Like many Americans, I have been lost in a swirl of emotion, confusion, shock and dread since 3am on November 9th, 2016, when Donald J. Trump was deemed the President-Elect of the United States of America. Let me repeat that: The United States of America. Trump won by winning the Electoral College vote 290-232 but lost the popular vote by over a million ballots.
It is in this context that I today serve as the Director of the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University. I have devoted my career to finding new and better ways to help people address, manage and resolve their most important and contentious differences. Trump’s pending Presidency and its association with campaign rhetoric rife with racism, sexism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism and authoritarianism presents our work with a sea of daunting challenges. In response, many of my students have begun to question the relevance of constructive conflict engagement during such times. But there is much work to do to help our citizens a) resist our more destructive and divisive tendencies; while b) building bridges that can help rectify our deep structural, cultural and moral divides; in order to c) work together more effectively to address the many critical problems we face nationally and globally. This work is filled with traps and contradictions, but can be managed if we work strategically, adaptively and persistently.
For those of us still traumatized by, or feeling particularly vulnerable in, this emerging political reality – please allow yourself time to recover. But when you feel ready to get back to work, here is a nine-point strategy to help guide your efforts.
1. Clarify your Aspirations. What are your intentions? In times like these it becomes crucial to reflect on our aspirations for our country and for our work. I take our American motto, E Pluribus Unum, seriously. It is the Aristotelian ideal, the essence of democracy, of creating unity out of our diversity. It is often a struggle, and goes against our baser instincts to move away from or against people different from us, but it is an idea and an ideal well worth the effort as it is a primary source of our strength as a nation. Our differences are a wellspring of energy and innovation, especially when they conflict, if we can see past them to our shared concerns and interests. Nelson Mandela held strong to his vision of a more just multicultural South Africa through decades of oppression, violence and imprisonment during Apartheid. This vision, combined with a particularly adaptive form of leadership and striving, proved unstoppable. If Mandela could persevere for justice and tolerance under almost fifty years of Apartheid, surely we can navigate four years of a potentially regressive administration in service of a similar vision.
2. Clarify your Bottom Line. Today, there are many issues at stake that will likely be challenged by new policies, laws and executive actions proposed or implemented by the new administration. Climate change, women’s rights, voting rights, immigration reform, affordable healthcare and financial and banking regulations are just few. There are likely to be some aspects of some of these issues that are negotiable, such as the need to reform inefficient components of the Affordable Care Act. We should work with this new government to renegotiate these. However, there will be other issues that we will need to simply stand and fight for, and we should be clear on these. Now more than ever we need to track dependable sources of news and information and be on the lookout for those actions and issues that are, to us, non-negotiable.
3. Get Prepared to Stand Effectively. Our rights to freedom of speech and assembly are granted us by the U.S. Constitution and represent the core of non-violent resistance. But they need to be exercised if they are to have any real utility for our nation. However such actions can be costly and ineffective, especially when they are employed piecemeal as tactics. In order to stand up effectively, knowledge and training in the strategies of non-violent civil disobedience employed by the likes of Gandhi, King and countless other activists are paramount. Like Mandela, these activists had a long game vision, and employed tactics of non-violence adaptively and artfully in service their broader strategy. Fortunately, Saul Alinsky, Gene Sharp, Rinku Sen and others have spent decades documenting effective strategies of non-violent resistance. Here are 198 different non-violent tactics offered by Gene Sharpe.
4. Actively Support and Defend those Most at Risk during these more outwardly racist, xenophobic, and misogynist times. It is incumbent on all of us to take responsibility for those members of our communities who are more at risk now. This might mean volunteering time or donating gifts to organizations that protect and care for such groups (see a list of organizations here), marching with or wearing safety pins and other emblems to communicate solidarity and concern, or simply deciding to literally stand near the potential targets of hate attacks in public in an attempt to mitigate harm to them. In other words, it is time for those of us who can to stand with those who are particularly at risk.
5. Do Not Assume they are all Alike. Assuming the worst from others guarantees it. Nine million Trump voters and the 3000 individuals he is now appointing to serve in his government are not all alike. Yes, some of his supporters are clearly bigoted and racist and they must be called out and resisted. But it is clear that Trump’s voting block was a complex mix of individuals fed up with the status quo and seeking radical change. This is much like many of us felt eight years ago when Barack Obama ran for President in the wake of the George W. Bush years. So one of our primary tasks for the next few years is to find or build allies in the Trump world. We simply must find ways to reach out and learn and engage across the cultural and political divides in our country. If we are to remain the United States (in the face of calls for Calexit), and if we are going to find the political will and wisdom to fix our most wicked problems in healthcare, education, employment and violence, we cannot allow ourselves to be further divided by self-serving politicians who promise simple solutions to immensely complex challenges. We will need each other to innovate and mobilize effectively. So make the choice to make new allies.
