How I’m Trying to Make a Positive Difference – by Marc Brenman

I’m trying to make a positive difference in American political life by investigating whether and how it’s possible to draw some Trump voters toward the political center. In November 2020, about 48% of American voters voted for Trump. Voting for Trump is a proxy measure for rightwing feelings and beliefs. Many of these beliefs are extreme. None contribute to the American Dream of fairness, equity, opportunity, equality, and compassion, or the Good Society. Do we want to live in a permanently ideologically divided country, with the risk of civil war?

I’ve asked many people my question, and received many responses. They range from “Forget it, it isn’t possible” to very concrete suggestions and recommendations. When I first started asking the question, I included a second sentence, along the lines of “Do we liberals and progressives need to think about more tolerance for views we disagree with? Do we need to compromise with those on the right?” I stopped including these questions because I got angry responses from a few progressives, saying in effect, “How dare you suggest that we compromise our principles?” So, unlike my usual feistiness, I simply dropped the question.

I’ve drawn no conclusions so far. I’m perhaps developing a taxonomy or policy architecture for the project. For example, figuring out the magnitude of the project, what attempts have been made, whether they’ve been successful, and how much? What analogies apply, such as cult deprogramming, deradicalization, depolarization, behavior modification, increasing emotional intelligence, nudging, models of personal change, mindset shifts, media literacy, a Mister Rogers Love-your-neighbor approach? Evangelism and religious conversion? Incentivizing? Truth and reconciliation commissions? Do difficult international negotiations toward peace between warring parties provide any hints, lessons, and guidance? Would it be useful to have professional neutral expert negotiators involved to bring parties together? Where and how would there be the creation of emotionally safe spaces to hold discussions? Are there any guarantees that can be made to those on the far right to help alleviate their most serious concerns?

How to disaggregate the Trump voters, for example, by those economically motivated, those who are fearful, those feeling threatened, racists, those with religious motivations, etc. What upsets Trump voters the most? How locked into their opinions are they? Have they experienced trauma, and are they under stress? Are they angry, and if so, what are they angry about? Is any of this anger justified? Does their position in America feel precarious? Has something triggered Trump voters into a panic? Is self-harm a driving force? What makes people susceptible to hateful messages and movements? What personality traits might make a person more prejudiced, dogmatic, and intolerant of others? Do we have any control over any of these factors? How can rigidity of thinking and a susceptibility to authoritarianism be reduced? How to increase tolerance for ambiguity? Is a need for this a trait of both the extreme right and left?

Would any standard, but sometimes unproven, methods and approaches work, such as civics education and civic engagement, teaching critical thinking, compassionate listening, anger reduction, finding inner calm, reducing the idea of an “enemy,” nonviolent communication (NVC), mindfulness, social engineering, mental health services? Moral foundations theory? Addiction and 12-Step type programs?

From a strategic planning perspective, is there anything that liberals and progressives should start doing, stop doing, do less of? For example, is there any utility in name calling, insisting on political correctness, and using accusatory language like “mansplaining, oppression, exploitation, colonialism, white supremacy, white privilege, white fragility, reparations”? What good do shaming, blaming, and demonizing do? Do we help to create those demons? Do we say some of these things just to feel better about and express ourselves, rather than to help build a better America? Can one really decrease racism by being racist? Decrease sexism by being sexist? Are there any possible areas of agreement that can be built upon? Any trust-building exercises? Any common ground? Are there any groups on the right that can be particularly appealed to?

Does a rising tide raise all boats? Is New Deal type economics a partial answer?

Should social media use be curtailed? Moderated more? Censored more? More people deplatformed?

What has worked in related projects, such as increasing diversity and anti-racism? It’s a trick question; the answer is “very little or nothing.” That’s why I wrote my paper on diversity metrics, because very little has been achieved quantitatively on the ground. Same for anti-racism efforts. Almost no anti-racism initiative that I’ve examined has been able to show quantitative decreases in racism. It’s easier to find what doesn’t work than what does work. For example, institutions and organizations issuing formulaic and ritualistic statements decrying racism accomplish almost nothing. There have been a very few court decisions in which an employee who didn’t go along with a corporation’s diversity statement was fired, and the court upheld the firing because a corporation has a right to expect an employee to go along with a legal position.

Is this project a fool’s errand, and am I a fool for trying? Do we actually have two nations, and the best we can hope to accomplish is a truce? Your thoughts are welcome.

Marc Brenman

2 thoughts on “How I’m Trying to Make a Positive Difference – by Marc Brenman”

  1. Great questions Marc. I for one am delighted you’re delving into this topic.
    The only concrete thing I can offer comes from 2 Georgia good old boys, ages ~30. They both told me about 2 years ago that they felt they were being called “racist” because they were white and from the south.
    I’m looking forward to your answers.

  2. Hi Marc, I appreciate all the contributions you have made on FB discussions and this big project of yours is a good strategic approach to reaching more consensus. I follow Rightwing sources a lot to see how they think. My first suggestion is it is always good to listen to other viewpoints (for a while), consider if they have any validity, and even when they are flawed or deliberate nonsense or lies, be aware of the arguments presented by the other side. My second suggestion is that the huge Rightwing lie factory has to be rebutted and discredited. I see so many lies that are believed by the Rightwing base. As long as they think things like “Dems want to take all our guns and submit the USA to UN rule” they will never listen to our arguments regarding social fairness, climate change, the rise of the oligarchy.

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