Listening to Trump Voters

Like everyone I knew, I couldn’t stand Donald Trump. But wasn’t that part of the problem? I’d watched Trump brag about himself endlessly on television. I’d heard countless furious denunciations of him, and had even written several myself. I was spending far too much time, in my opinion, talking and thinking about him. But in all this anxiety and aggravation, I hadn’t talked for one minute to a single American who actually wanted the guy to become our next President.

I wasn’t alone in this predicament. In March, I’d organized a conference of U.S. thought leaders to discuss political polarization. About half of the two-dozen leaders who attended were Republicans. So I polled people during the breaks. Does anyone here support Trump? No one. Does anyone here know anyone who does? One person said that an uncle of his might fit the bill, but nobody else—at a bipartisan gathering of civil society leaders and public intellectuals—knew a single Trump supporter.

It was a bit surreal and more than a little embarrassing. It was like watching a basketball game where the scoreboard at halftime says 52-48, while you and everyone else in the good seats know with certainty that the only rational score at this point in the game would be 100-nil. When it came to understanding the score in this political season of 2016, something important was amiss—and that something seemed to indict me and my friends more than Trump and his.

The afternoon the conference ended, instead of heading home to New York City, from my rental car I phoned Adam Garfinkle, the tolerant editor of this magazine. Please give me $500 right away, I requested, so that I can drive across the American Southeast for the next two weeks talking to people I don’t know about politics. And by the way, I asked, do you personally know anyone who likes Trump? He didn’t. And to my idea he said: “Go for it.” So I did.

“I’m saying about 60 percent of my customers are for Trump.” The guy making this estimate—we’re going to call him Steve—is the manager of small seafood store in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, just outside of New Orleans, where I began my journey in late March. A stocky, athletic-looking man with a dark beard in his late 40s, dressed the day I met him in cut-off shorts and an old T-shirt, Steve talks with me non-stop about politics as he works, while also introducing me to whoever has walked in to buy some of his seafood. A middle-aged woman who has come in to buy crabs says:

I voted [in the primary] for Trump. Because he is not a typical politician, and I’m fed up with typical politicians. We all elected people who have good intentions. Then, once they get in there, they realize that they’ve got to play the game, and they’ve got to please people, and Donald Trump doesn’t go with that. This is what needs to be done, and I don’t care if people aren’t happy with it. I like his ideas. I don’t like the way he insults people—that’s not presidential to me. But I like his ideas. We do have to secure the border. I like what he says about China. He has to calm down on his impulsive insults, but I still like him. People have very strong opinions about this election. Very strong opinions. More than usual. I felt I had strong opinions about the last election, but my feelings are stronger this year.

Why are they stronger this year?

I don’t know why. Frustration is a good word. You know what, it’s kind of like, if we don’t make changes now, it’s almost too late to fix all the problems we have.

Do you have a second choice?

Anyone running against Hillary, I would vote for. I mean, she’s a crook. She should be in jail.

Steve, the manager, says:

What do I like about Trump? Let’s see, he’s not politically connected. He’s got dirt on everybody. He’s different. Like John F. Kennedy. You know, if we get Trump in there, a lot of people are not going to like it. If we can get him in, he wants change, and I’m ready to see change, period.

Another customer, also a Trump supporter, says:

Everybody is pissed. There’s no difference between Hillary and Cruz, although one is a Republican and one is a Democrat.

At a convenience store in the same community, the woman I met at the check-out counter is in her 30s, with long red-brown hair and a pair of colorful facial piercings just underneath her lower lip. Born and raised in Texas, she moved to Louisiana 14 years ago. Politically, she says she’s an independent. I ask her, “What are your thoughts on politics this year?”

It’s a joke, I mean honestly it’s an absolute joke. I think it’s all for show, especially this year. It’s not like, they’re doing what the people want. It’s more like, I’m going to blow smoke up everyone’s ass and tell them, I’m going to do what this group of people want, and the other one says, I’m going to do what this group of people want, and when they get into office, nothing is going to be anything like that at all. It’s just like with Obama.

Do you have a favorite candidate?

