Talking to My Brother About Politics

The Better Angels Way

By DONNA N. MURPHY

I’d attended the Better Angels skills workshop to learn how to respectfully speak to someone who’s on the other side of the political divide. I’d role played with another attendee who, like me, was a liberal, and we took turns pretending to be a conservative during practice conversations with each other.

Before talking to my brother, I practiced my skills for talking across the political divide at a Better Angels workshop

Now it was time for the real thing. I was back to my hometown, set to meet my conservative brother over lunch. It was a delicious free meal at a restaurant he’d founded, so I had an immediate incentive to be civil. After all, he might change his mind and make me pay.

We’d stayed in touch during the run-up to the 2016 election, making suggestions to help broaden each other’s mind. I attended the movie Hillary’s America because he asked me to, and he saw Zootopia at my request. Hillary’s America received a Razzie award as the worst movie of the year, while Zootopia won an Oscar for best animated feature film, so obviously I’m a genius and he’s seriously misguided. Zing.

Stop it! Games of one-upmanship may have been intellectually satisfying, but they also sealed my mind shut to absorbing information from the other side. After biting into my smoked turkey sandwich I said to my brother, “Help me to understand why you support President Trump.” He sees politics through the prism of a small business owner in a state which he believes overregulates and overtaxes people like him. I told him that I empathized with his difficulties at the state level, but still, why did he support Trump? I really had to listen, because Better Angels asks you to paraphrase back to your partner what he just said, in this case: Trump is a fighter, a characteristic my brother firmly identifies with. Trump means what he says and is working to roll back regulations. Since I had listened to him, my brother was receptive when I asked, “Do you mind if I share my views?”

Thus began a lengthy, back-and-forth conversation about politics between a liberal and a conservative that stayed courteous. Because I wasn’t trying to score points, I actually learned from him. “Please explain your views on immigration.” He favors efforts to cut legal immigration, and told me Silicon Valley is using IT workers brought over on H-1B visas to fire higher-priced American workers, even forcing the Americans to train their replacements. Wow, I didn’t know that. I agreed that wasn’t fair, and sounds like the misuse of a program begun over twenty-five years ago. Moreover, he knew I supported Planned Parenthood, and shared that founder Margaret Sanger believed in eugenics; I had to research this to understand the complexities behind Sanger’s belief. He admitted that he didn’t like President Trump’s constant tweeting.

“You probably won’t be surprised to hear that I have a different point of view.” I brought up advantages to immigration, including the large number of restaurant jobs that he, a third-generation immigrant, had created. I also raised my deep concern that climate change would render swaths of the planet unlivable, and my disappointment that President Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement. I admitted that the Democratic Party had let down working-class Americans.

We didn’t change each other’s minds on core issues, but that was never the point. Better Angels gave me the tools to step outside my political echo chamber and have a civil conversation with my conservative brother, whom I love, and for this I am grateful.