• Sarah Chayes

Seeking Consensus

Updated: Jul 30, 2018


I’m having a hard time writing this reflection. It’s about the summit between Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki -- and how we all talk about what we desperately care about. I care terribly about this, and I’m sure I’m right. And yet, I want to write about transforming the language we use – and why it’s so important to do so.


Here’s what I just can’t hedge: having spent much of my career working on national security – including nearly a decade on the ground in Afghanistan – I have never been as concerned for US national security, in its every aspect, as I was watching the press conference that followed Trump and Putin’s long private meeting.


But I have to say, a protest rally I joined outside the White House only added to my distress.


Chanted obscenities, while perhaps gratifying, are an unlikely path for gaining consensus around what is and is not acceptable behavior in an American president. My sister Angelica went to the rally in Chicago, where one speaker was “screaming into the mic about the fascist regime that rips brown babies from their families and tortures them in concentration camps on the border.” She left early.


“It's not that I don't care about what's been done to children on the border," Angelica wrote in an email the next day. “How can I not? But I worry that chanting ‘lock him up,’ and screaming (not speaking) in such radical language makes it impossible to engage, to have a conversation with anyone who doesn't rabidly agree with you.”


Not to mention the fact that these rallies were supposed to be about corruption, not immigration. Mixing the most divisive social policy issues with concerns about the integrity of our politics – concerns that are broadly shared by Americans -- is another sure way to sabotage the consensus it will take to force changes in the system that everyone needs.


I had a similar exchange with my friend Lissa Lucas, who is running for West Virginia House of Delegates from the western part of the state. Lissa is bar none the most inspiring political candidate I have seen in the fray to date. (Please visit her website. Here, she’s being hauled out of the WV House of Delegates during the comments session on a bill to make it easier for energy companies to survey private property for future fracking or pipelines. She had simply listed the names of delegates who would be voting on the bill and the donations those delegates had received from energy companies.)


On her neighbors’ attitudes toward Trump, here’s what Lissa had to say:


“I don’t see a willingness to defend his every word and deed in the voters here -- who overwhelmingly chose him, as you know. (Not to say it doesn’t exist.)


But then again, when I go door to door, I listen, I don’t go in hot. I go in presuming they’re decent people no matter who they voted for. They can acknowledge they’re not happy with everything he does, or even offer some criticism, without my pouncing on them like I’ve scored points or something. A lot of the people who despise Trump so much seem to seek the schadenfreude of someone else’s regret and mortification. It’s no wonder folks stick by him if that trauma is the alternative. I can’t understand why that’s so hard for so many to recognize.


There is, of course, some brain chemistry involved in that blind spot. A 2006 Emory University study found that people are, so to speak, addicted to their political ideas. (For the gist, read Emory’s press release here) “Once partisans had come to…conclusions,” one of the authors explained the team’s findings, “subjects got a blast of activation in [brain] circuits involved in reward – similar to what addicts receive when they get their fix.”

That is, we are hooked on the feeling of satisfaction we gain from doubling down on our convictions. Call it addictive self-righteousness.


This reflection is not a post on civility for the sake of civility. I’m not saying “wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just get along?” Believe me, I’ve joined some shouts and applauded some signs that gave me later cause for regret. The brain scientists are right. It’s very infectious.


But we are in deep trouble. And people in both parties share the blame. When public office and private gain get this confused, the result can be cataclysm (a global economic depression and two world wars, for example). To ward off that fate, I’m looking for an overwhelming consensus on the basic integrity we demand from our public officials and top business leaders.


Such a consensus exists, I’m sure of it. But for it to emerge, it must be psychologically possible for some people to abandon choices they once made – convictions they once held -- without suffering humiliation for taking that difficult step. Without having to repudiate other dearly-held views, or their friends and family.


In the United States, self-identified Republicans and Democrats are about evenly divided -- as of June, according to Gallup, approximately 26% of us call ourselves Republicans, and 29% Democrats. Those who consider themselves independents (I am a registered independent) account for some 43% of the population. Those independent-minded folks are key to our destiny. How they are courted and to what end will determine the fate of this country -- and many others.


With the stakes this high, it is critical, as hard as this may be, not to shout about it. Wherever we are on the political spectrum, we have to think more carefully about the language we use and craft it more effectively. We have to resist the craving for that self-gratifying jolt and find the words and ways of saying them that are most likely to build a consensus in favor of government by and for the people.


We just have to kick the habit of addictive self-righteousness.


I almost jettisoned this post -- concluding that an issue I cared this much about probably wasn't the right example to use. But then I realized, that's exactly the example to use. My hesitation, plus the long exchanges I've had with the two people quoted above, testify to the degree of difficulty in this proposition. So please, send any reactions or anecdotes, especially thoughts on how to do this.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes