Seek First to Understand

If you recognized the title from the first half of Stephen Covey’s fifth habit from his seminal work The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, kudos, feel free to skip to the next paragraph. If you didn’t, let me explain. Covey’s fifth habit is “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” The idea is simple: devote one hundred percent of your energy and attention to understanding another person’s point of view before you seek to impose your own. Even then, Covey cautions, you must always acknowledge that the other person may not want your input. An individual has to be receptive to change to be affected by change. Barring that, they will shut down and resist your assault on their worldview.

I was reminded of the 7 Habits while reading this article from the Washington Post. Three months after the election and I am still shocked when I read such staunch and unquestioning support for Trump. That got me thinking. How do you change the minds of a pro-Trump constituency that has yet to be swayed by the growing dumpster fire that has been Trump’s first month in office? Covey would say, “Seek first to understand.”

One of Covey’s early caveats in the fifth habit is to avoid insult. To call the views of another base or idiotic closes the door to discourse. There is nothing more that can be said. An insult lays your intentions on the line — i.e. changing the political persuasion of the other — while forgoing a process of rational discourse that has been entirely absent in American politics since Clinton and Trump first met on the debate floor. The Left and the Right dispensed with civility early on in the 2016 election and the Left is only now realizing that its tactics of persuasion are utterly bereft of impact.

We can’t go on like this. Or rather, it would be preferable not to go on like this. When two approximately equal constituencies in a country cannot find common ground and cannot be persuaded, violence ensues. It begins as structuralized, unseen violence — the punishing of political adversaries, the preferential treatment of news outlets that cover politicians favorably, the distribution of federal funds to institutions backing the ideology of those in power. As institutions of civil society crumble, the violence becomes more overt. Crackdowns on specific demographics or religious communities, deprivation of rights, martial law. When institutions of civil society disappear, only violence remains. This is how civil wars are born, and they are long and bloody. Persuasion comes when one side or the other is so broken as to forfeit its ideology in exchange for an end of suffering.

Wow, that really escalated. Let’s pull back for a minute and consider the situation we face. As someone who sits on the Left, I find it increasingly problematic to come to terms with demagogic ideology of Trump and the Far Right. Yet we too often take for granted that those supporting Trump actually subscribe to his ideology, when that’s rarely the case.

Consider three large categories of Trump supporters.

First, you have the Boomers who voted their pocketbooks — individuals who disagreed ideology with the core tenets of Trump’s America but were willing to sacrifice some of their values to protect others, i.e. traditional family values, entitlements, and earned income.

Next, you have the trolls. This group is fairly small despite the media attention it garners. These are the 25–35 year-old “disenfranchised” males with a bone to pick for years of internet exile in their parents’ basements. To them, Trump’s appeal was the promise of failure. They never wanted him to succeed, only to watch the world burn. Many did see him as a favorable alternative to Clinton — if for juvenile and conspiracy-informed reasons — but he was the troll pick all the same.

The last constituency is the change vote. This group may be the largest and crosses demographic lines. It represents the losers of globalization, or at least those who perceive themselves as such. Many of these supporters are working middle class, possibly unemployed or underemployed, and angry that the the coasts and liberal cities flourished while America’s manufacturing industries shrank.

It’s worth taking note of the diversity of these constituencies because it suggests that our approach to rebuilding the Left is all wrong. We cannot continue to scream indiscriminately at the Right with the hope that it will change something. We, the Left, need to engage in meaningful discourse with individuals by first seeking to understand, then to be understood.

What that means in practice is that we need to pump the brakes when it comes to dealing with the Right. Let me be clear: we must not take it easy on Trump. Lay into him and his swamp rats with everything you’ve got. He is a true deplorable; he has told us so from the beginning. A lifetime of evidence has revealed his motivations. No, Trump will get our full fury, but his supporters deserve our patience. They voted for Trump out of their own interests, but not the same interest. It would behoove us to try to understand those motivations as we regroup.

I’m not advocating for hand-holding or tolerance of hate speech and the groups that propagate it. Rather, I advocate for taking a breath so that we can seek to understand, on an individual level, why the right polarized for Trump. How can the motivations of the elderly couple down the street be the same as those of Milo Yiannopolous? They’re probably not. There are families out there that went red because they’ve seen the impact of manufacturing layoffs in their own lives and never benefited from the job creation programs touted as signs of economic recovery during the Obama administration. There are individuals just above the poverty line who were hurt financially by the individual mandate of the ACA. There are elderly couples worrying about their benefits and what they’ll leave behind for their children, their grandchildren.

Seek first to understand is not a new concept, but it could be in politics. One of the rituals of political campaigning is canvasing. A candidate sends out his staffers to canvas a district to determine who is for, who is against, and who is undecided on the candidate. The campaign doesn’t even try to sway those against and instead mobilizes the majority of its resources toward swaying the undecided and retaining its base. In a country so polarized, who is undecided? The Left cannot recover by focusing on the undecided. In fact, it can’t even recover by focusing on its base. Let’s face facts — we won the popular election by three million votes but not in the districts that mattered! Barring massive Congressional redistricting, this is the reality we live in. There are minds made up that need to be changed.

The reason I advocate for this at all is that I know the majority of Americans who supported Trump had to live with varying levels of compromise. Everyone who cast a vote for Trump sacrificed something. Those who haven’t felt the weight of that sacrifice will, in time. At the end of the day, we all wanted the same thing: a government that provides maximum benefit and minimal harm to its people. Sure, there are extremists and supremacists whose definition of “people” is deplorably narrow, but they are, thankfully, still in the minority. The Left has long been in the business of building a government that benefits all Americans, and we can be again.

To campaign on promises of policies that will benefit all people, even those disenfranchised by the last eight years of American politics, will take work. We need to understand, even more intimately than we do in the wake of Trump’s first month, which policies will appeal to the compromised voter. Once we’ve sought to understand, we can begin to be understood. When that day comes, half of Americans won’t need to compromise at the polls.