking each other “Why?” and then actually listening to the answer with an open heart if not a completely open mind.