Immediately after the 2016 presidential election, in the thick doldrums of what for me and many of my friends was a genuine tragedy, I started to talk about empathy. I had been finding it tough to come to terms with the beliefs of some of the people I cared about in my life, but I was at least having conversations with them, trying to understand how they had derived their worldview, and I found the process helpful.
I wanted to have more of those conversations, and I hoped others would too; it seemed like there needed to be a groundswell of empathy in society. I talked to many friends and family about the idea, and got very positive feedback. But that positivity came with an asterisk: it was coming mostly from the progressive-minded people who dominated my social circle.
I was less successful at getting conservatives excited about the idea, and when I joined Better Angels and started to reach out to community members, the pattern continued. Part of this could have been related simply to my own blue leanings. But I also suspected that it had to do with a general reluctance on the part of reds to engage in this sort of dialogue, especially at a time when their political fortunes had seemed to peak with the election of Donald Trump.
Better Angels as an organization initially had a difficult time with red recruitment as well, something that served to reinforce this notion for me. The theory ran that any effort to get reds to the table at a time when they controlled the presidency, Congress and the Supreme Court would be especially difficult, since it wasn’t easy to show what they would have to gain through dialogue with blues.
Recently Better Angels has had more success in conservative recruitment, and in line with these efforts a number of conservatives joined the board of directors. One of them is Hunter Baker, Associate Professor of Political Science at Union University and a prominent conservative thinker. I took the opportunity to talk to Baker to get his perspective on this issue, and it was a bit different.
“Given the realities of American government and the requirement for some kind of bipartisanship to undertake significant change, I’d be surprised if people drew that inference, but perhaps they do,” he said. “If so, it is short sighted.” In Baker’s mind, the issue relates more to reds’ expectations of how they’ll be treated.
“The thing that concerned so many of us was the assertion from some on the left, including the media, that our views are not worthy of respect and therefore deserve no better treatment than the views of Klansmen and segregationists.” This ties in directly with what David Blankenhorn, in a recent column in The American Interest, called “the great liberal sin [of] condescension.” If conservatives expect to come to the table just to have their views called “stupid” or “evil”, what’s the point of showing up at all?
In every Red-Blue Workshop there’s a discussion of stereotypes, and blues often talk about being seen by reds as elitist and condescending. In a workshop that I witnessed late last year in the DC area, the blues had a difficult time coming up with a counter to this stereotype, which gives strength to the conservatives’ misgivings about entering this type of environment.
But I’m not convinced that the notion that these motivations are tied to current political fortunes is entirely wrong. Ironically, it was observing some blue behaviors that reinforced this.
Right now, blue political momentum is on the rise. The Trump administration has suffered more than its fair share of internal conflict, with advisors continuing to exit. The administration is now even sparring with its allies on the Hill, over issues like gun control and tariffs. And in recent months the predictions of Democrats regaining control of one or both houses of Congress have gotten louder.
But in this moment of confidence, there is an emerging battle between the progressive and moderate wings of the party, and it somewhat reflects the debate between outreach to non-blues and simply rallying the base.
I had a relevant experience recently while trying to recruit some blues from a progressive group on Facebook. While many in the conversation were supportive of the idea behind Better Angels, a common refrain was that they were just too busy with the important work of their group, progressive activism as a show of strength and to influence policy.
“I respect what you’re doing,” said one. “Nothing against anyone that wants to do this, but I have no time for mending fences right now.”
One or two of the group members were downright hostile to our mission, believing that supporters of the president were just too far gone to be worth engaging.
One member of the group did mount a strong defense on our behalf, and he agreed to talk to me for this article. Bill Rogers grew up in rural Kansas, in a fundamentalist Christian family that bears little resemblance to his current compatriots in “the resistance movement.” He’d moved to California in 1977, and enjoyed its blue-tinged policies, but the election stung him deeply. He attended a women’s march in Santa Ana, CA, where he met a group of like-minded people and realized there was a way to get involved.
During our discussion with the group, Rogers insisted that the importance of dialogue had proven itself in a variety of historical contexts, and that this moment would prove no different. But even he admitted to difficulty dealing, in some conversations, with what only read to him as objective falsehoods, or statements that seemed to fly in the face of a sacred truth.
“We should be able to have debates about marginal tax rates,” he said, “but we can’t be debating about whether sexual assault is okay.”
And this gets to the heart of one of the major points of discomfort on the left: normalizing. Blues saw any willingness to countenance Trump’s “locker room talk” excuse for his behavior as normalizing the act of sexual assault. Among blue circles, many thought the candidate’s clock had run out when the Access Hollywood bus tape broke, and were flabbergasted when five days later the reds seemed to move on the same way they’d done after his other scandals.
This only added fuel to the blue debate on “normalization,” however. It was already at a fever pitch when Jimmy Fallon had interviewed Trump the month prior, and anger about the friendly treatment afforded the candidate served to single-handedly drop Fallon into second place in the late-night ratings race.
“You have to realize that we noticed how many people on the left objected when Jimmy Fallon tousled Donald Trump’s hair and was criticized for ‘normalizing’ him,” recalled Baker. “In other words, do you mean just treating him like a fellow human being?”
To many blues, disavowing Trump’s sordid behavior is essentially a pre-condition to any conversations about other issues. But this has the potential to set up a dynamic in which reds have already ceded the moral high ground, and it then becomes tough to entice them into a conversation they’re being asked to approach from the bottom of the hill.
Make no mistake, it’s a noble impulse to stand up for a principle that you know in your heart to be right, on either side of the political spectrum. But if taken to the point that it gives both sides an excuse to avoid a productive conversation, it can be self-defeating, since no portion of your message can get through.
I’m reminded of a conversation I was a part of several years ago. My brother and I, both political progressives, were down at a vacation spot in Mexico, talking to a young guy who, like us, had grown up in New York. We were talking about neighborhoods in Brooklyn, and for some reason that I’ll never quite understand, this white man thought it was acceptable to drop the N-word into our conversation. Obviously my brother and I were both offended by it, but we had different reactions. He chose to extricate himself from the conversation immediately, while I decided to stick around and talk about why we didn’t think it was okay to talk like that or hold the attitudes that he had expressed.
I think both of these were valid reactions, and I can level no sincere criticism at my brother for clearly heeding his own emotional needs in that moment. But the conversation that I had with that person definitely made more of an impact than my brother’s exit. Yes, my brother made it clear with his action that what the guy had said was unacceptable in an effective way. But I was given the opportunity to express to him not only why it was unacceptable—which, again, it’s still tough to figure out how he didn’t already know this—but also why I thought it was so harmful to express his sentiment to anyone, regardless of their appearance or background. I sincerely believe this young man came away from the conversation with a different perspective.
So I want to be clear on this point: it is nearly always worthwhile to reach out across the divide. Regardless of sacred principles or political advantage, things will pretty much always get worse when both sides stop listening to one another. It takes hard work to see past the “unforgivable sins” of your rivals. But beyond them is usually just a person who, like you, wants to be heard and understood.