Like as far as Hillary Clinton, she hasn’t said probably anything that I’ve listened to. If Donald Trump could do everything he says he could do, I think that could help, like keeping all the bad immigrants out and not letting in the terrorists, because everybody else is like, “Oh no, just let them come over.” Well, OK, you need to have that select few that are allowed in, and you need to have a lot more stipulations on how and when and why they can come, you know what I’m saying? Especially with everything that’s going on. I mean, you got crap happening once a week in the schools. I mean, they’re bombing everything right now. It’s ridiculous. I like Trump, for the most part. Now, some of the stuff he says, it’s just outrageous, and I’m like just like, “You’re crazy, you should have never said that, I understand that you’re a billion gazillionaire,” but like, “Shut up, you take some things too far.” But I mean, because he has his own money, because he is a business man, because he doesn’t need anybody else per se, he could get the most done in the way that needs to be done, you know what I mean? Then we could start benefiting from it.

Anything else on your mind in this political season?

I just wish it would hurry up and be over.

Not far away, at a bait and tackle shop, I met two older guys organizing fishing lures on a table in the middle of the store. They let me sit with them, and they took a dim view of current presidential politics:

I wouldn’t vote for none of them.

You don’t like any of them?

Well, like I said it’s almost like a sideshow, you know. Even my wife, she said, “I can’t believe these are the people that’s going to be running this country.”

What’s your opinion, sir?

Out of all of the candidates out there running, [even] if we elect the very best one, whoever that is, America is the loser. In other words, we don’t have anybody running for President, in my opinion.


Let me ask you this, when is the last time you voted for a candidate with pride?

You know it has to go all the way back to John Kennedy.

At a pawn shop not far away—“Guns/Jewelry/TVs”—I met the owner, his grown son, and a customer who’d come in to look at guns. All three favored Trump, though to different degrees. The owner says:

I don’t trust Hillary Clinton at all. She’s a liar and no good. Bernie Sanders, I think he’s a little whacko. I like what Donald Trump says but he’s so unpredictable. I think that both sides are afraid of him because he is not part of the establishment.

You’re in favor of anti-establishment candidates?

Yes. Of course. Because we’re tired of them getting nothing done. They get richer and we just again suffer. I am tired of it.

I ask the customer, “Why did you vote for Trump?”

Well, I’m military. I’m a veteran, and the Second Amendment is pretty important to me. I’m sure you know this, but the Second Amendment is not really for me to protect myself from the bad guys out there because that is something that should be a given. The Second Amendment is for me to protect myself from the government, from overtaking. And that’s how it was written. It shouldn’t be a thought that I should be able to protect myself from bodily harm with my gun. I shouldn’t need a permit, I shouldn’t need a license or anything for that—the Second Amendment is to keep the government in check. People don’t realize that.

And really, it’s an eye-opener to me that there’s a Muslim or Islamic problem, and yet they won’t say it. They absolutely won’t say it, and I think that Trump’s got himself in a lot of trouble for saying it, but I think he says it to keep the Muslims out temporary, until we figure out what’s going on. I think that he’s doing that because he really cares about America. Now, I could be duped, and all this stuff he’s telling us could be bullshit, but guess what, we’ve been lied to how many gazillion times, and so I’m willing to take a chance with him. Because I know Hillary is lying to me. And if you can’t see that plain as day, then you’re just short a couple of marbles.

The customer looked to be in his forties or fifties—a big, handsome, strong-looking man with a one-week-old beard, dressed in outdoor clothes. He speaks calmly, but at length and with obvious frustration about politics in general, including about his unhappy dealings with government employees about matters such as overdue child-support payments and health care at the VA:

I swear I’m not racist. I swear on the Bible, I am not a racist person. But when you go to the VA, it’s nothing but black people working there and they don’t give two shits about you. I went to the triage and there’s two black ladies back there just jabbering about home and stuff, and nothing about work, and I’m just sitting there, I’ve got shingles . . . I’m dying, I’m just waiting, and they’re doing their bullshit and they got an attitude.

Here’s his final comment on Trump:

I’m willing to take a chance on Trump because I’ve been lied to by the rest of them. What’s the worst thing that can happen? He doesn’t do what he says he’s going to do? I’ve seen that for the last thirty years.

