Guidance for the Trump Loather on How to Talk to the Trump Voter: Part 5

“If any man ceases to attack me, I never remember the past against him.” 
 ― Abraham Lincoln

In Part 4 of this series on how a Trump Loather could talk to a Trump voter, I discussed seven projects that are being tried. Besides the learning that comes from these projects, there is now guidance available from others on how to proceed (or, probably just as important, how not to). I also offer some of my own ideas in this Part. I then mention some specific processes that are worth considering and the insights behind them.

Others’ Suggestions

There have been suggestions made by those who have broached the “how” question, including from the climate change communications field. The first few of these are fairly commonly heard. (In the interest of space, see the links for fuller explanations):

· Cite the military’s “threat-multiplier” argument that climate change makes existing threats to U.S. security worse; and support from religion, such as the Pope’s Climate Change Encyclical, which extends the religious argument for stewardship of the planet

· Don’t say “global warming.” Use “climate change” instead, or maybe don’t even use that. Stay with weather and renewable energy jobs instead

· We’re starting to hear use sea level rise (where appropriate, see Part 4), draught and water (see here)

· Mention another less-sensitive, related environmental issue instead, such as wildlife historically tied to the local culture, like the lesser prairie-chicken, or carbon sequestration in soils (see here). Miriam Horn, author of Rancher, Farmer, Fisherman, says that in north-central Kansas, “People are all talking about it, without talking about it.” According to journalist Hiroko Tabuchi, “It gets disguised as something else”

· We’re often told in the environmental field not to over-dramatize consequences, both with climate change and other issues. At the more recent sustainability forums I’ve attended, big picture consequences and alarm less commonly come up. (The biodiversity crisis almost never does.) A major reason is the concern that fear would paralyze actions and/or create unnecessary (and the negative kind of) resistance to hearing and action. However, now journalist Farhad Manjoo says that “sometimes, the worst case is the only thing that prompts us to get anything done.” “We humans do not stir at the merely slightly uncomfortable.” “I know this because I’ve studied the last time that governments, businesses and ordinary citizens joined together to combat a complex, man-made problem that threatened to wreck global havoc in the distant future:” Y2K. Manjoo points out that while “we moved mountains after the Great Depression and Pearl Harbor,” “…Y2K is one of the precious few examples where we mobilized to fight something looming on the horizon…” And it was successful! (Manjoo explains that, contrary to some perceptions, Y2K actually was not an overblown threat.) So, perhaps, to deal with this mixed message, keep fear in your back-pocket and use it selectively when a group is settling for far too low a bar when it is capable of doing much more.

Usually beyond the climate change issue, we often hear, post-election: “Have empathy for the Trump voters’ economic circumstances,” to the point of spurring a backlash. They’re really hurting, and they’ve been ignored by the elites on the coasts, in academia, and in Washington, including Congressional Republicans. A rebuttal to this argument is that if they didn’t adequately prepare themselves for the hard times, it’s their own fault.

However, few people ever plan their futures perfectly. We can only go forward. Trump voters are our neighbors and/or fellow citizens; and if they need it, then they deserve some help (which doesn’t mean that others do not). Joan C. Williams, in “The Dumb Politics of Elite Condescension,” adds: “…something is seriously off when privileged whites dismiss the economic pain of less privileged whites on grounds that those other whites have white privilege. Everyone should have access to good housing and good jobs.” So I’d say the empathy point is valid.

Other guidelines offered for talking to the Trump Voter are:

• Show respect and expect it back. If you don’t get it, leave and try someone else

• As a possible member of what can be seen as the “liberal, elite intelligentsia,” self-monitor for any arrogance, condescension, self-righteousness, belittling, and, as mentioned in Part 1, use of offensive language. You may need someone to help you see what isn’t so self-evident, hopefully before a specific attempt is ruined. If you’re a professor, go out of your way to say and show conservative students that they are welcome, and their views sought, which does not mean the latter will go unexamined

• Neil Parmor, in “9 Strategies for Talking Politics — Without Picking a Fight,” suggests some ways to keep things from “getting ugly”: view attempts “as educational,” minimize the assumptions made, approach this as an opportunity to learn, LISTEN and “ask follow-up or clarifying questions (showing)…attentiveness.” If upset, take a few seconds to collect yourself, ask “…help me understand how you see this,” and keep the tone “calm and friendly.”

