Is political civility … pragmatic?


Thanks for pointing out that Gonzaga program. I’ve been thinking about this paragraph of your post, in particular:

I don’t want to overstate the case: I don’t think that we owe conversation to people who are hostile to us, deny our humanity, or want us to suffer. I don’t think we need to read primers on how to get along at the holidays with family members who think that treating us poorly is okay/

I thought of that again when I read this piece in Vox, which in turn references a Washington Post piece. Here’s the part that won’t surprise you — that you’ll definitely agree with:

Contrary to what some have suggested, white millennial Trump voters were not in more economically precarious situations than non-Trump voters. Fully 86 percent of them reported being employed, a rate similar to non-Trump voters; and they were 14 percent less likely to be low income than white voters who did not support Trump. Employment and income were not significantly related to that sense of white vulnerability.

So what was? Racial resentment.

Even when controlling for partisanship, ideology, region and a host of other factors, white millennials fit Michael Tesler’s analysis, explored here. As he put it, economic anxiety isn’t driving racial resentment; rather, racial resentment is driving economic anxiety.

So what to do with that? The answer of many of my friends on the left has been succinct: Screw ’em. We’re writing them off.

And that’s understandable. For persons of color, especially, voters who act on racial resentment “are hostile to us, deny our humanity, … want us to suffer.”

But here’s the part of the Vox piece that offers a different solution:

 Research also shows it’s possible to reach out to Trump voters — even those who are racist today — in an empathetic way without condoning their prejudice. The evidence suggests, in fact, that the best way to weaken people’s racial or other biases is through frank, empathetic dialogue. (Much more on that in my in-depth piece on the research.) Given that, the strongest approach to really combating racism and racial resentment may be empathy.

One study, for example, found that canvassing people’s homes and having a 10-minute, nonconfrontational conversation about transgender rights — in which people’s lived experiences were relayed so they could understand how prejudice feels personally — managed to reduce voters’ anti-trans attitudes for at least three months. Perhaps a similar model could be adapted to reach out to people with racist, sexist, or other deplorable views, although this possibility needs more study.

But all of this involves a lot of legwork, outreach, and a kind of empathy that people may not be comfortable with in an era of highly polarized politics.

So. What do we know?

• It’s really hard to change people’s views. Really hard. We are a stubborn species, no matter where you exist on the ideological spectrum.

• But: It is possible.

• And: In some cases, the effort may have a payoff that’s beyond political, but even moral.

Empathetic dialogue is hard. Most of us, these days, are so angry that we don’t want to do it. You’re even right, to some extent, that we shouldn’t have to do it – nobody should have to prove their humanity, right?

Right. But if our goal is to nudge society onto a different path than the one it’s currently on, that kind of hard work may be required anyway.


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