Leaving St. Tammany’s, I headed north toward Jackson, Mississippi. I grew up there. Today my parents, now retired, live in nearby Madison. When I was a child, my father took me quail-hunting in rambling, wide-open fields that since then have been systematically turned into affluent residential subdivisions, including the one in which my parents now live. From New Orleans, I’d phoned my brother, who lives in Nashville, to tell him, in as reasonable a tone as I could manage, about my plan to drive essentially randomly from southern Louisiana to southern Ohio, hoping to meet people I’d never met who would talk to me about Trump. What did he think about my stopping for a day or two in Madison? Maybe go with my father to a barber shop? “You’ll find them there,” my brother said. And he was right.

At a barber shop near Gluckstadt, Mississippi, my father and I meet a middle-aged man, a customer who seems in no hurry, and who tells us that he owns several small businesses and a farm in the Delta. What does he think about the presidential election?

I like Trump because he’s made payroll, hired a lot of people. Legal, illegal, he’s hired them all. He’s worked the system on both sides. I think he knows how it’s run, and I think he’s tired of paying off both sides. I know he has supported Democrats and Republicans, so he knows how it works. We are a system of lobbyists. In this country the lobbyists seem to have taken over. I think Trump knows how to work the system and I think he’ll be neutral. He sees both sides, and I just think he’s the most independent-thinking guy we’ve got. I just feel like we need a change like that. We need somebody that can work with Democrats and Republicans and I think he’s the man to do it.

What about the criticisms of him that you see on television?

[A guy I heard said] “That’s the biggest problem with Trump. He’s so outspoken, he won’t listen, he runs his mouth too much and this, that, and the other.” But I think Trump’s been successful because he does listen. He listens to tax attorneys and bankers, and I think he knows capitalism well. But on a personal level, it’s true that he can’t keep his mouth shut, and that could be a problem. What he says is not politically correct. Sometimes I kind of like a guy like that, but at the same time, I’ve always said that if you can’t say something nice about somebody, don’t say anything at all. That’s the way I am. I don’t understand why he feels like he has to slam other people.

So that’s not why you’re voting for him?

That’s right. I do think he’s the best guy we have. I think Rubio was a great guy, but he’s too young and he does not understand the system like Trump. I think Trump, coming in with a business background, knows what it takes. . . . He’s a broad spectrum type of guy. He said something years ago, that the only way that he would run for President is if the country got bad enough. And I think today it’s just a totally corrupt system.

One of the barbers—he told me he’d been cutting hair for more than forty years—adds his opinion:

This year, I’m sick of all of them. I’m going to vote for whoever the Republicans nominate, and vote against the Democrats. But I’m sick of all of them. They’re all stupid—working for themselves instead of for their country, and fussing among themselves, like these idiots have been doing. The President, the Supreme Court, the Senators and Representatives—most of them are crazy and all of them should be kicked out of office. Clean out the whole bunch. They’re as sorry as can be, and I’ll tell them that to their face. But I’m going to vote for the least of the two evils, and keep Hillary Clinton out.

In Madison, I meet with a middle-aged insurance agent who knows my parents. As a young man he was a Democrat—he was a Jimmy Carter delegate to the 1980 Democratic Convention—but (as did many white Southern Democrats) switched to the Republican Party in the mid 1980s. In the late 1980s, he read Donald Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, and was favorably impressed. He says:

As a successful businessman, Trump has to work with those establishment-type people, but he understands common people. He understands how to get them excited. Watching him say, “Let’s make America great again” and “I’m successful, I’m not a part of them”—that’s been kind of a sounding board to me.

Eight years ago Obama preached change, and it took off. Trump is doing the same thing. He’s appealing to the masses in a conservative way, but attracting people who haven’t been attracted to Republicans before. It’s been kind of boring to be a Republican the last eight years. You had McCain and then you had Romney. I liked Mitt Romney, but I guess he was just a little bit too polished for average Republicans like myself, on the lower economic scale. But I just like the way Trump has put excitement to it. I’m glad to see lots of people getting out to support him. . . . I don’t know about the world deal. I’m Catholic, and I think everybody ought to help somebody out. We need to be generous. When Trump says “the wall,” it kind of bothers me, but I don’t live in states that border Mexico, so I don’t know what the problems are. Saying “the wall,” it’s keeping people separate, and I don’t like that. But if there’s an issue, like they say it is in Arizona and Texas, in New Mexico, the influx coming in, then something needs to be done. . . .