Some of My Suggestions

Here are seven of my own suggestions:

• Talking to Trump voters doesn’t mean you have to accept bigotry, as some have feared, although actively confronting it is a separate issue (see directly below); poor science; ad hominin attacks (unless Al Gore sends you a message he’s used to it and to let it go); false equivalence; and attacks on facts. (See the forthcoming Part 6 on the latter.) However, it is probably best to keep debates you might be having elsewhere about new expressions of racism (like intersectionality), soft racism (like institutional or expectations), or privilege which are not yet mainstream-tested out of the discussion, although not necessarily forever. Other than classic racism, such as neo-Nazi attacks in Virginia, this might be the time to overlook whatever you can (e.g. being 80% sure that Obama-bashing is explainable by someone’s racism). In turn, you might get observations and questions to which you have not been exposed, which could be a good thing. In time, you may have an opportunity to raise an issue over which you’d previously bitten your tongue. If you and the Trump voter with whom you’d been talking develop some trust, both of you may be able to discuss the issue without animosity, and hopefully with some productivity

  • Unconscious bias, on the other hand, might have potential, as, when present in ourselves or others, is not in a form of which we’re aware, and certainly not intended. It may have to be pointed out by others to their possessor’s astonishment
  • Evidence is no longer scarce “business” is not monolithically anti-climate change policy anymore. If anything good came out of the President’s rejection of the Paris Agreement, one positive is the numerous forward-looking businesses that emerged supporting staying in it. Indeed, we may find that the long time understanding of the fundamental nature of what it even means to be a “business,” a sole focus on self-interest, is up for re-evaluation. Use this new trend as an opportunity. Challenge old views, and expect more from business (Occasional acknowledgement when you see novel, unexpected, and needed society-supporting actions by businesses wouldn’t hurt.)

• As others have noted, a big part of the problem is deference to one’s “tribe.” Blogger Paul Holmes quotes Andrew Revkin: “What you believe about climate change is not about what you know; it’s about who you are. It’s part of cultural identity, and you are not going to change that.” Climate change is seen as a liberal position and conservatives cannot accept that liberals can be right about it, or it is threatening to the latter’s self-identity. So experiment with a process of exchanging admissions of mistakes. It could go like this: “I’m a liberal. I’ll go first and must admit that conservatives were right about ‘X’ (and if this process extends to a second or third round, I could probably come up with a ‘Y’ and ‘Z’). Now it’s your turn Mr./Ms. Conservative. What have you got?” Perhaps this process will break the strong hold of tribe on influencing opinions. We could also aim at re-categorizing or re-prioritizing with whom one identifies as the prime basis and source of how we decide stances on important issues

• Point out America used to be considered a “Can Do” place, as far as meeting tough goals like the Climate Agreement. When and how did we become “Can’t Do?” How is this consistent with being a “Great Country,” or any part of “Exceptionalism” you think is worth saving?

• Similarly, also on the great county theme, and a stretch as I’m not sure either side really cares, it’s worth experimenting with asking the question: “How is it moral for America to be largely responsible for the drowning of island countries like the Maldives, which have done nothing to us?” (I would like to be proven wrong that people on both sides really do care, but have never been asked.)

• I suggest staying away from these three arguments, unless they come up later in the process in unusually organic and bridge-building ways: (a) the “What part of ‘97% agree (as in the percentage of scientists who accept human caused-climate change) don’t you understand,” Dan Kahan mentioned which was rejected in South Florida (see Part 4); (b) “Don’t you care about your children?”; and (c) charging hypocrisy, unless you want to start by re-positioning it as a fairly universal human tendency, therefore somewhat understandable and maybe fixable, and see where that takes you. I suggest not going there, though, unless your side is mostly free of it (hint), has good justification for it, is going to fix it, or is making a strategic concession (see the above about exchanging admissions of error).