6. Do Not Assume we are that Different. Progressives have a lot of work to do as well. This is no time to come together in faux solidarity by gorging ourselves on self-righteous blame of the Right: a particularly seductive tendency right now. But like it or not we are all biased and racist and classist. We are most of us obsessive consumers of material goods that are made affordable through the oppression of others and directly contribute to the degradation of our planet. We often choose to live and socialize in Liberal echo chambers where our basic attitudes and values are reinforced and rarely questioned. And we bemoan even slight absences in our creature comforts when 21% of American children live below the poverty line and almost half of the world’s population lives on less than $2.50 a day. In order to stand firm against bigotry and indifference, we need to face it in ourselves, beginning with the contempt we currently feel for those who supported Donald Trump. We, too, need to take responsibility for the state of our nation, which continues to be too selfish, corrupt, violent, oppressive and generally unjust and unkind to the more vulnerable among us (unemployed, poor, homeless, physically challenged, etc.). We need to understand how we even passively contribute to these problems and take sufficient responsibility for creating the conditions that got us to where we are today.
7. Break it Down. History has shown us that one way to overcome such deep and hostile polarization as is evident in the U.S. today is not to try and convince each other of the merits of our principles, but rather to break the conversation down into focusing on those local problems that we jointly share concern and energy for addressing. Today, most American’s share a genuine interest in creating an educational system for their children that ensures their employability in the future. They share a need for decent and affordable healthcare. They prefer to feed their children food that won’t poison them or inflict them with obesity and diabetes. They are interested in protecting their homes and families from violence and from increasingly destructive storms. They want to feel valued and respected and that they are living a meaningful life. These are challenges that citizens in other countries have found ways to come together to address and manage (the Scandinavian countries are out in front on much of this). Instead of only blaming and demanding that our Federal and State governments fix these problems, perhaps the citizens in our local communities are better positioned to identify local solutions to these issues that work best for them. This was one of the aspects of our democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville found most promising in 1831, and that is often still true today.
8. Find and Create Conditions for Constructive Conflict. The tone and climate of our last election is a harbinger of more terrible things to come. The expressions of contempt, hate, and distain that pervaded many of the campaigns are a slippery slope. And the boldfaced lying and cheating by politicians on both sides are simply the latest indications of the decay of our cultural and political world. This cannot and must not become the new normal, as history has shown us that it will readily devolve into violent confrontation. In the short term, we must actively confront this trend through naming and shaming and holding our leaders accountable. The popular media and the press should play a leading role in this, which they utterly failed to do over the last two years (on the contrary, the more provocative the candidates behaved, the more they were rewarded by coverage by the media). But winning the long game on civility will require us to learn to parent, educate and entertain our children differently. A Costa Rican colleague of mine, who lives in one of the most peaceful nations in the world today, claims that the primary source of their peaceful culture today is policies implemented decades ago that mandated peace education (teaching of respect, tolerance and conflict resolution) in every school classroom throughout the country. Socializing all children with such attitudes and skills at home, in schools and through the media plants the seeds of peace that can transform cultures in the long run.
9. Know that this Current Political Shock can be an Opportunity for improving our magnificent but deeply flawed nation. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1787, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing… God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” Research has shown that major destabilizing political shocks such as the one we are currently undergoing, can result in dramatic shifts for the better. Typically, they introduce anxiety, uncertainty and instability in the short term, without evidencing much in the way of substantive change. But over time, as one change affects another, which affects another, and so on, they can evidence profound shifts in the status quo. These sometimes take years even decades to happen. For example, Thomas Friedman has written recently that perhaps the many technological breakthroughs that occurred around 2007 (the iPhone, Facebook, Watson, etc.) may have led to the countless changes that created the economic conditions (such as automation in manufacturing) for the political upheaval we are seeing today. So the question for us is what are the small changes that we are willing to make happen as a result of the current shock? Will they be more of the same inclinations toward blame, scapegoating, intolerance, enmity and division? Or will we see a billion small acts of reflection, restraint, responsibility, and attempts at reconciliation eventually burst forth into a different culture of functional civility that will better position us to face our next set of daunting challenges together? Know that our government and our country have the self-correcting capacity to heal itself – but only with our help.