How to Overcome the Trauma of the 2016 Presidential Campaign

How to Overcome the Trauma of the 2016 Presidential Campaign
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Co-authored by Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton

For many Americans, the 2016 presidential election campaign has been traumatic. Many supporters of Hillary Clinton, and others, believed that Donald Trump's assertions and conduct violated the norms that are traditional in U.S. election campaigns, thereby undermining American democracy. On the other hand, some of Trump's supporters regarded such charges against him as elitist denial of their legitimate grievances and some demonized Hillary Clinton.

Somehow, after this dreadful election campaign, we Americans must help each other to overcome the campaign's horrors and work effectively to correct the circumstances that produced the trauma. Many avenues can help meet that need at the neighborhood, city, state, and national levels by diverse citizens working together.

The surprising outcome of the election may seem inhospitable to this approach. Many people are seriously frightened by the election of Donald Trump and indeed, some of his supporters may feel emboldened to express hostility toward various minorities. To help unify the country, the president-elect could speak out against such hostile acts, recognize that a majority of voters supported Hillary Clinton, and give priority to some of the policies that in some degree, they share, such as re-building the U.S. public infrastructure.

More generally, it is possible and necessary for people from different sides to come together and restore a significant level of mutual trust. This will entail facing common problems, listening to each other explain how they see the problem, and exploring mutually acceptable steps to ameliorate the problem. The diverse persons in the groups would share a commitment to follow civil norms of democracy. Of course, fierce partisans might try to spoil such constructive undertakings and disrupt them, which must be countered.

Many organizations in this country have long pursued constructive problem-solving efforts in order to forge a common ground between polarized communities. For example, inter-religious groups have brought leaders from diverse religions together to know each other better. These groups increase mutual understanding and open channels to work together to avert escalating problems. Also, industrial relations groups bring union leaders and corporate managers together to learn different ways of understanding and improving work relations. In addition, regular meetings between local police and community leaders provide needed mutual insights and possible improved practices. Finally, many government agencies and legislative bodies have learned new and better ways to engage citizens in assessing problems and devising remedies; they use more collaborative methods of governance that engage those with a stake in the problems' reduction. Many of the divisive issues in the 2016 electoral campaigns can be tackled by these and other creative undertakings.

The good news is that there is already a considerable architecture for collaborative problem-solving in place in hundreds of communities across the United States. Examples include restorative justice centers, community mediation centers, and public policy dialogue organizations such as the Keystone Policy Center and the Center for Public Policy Dispute Resolution. Other organizations such as the Concord Coalition, have developed effective dialogues and recommendations about sustainable fiscal policy based on the principles of bi-partisan cooperation. Such efforts prove that it is possible for the public and political leaders to reach agreement about some of the most contentious issues facing the country, matters that are too often framed as intractable and intensely antagonistic by extremist leaders.

There is considerable evidence of widespread agreement about some ways of dealing with matters that are too often treated as if they are simply contentious. Some degree of agreement may be found in many such matters, including improving health care, increasing gun safety, bettering police-community relations, raising wages of low-income workers, and even engaging in international relations.

Positive actions by diverse engaged citizens, taken at many levels and in numerous arenas, will greatly reinforce each other.

Much is known about resolving conflicts constructively. This is evident in the available literature and in programs and training about conflict resolution, mediation, methods of dialogue, negotiation, and collaborative governance. Even more information about these advances is needed. More attention and publicity about their effective applications are also needed.

What we suggest here will not instantly resolve all problems and overcome the trauma of the election. But making some of the suggested efforts will help those people who do undertake them. As more is done, even more will be undertaken. They can contribute to changes of the Republican and the Democratic parties, making both more inclusive and attentive to the working class and others whose interests were under-considered.

Louis Kriesberg and Bruce W. Dayton are co-authors of the 2016 fifth edition of Constructive Conflicts: From Escalation to Resolution. Louis Kriesberg is Maxwell Professor Emeritus of Social Conflict Studies and the founding director of the Program on the Analysis and Resolution of Conflicts at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. He has published numerous works in the field of conflict resolution, including Realizing Peace: A Constructive Conflict Approach. Bruce W. Dayton is Director of the CONTACT Peacebuilding Program and Associate Professor of Peacebuilding and Conflict Transformation at the School for International Training.

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