Some Other Processes with Potential

Future Search

“Future Search” is a “3-day planning meeting that enables people to cooperate in complex situations, including those of high conflict and uncertainty.” It “helps people collaborate despite differences of culture, class….race, ethnicity…education.” It makes heavy use of a facilitator and is based on the work of a number of social scientists like Marvin Weisbord, Sandra Janoff, Solomon Asch, and others. It might be worth trying a Future Search for our mutual distaste problem.

The Future Search Network says that from Asch, “whose studies pointed to a set of conditions for effective dialogue, (we learned) people would accept each other’s reality if they could all talk about the same world, and experience that all had the same psychological needs…They could then begin to treat ‘my facts’ and ‘your facts’ as ‘our facts”, opening the door to effective planning.” “From Lippitt and Schlinder-Rainman we learned to…focus on the future, not problems and conflicts.”

One of its principles is: “treat problems and conflicts as information, not action items.” It is important to “invite a significant cross-section of all parties with a stake in the outcome” into the process. Two of its tools are “future scenarios and common ground dialogue.”

The Future Search Network states that facilitators have this philosophy: “Every person and every group is doing the best they can with what they have every minute of every day; people only do what they are ready, willing and able to do; (and) people need not change their own minds or anyone else’s for a group to discover its common ground and potential for action.” It is also a “facilitator’s job… to make sure no person becomes a scapegoat…”

Of course, Future Searches can fail. Two reasons include: “People…do not need each other,” and it is implemented for “Issues on which most participants do not wish to act.” Since these two conditions may be present when starting out in our mutual distaste situation, at least as it initially appears to some, some groundwork may be needed before launching into it.

What If We’re Both Wrong?

What if we’re all missing something important at a deeper level, some issues that more fundamentally explain our views? Consider psychologist Renee Lertzman’s view that many people, not just the political right, are deep down scared, conflicted, and anxious. She explains that when we’re therefore operating through our brain’s limbic system, which she states “is currently in overdrive in our country,” that “expresses itself” in part by “othering.” Our limbic system “is about survival, fear, us/them, polarization,” and makes logical argument nearly impossible. So, first you have to deal with the fear. One way to do that is by listening (which we’ve heard before). You “ask…what they need, now, to feel safer and more secure” before you have the other part of the conversation that makes use of whatever ideas guide your “theory of change” (i.e. one’s sense of how change happens).

We also are going to need to make more use of psychology as a guide. According to Lertzman, one area in which we need psychologists is for training in empathy (see Part 1), “because it needs to be taught…,” and “it’s hard to go there if you feel like we’re fighting a war.” Another is “trying to understand the irrationality” involved with feelings about climate change. I think she means this in a non-pejorative way,

Lertzman believes that we have to “shift the tone from crisis management to conscientious engagement,” that is “we frame our situation as an opportunity for humans to show up and be the problem-solving beings that we are.”

This re-framing of our role goes way beyond the usual ways offered to improve climate change communications.

What If It’s Not “Just the Facts?”

Relatedly, it’s becoming clearer from social science that our favored, historic, goes-without-saying practice of combatting lack of knowledge with more data, information, or science is not going to do it. Holmes cites Andrew Revkin again: “A pure evidence-based approach to changing minds on climate change and other controversial issues is largely ineffective…” He also quotes Professor Jacquelyn Gill: “As a scientist, it has taken me a long time to get to grips with the idea that facts don’t work.”

Still, facts work with some people — some of the time, and it’s surely necessary to keep using and updating them, but they aren’t sufficient. As emotional beings, we tend to respond more to…well, that.

I’m not totally sure how we do that. Gill says “Storytelling and empathy building — that’s where I come from.” She adds: “Connecting with skeptics is important,” even though she’s been “yelled at” by her “own tribe” for it. She suggests: “…meeting people half way with things you can both care about. Personal stories are very effective.” I discussed combining data and stories or emotions in a number of articles. (See here, here, here, here, here, and here.)

In Part 6, I change focus to the not-so-minor crux of what we’re actually disagreeing so much about, and offer some ideas about that end of a proposed effort to rebuild the relationship between Trump loathers and Trump voters.

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