Another guy I meet in the area, a former high school baseball coach who now runs a small automotive-equipment business, is also a former Democrat who today supports Trump, though not without reservations. For political news, he regularly turns to “The Last Refuge,” a conservative political website. He says:

The Republicans are just like the Democrats. They are going to spend as much. They’re going to tell you that they’re not, but then when they get in office, it has been proved in the last two elections that they aren’t going to do what they said they were going to do. Here comes Trump, and there is a lot, believe me, a lot about Trump that I don’t like. Number one, I don’t trust him. How can you trust any of them? I though Ted Cruz was a good guy, and I do like what he says, but from the background I have learned he is controlled, too.

But my view of Trump is that he is at least saying the things that need to be done. They try to “get” him on policy, and he has got to give specifics, but you’ve got to have a vision, and then you can get the people to get the vision to happen. You don’t necessarily have to have the specifics of everything. He just knows we better do something about immigration. And we better do something about spending. That’s the kind of person I think he is, because he does great things in real estate, which are hard to do, but he gets them done and gets them done ahead of time. But by no means do I think he isn’t flawed in a lot of ways. But the thing is, he is saying what people won’t say.

At a Huddle House near Holly Springs, Mississippi, a trim, middle-aged African American man wearing a knit shirt and a baseball cap is sitting alone, reading from his mobile device, waiting for his breakfast order to arrive. I interrupt him, and he lets me sit down.

He’s a Republican—“Republicans don’t want so much taxing and so much spending [of] money that should be left in your hands”—but he says he also has some sympathy for the Democrats’ desire to “help people in need.” He works two jobs. The first is a small electronic repair business, which he started and owns. His second job is serving as a pastor of a small Pentecostal church. He says the two fit together well: “As a pastor, I can see people who’ve been going through this and that, and that gives me an opportunity to be a business man as well.” I ask him who he likes for President.

There are two guys that attract me very strongly. People who don’t mind making a stand. Whatever I believe, I make a stand for it, and I fight for it, and this year that’s Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Because at this time, I do believe we are scared, that we’ve been caught up in so much political happenings. . . . When it comes to [the presidential election], so many people today definitely don’t want to hear, “We have to go along.” I’m really looking for somebody who is different from that. I really fear there has been a lot of “acting.” But Trump has so much more meaning than that. He is showing the world a different mind. He’s different in that he says, “Whatever I believe, I’m putting it out there right now. You may not like it right now, but it’s what I’m saying.” That is really different, and I think Bernie does that too. They are really just different politicians.

Both of them?

Both of them. That’s where I am, I’m following no guide.

At a truck stop near Jackson, Tennessee, I introduce myself to a slender, gray-haired, gray-bearded fellow whose gray T-shirt says “Confederate States of America: Two Centuries of Defiance.” He’s a long-distance truck driver, heading that day toward Amarillo, Texas. His great-grandfather served in the Confederate Army, and he’s an avid Civil War reenactor: “I’ve got a couple of uniforms in the truck. We do cemetery fields, dedications, grave dedications.” What does he think about the presidential election?

I really don’t know. I just know I don’t want Hillary. At all. But it’s gonna go downhill, worse than what it is now.

You think it’s going downhill now?

Oh, yeah. It’s Obama bringing all of the Muslims in. You know all these people, bringing them in, and we’re paying for their food, their housing, everything. He’s just giving it to them. He’s just wanting all this done. He’s wanting us to foot their bill. And if we go over there, we’ll get shot.

And you figure Hillary Clinton will just continue that policy?

Yes, or make it worse.

On a busy street corner in Danville, Kentucky, I meet two street evangelists, both older white men, one wearing a baseball cap that says “Malawi.” He tells me he’s been to Malawi four times to distribute Christian literature and preach in the markets. What do they think about the presidential election?

I believe we’re in the midnight hour, as a nation. We’re going down the tubes because there’s no morality. They throw the Bible out of the schools, out of the government. And a nation like that will perish, as history proves to us over and over. And America is doing that, like England did and like Germany did.

Yeah, falling away from faith.

