A straightforward observation for most active participants in American political life is that we live in an atmosphere of hyperbolic, overheated rhetoric. In just the past six weeks, media figures stated Republican politicians will have “blood on their hands” for their support of President Trump, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) accused four Democratic congresswomen of being “a bunch of communists” who “hate our country.”
The fear mongering has also bled into policy debates, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell referring to the mere suggestion of statehood for Washington, DC and Puerto Rico as “full bore socialism” and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) contending that Democrats are “not about trying to take away health care from anyone. That’s what the Republicans are trying to do.” These are just four of countless examples that can be picked up on nightly news shows and politicians’ Twitter feeds on a given day.
The torrents of ad hominem attacks and accusations of bad faith between political opponents indicate major vacuum in American politics; we have lost trust in each other, and on a larger scale, we have lost trust in the institutions we participate in. Public trust in government has been on a precipitous decline for the better part of two decades. Outside of politics, public trust in major American institutions from the media to educational institutions to the Supreme Court have also been eroding.
If we have no confidence in the primary forums for our civic and political lives, it is no wonder so many people are filling that vacuum with contempt. When these institutions reveal faults to us or fail to rise to our expectations, the easiest explanation is to accuse them of ill intent.
Unfortunately, this easy account actually reinforces our collective loss of trust instead of explaining it when those forces spur performative outrage over constructive policymaking. According to Vanderbilt University Professor Marc Hetherington, the phenomenon of low public trust “will likely undermine the government’s ability to solve problems, further diminishing public trust.”
Since derision and delegitimization only seem to amplify the trust crisis, a counterintuitive approach of responding to political distrust with trust offers an inspiring alternative.
In the years leading up to the Civil War — a period in which our current tensions pale by comparison — soon-to-be President Abraham Lincoln delivered a landmark speech to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society urging them to be less condemnatory of problem drinkers. “If you would win a man to your cause,” Lincoln spoke, “first convince him that you are his sincere friend. Therein is a drop of honey that catches his heart, which, say what he will, is the great highroad to his reason, and which, when once gained, you will find but little trouble in convincing his judgment of the justice of your cause, if indeed that cause really be a just one.” In other words, persuasion requires trust.
Trust also requires a sincere effort at understanding one’s opponent.
Recommitting ourselves to building trust with our political opposites does not mean giving up on our core convictions, but it does mean that relying on strawman interpretations of people we disagree with will only exacerbate our current strained discourse. Dr. Arthur Brooks explains that “we should constantly be evaluating whether our particular expression of our moral values is the right one” because “none of us [have] a monopoly on the truth.” We need to have trust that those we disagree with are coming from just as genuine a position as we are. From there, we may discover something to gain from engaging with disagreeing opinions even if we don’t accept them.
Even if we find an opinion to be categorically wrong, we do ourselves no favors by simply dismissing those viewpoints as creeping socialism, Republican cruelty, or the dozens of other scare-words used to delegitimize our opponents. We need, in Lincoln’s words, a drop of honey to catch the hearts of our political opposites if we are ever going to convince them of the superiority of our ideas over theirs.
For this to happen, our interactions must be built on trust. And to recover trust in our institutions, we have to start trusting each other as we participate in politics.