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The Next Hill

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Message John Jensen

While Democrats exhale, whisker-thin margins and down-ballot losses in key states indicate a problem: "Wait a second. Weren't we supposed to gain seats in Congress?" Those who looked forward to a vacation need to keep it written on their forehead that over 72 million voted for Trump and Republicans. That he lost while many others advanced invites reflection. What's going on?

About Trump's loss, everything is in the open. Standard reasons explain why people supported or hated him, but for their choice of candidates closer to them, they have their own reasons like family, religion, finances, loyalty, dominance, fears, hopes, and antagonisms. The only common thread we can be sure of is that the reason they settled upon was more important to them than Republicans' multi-decade effort to suppress the vote and, in the functioning of government, to sacrifice a host of values like honesty, trust, fairness, justice, respect, and cooperation. This prioritizing of values was not just a casual, momentary impulse but had to be sustained across at least four years, which makes it likely that, if people caused damage before and shrugged it off, they will continue to do so..

This thinking is broken, begging us to reframe our own problem. Mass appeals clearly do not work, so that if we really want to move people, we have to seek them out one by one. Democrats need a plan with a reasonable chance of success. Millions of them need to apply it together, and not just a few activists or the campaign-focused. If we are the closest person to a particular Republican, it falls to us to reach them.

The first thing we need to do is change our attitude. David Brooks pointed out several years ago that, "We only learn from people we love." Unless others like us, they will not learn from us. Loving the source of our knowledge, those emotions infuse our thoughts so that just thinking about what we are learning returns us to good feelings. Our love for this person sustains us in a field of warmth and safety as we consider their ideas.

This phenomenon works also in reverse. Ill feelings we direct toward another infuses our ideas with--wait for it--ill feelings. Our attitude toward them teaches them the exact opposite of our intent. We blame them for this outcome because they are so terrible, but they cannot draw a positive idea from us if we make ourselves unlikeable. Conversing with someone who believes differently, the sum total of our exchange must tell them, "That was a good experience." They must have liked us at least a little, and the liking enabled the two of us to build ideas together. With that framework for the experience, here are stages to work through:

  • Begin with interest in the person. Like deciding what we will select from a smorgasbord, we begin by "taking" something deliberately; we "take" an interest in the individual. We can decide, as usual, to be adversaries if we wish. But with a basic choice of stance, we decide to occupy our mind with this person.
  • Be curious and respectful. These are important conditions. Once admitting that we really do not know how this person configures their mind, we easily shift to curiosity; how do they do that? We determine to find out and understand it as best we can. In doing so, we maintain respect for them as humans, that they carry their personal load of the struggles and confusions of human existence, and we focus especially on anything we can admire about them.
  • Ask questions. Interest, curiosity, and respect enable us naturally to inquire about their life, views, opinions, experiences, and formative influences. Their life history has shaped them, so that understanding it enables us to connect with them in the best way. Respectful questioning might occupy the majority of our exchange. This step fills our own mind with understanding and does not "put them on the spot."
  • Find common ground. The more commonality people discover, the safer they feel with each other. Hearing about family, children, job, health, leisure, travel, interests, education, etc., we note elements that intersect with our own life, and look for words and cues that they are accepting connection with us.
  • Open standard American values. Finding personal common ground, we broaden it to values expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity, do hereby establish the Constitution of the United States." We invite them to weigh each separate phrase with us; its meaning, alternate emphases, and what together we might regard as its optimal application.
  • Discuss which political party could best accomplish the changes. Our person has accepted the interest and understanding we offer them, and now we wish to penetrate to the core that divides us. As we listen carefully, we enable them to probe their own values, decisions, emotions, and priorities that led them to support Republicans; then weigh these points in view of our agreements about the founding principles of the nation.

While these steps might occur in a single long conversation, they can be pursued across time for weeks and months.

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John Jensen is a clinical psychologist, former Catholic priest, and author of We Need a Movement: Four Problems to Solve to Restore Rational Government (2017) and Civilizing America in a Post-Trump Era (2020).
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