Whoever wins the presidential election, America will face problems that require solutions with broad support. But the tone of this election will probably make that less likely.
Those on the losing side in November will be tempted to despair and rage. The winning side will feel vindicated, judgmental and tempted to act triumphantly toward the losers. It would be a bad combination.
There will be few moments in our lives that will so clearly call from us calm, compassion and good sense as November 2020.
What do we need to do?
First, let us be wary of our own partisan zeal and recognize that we have been manipulated. An entire industry of politicians and pundits enhance their careers by stoking fear and animosity. And the big social media companies have only magnified the problem by offering “like” and “retweet” buttons — features that garner wealthy corporations huge amounts of valuable data but ensure that partisan sentiments are continually reinforced by partisan rhetoric. From the public discourse you would never guess that most Americans are reasonable and want what’s best for the country. Let’s stop getting played.
Second, we need to separate our attitudes toward candidates from our feelings about their supporters. Our neighbors who support President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden are still our neighbors: They are not the embodiment of those they vote for. We know there are undemocratic extremists in our society. But let’s refuse to believe that 60-some million of our fellow citizens who vote for the opposing candidate are contemptible.
One of us teaches a course on lawyers as peacemakers. The course reviews the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, who persuasively explains why people are so divided on political issues. Haidt has discovered that political values are all linked to five moral foundations. All five have deep evolutionary roots, inspiring behaviors that helped our species flourish, such as caring for children, working together in groups, and avoiding sickness and contamination.
Here’s the conflict: While both liberals and conservatives are strongly motivated by the moral foundations of care and fairness, conservatives tend to give more weight than liberals to the values of loyalty, authority and sanctity. The different areas of emphasis translate into important policy disagreements that need to be worked out in a democracy.
But the larger point is that the political morality of both sides is heartfelt and valuable to our species.
Third, let’s actually do something to get on the side of sanity and civility. Social science makes clear that social relations are more potent than abstract political views. You listen to and try to understand the people you have actual contact with.
One of us is a founder of the Braver Angels project and has seen this happen in hundreds of workshops that bring together “reds” and “blues” for a few hours of respectful dialogue. Generally, people learn that they are more alike in their core values than they had imagined, although they differ on the means to accomplish goals. The same thing happens when we take time to listen to people in our lives who differ politically — listen instead of jumping to contradictions.
These are bad times, and they are likely to get worse. But we have been in deeper trouble before. In his second inaugural address, President Abraham Lincoln said, of a conflict that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive … to bind up the nation’s wounds. … ”
In recognition of how much we need Lincoln’s wisdom now, Braver Angels has developed the With Malice Toward None pledge that expresses one’s commitment to civility and understanding, no matter who wins the election. There is also a letter on holding America together in the event of an electoral crisis.
Committing to the values in these documents would be a good way to enter November. Let us prepare to be our very best selves.
Bruce Peterson is a senior district judge and teaches a class on lawyers as peacemakers at the University of Minnesota Law School. William Doherty is professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota and a founder of Braver Angels.