Ever since Election Day 2016, progressives have been engaged in an increasingly tempestuous internal debate. Faced with a Trump administration, those of us who identify ourselves as “left of center” have been arguing about how we should respond. As the infidels invade the District of Columbia, should we fight or befriend them? Should we denounce them – or dialogue with them? Should we react with condemnation or curiosity?
As the author of a book on “bridging the partisan divide,” I have suddenly found myself in the middle of this internecine war on the left. One magazine took issue with those of us who are working to build bridges to the right. In an article entitled “The Myth of Bipartisanship: It’s time to get tough with the Right,” the progressive reviewer critiqued my book and the dozens of boundary-crossing activists who are profiled in it. He accused all of us of “coddling” the right instead of “condemning” them.
The good news for real progressives is that we are not limited to choosing between “tough” vs. “soft” or “coddling” vs. “condemning.” We are actually free to do neither – or both at the same time.
A self-defeating dichotomy
As anyone trained in mediation or negotiation knows, neither accommodation (soft, coddling) nor domination (tough, condemning) is likely to be successful in the long run. Principled, respectful negotiation cuts through this self-defeating dichotomy and creates other options, including creative problem-solving and, if we succeed, historic progress.
To equate constructive, respectful dialogue with “coddling” reflects a lack of understanding of our progressive history. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi did not disdain dialogue with their “enemy.” On the contrary, all three of them were paragons of constructive conversation. They knew that nonviolent disobedience alone was not enough. Action and confrontation needed to be strategically combined with face-to-face, respectful communication. As King wrote from the Birmingham jail, his goal was not “victory” but “reconciliation.”
Let’s be clear: Gandhi had no illusions about the evils of British imperialism; Mandela was intimately familiar with the tortures of apartheid; and King was no stranger to the policeman’s baton or prison cell. But that did not turn any of them into self-righteous, judgmental haters who condemned their adversaries to eternal damnation. In fact, they often treated the oppressors with more kindness and respect than did their own followers.
Unfortunately, instead of following these true progressive pioneers, many on today’s left are so convinced of their moral superiority that they keep assuming that the 62 million Trump voters are fundamentally flawed. They think judging others is evidence of their own political virtue.
For example, the reviewer of my book first labeled Trump “proto-authoritarian” and then castigated his tens of millions of supporters as being driven by “vicious pathologies.” Not content to attack conservatives, he then goes on to denigrate me as a “privileged pundit” who naively considers politics a “parlor game.” Although he did not call me “deplorable,” his condescension was palpable.
The experience made me understand how many decent Trump supporters feel. When progressives call them racist or sexist or xenophobic simply because of how they voted, they must feel like I did: slimed with toxic stereotypes by someone they have never met.
Instead of this narrow-minded attack mentality, let’s get “tough” the way our colleagues did at Standing Rock. They had the wisdom to know that simply having polite conversations with Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the proposed pipeline, would have been futile. Instead, they assembled thousands of (mostly) nonviolent demonstrators to shine a light on the rights of the Native American tribes and to prevent yet another social and environmental injustice.
But they were also wise enough to know that demonstrations will never resolve complex issues, such as finding the balance between our need for energy and our desire to protect the earth. So they engaged in thoughtful sustained negotiations with the Obama administration and the Army Corps of Engineers and other stakeholders.
The asymmetry of power between the two sides has been exposed and has begun to be rectified. In the future, when representatives of energy companies, environmental advocates, and water protectors sit down together, it may be a far more fruitful dialogue because of – not despite – the courageous nonviolent demonstrators.
Be fierce, but not insulting
In summary, my advice to progressives is: use both hands.
With one hand, draw a line in the sand and make clear where you stand. When the basic human rights of any American are infringed by the new administration, close ranks and don’t flinch. Be fierce without being insulting. Be resolute without being violent.
But with the other hand, reach out with respect and listen to your adversaries. They are not motivated primarily by “vicious pathologies.” Most of them are driven by other much more understandable human qualities ranging from patriotism and pride to ignorance and misinformation to anxiety and despair.
One does not need to be a trained mediator to grasp that the majority of white, rural, non-college-educated men – and yes, women too – voted against the presidential candidate that progressives preferred because they have grievances. Sixty-two million Trump voters had some very real concerns that urban, college-educated liberals need to take more seriously. We progressives will advance our cause more effectively if we take the time to understand their seething grievances and frustrated hopes and then, if we can find the courage, take them to heart.
Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, is the author of “The Reunited States of America: How We Can Bridge the Partisan Divide.”