Yeah, socialism—the Democrats openly profess it. And that’s a step away from communism. And the Republicans—they ain’t much better. I think we’re in big trouble. If God doesn’t intervene, I think judgment will come to this country like it did in England, like it did in Germany.

I ask, “Who is your candidate?”

I don’t know. I like Trump’s ideas, but . . . maybe Cruz.

Having dinner one night at a White Castle outside of Cincinnati, Ohio, I introduce myself to a man with white hair wearing blue jeans and a T-shirt. He’s a truck driver, originally from Kentucky. Both of us have on our trays forlorn-looking piles of empty White Castle hamburger packages. What does he think about the presidential election?

There ain’t nobody there to choose from. I might not even vote, and that would be the first time not voting since I turned 18, and I’ll be 64 this year. I’m disgusted with the damn politics in the United States.

Looking back on it, are there any you were proud to vote for?

I liked Ronald Reagan. I really did.

Who was the worst, in your opinion?

Bill Clinton.

In Ohio, I visited with my friends David and Amber Lapp, who used to work for me at the think tank I direct, the Institute for American Values. Several years ago, as a part of that work, they moved from New York City to southern Ohio to do research on the views of white, blue-collar twenty-somethings on love, sex, family, and marriage. They came to study, but stayed on to raise their children there and be a part of the community. My admiration for them knows few bounds. They told me, accurately, that they knew plenty of the strangers I wanted to meet.

At a picnic in their back yard, I met Tim, age thirty with a wife and three young children, who works in an automotive components plant. Originally from Kentucky, he voted twice for Barack Obama and is passionately interested in politics.

I’m disappointed in the way that government in general has acted, and how there is a lack of cooperation from both sides, both Democrats and Republicans. Politics now, as opposed to when my parents were my age, is a totally different atmosphere, and it’s not a good thing. Today it’s a failure of the politicians to listen, to actually help the people instead of just helping themselves. Today it just comes down to, who can put more money into their pockets? Honestly that’s not okay with me, that’s the reason why we are several trillion dollars in the hole.

He says this year he “will have to go with Trump.”

I think having a lifelong politician in office is not what we need at this stage, especially with us being as far as in the hole financially as we are. I think we need to have a President who really has no political ties at all. . . . A lot of the old generation are backing Trump, because he reminds them a lot of Reagan in the ’80s. . . . Also, I like the fact that Trump is not doing any of this for money. He is not taking bribes from liberals or from conservatives. The thing is, I think a lot of politicians who have been lifelong politicians have lost sight of what makes this country the way it is. We need to get back to the roots of what this country was founded on, and that is the U.S. Constitution. We’re on the verge of becoming a socialist country—not a republic, not a democracy. We’re becoming a socialist and eventually communist country.

His wife joins the conversation. She supports Hillary Clinton. He tells me they argue a lot over the issue. He says: “Honestly, at this point I don’t think the United States is ready for a woman President. I don’t feel that we’re ready because we are so unstable.”

Indeed, he foresees growing discord and the escalation of political violence.

We are going to have a second civil war.

You really think there could be that kind of violence inside the country?

There is not a doubt in my mind that there will be violence.

I ask, where does he get his information?

I usually get daily, if not a couple of times a day, updates on politics and on local news, national news. Usually on my phone. I usually go online, I got through CNN, Fox News, all the major news sources that I will follow. MSNBC as well. I follow all of them.

Really, all of them?

I usually try to, yeah. Because most people don’t do that. Most people pick their favorite. I don’t believe in that. I try to follow all of them because I know not every news source is going to carry all the facts.

The next day, also courtesy of Amber and David, I meet a couple who appear to be in their late 60s. They are full of hospitality, local history, and charm. She was a letter-carrier and is now co-founding a local historical society. He is an artist and a building manager. Both have a strong interest in restoring old buildings. Together they have five children and 14 grandchildren. She says they are both for Trump.

A lot of it is because we need someone in there [who is] strong. He believes basically in the same things we do, but I do believe that he can do it. I think he can make our country great, when he says it. I believe he will earn the respect of other leaders. I believe that he will not waver on his word. Like he said, you got to sometimes take it a little at a time and negotiate. Just, when he talks, I believe in him. Because he has already proven himself with his businesses, and mainly, I’m worried for the future generations. For their security and safety.

Say a bit more about that.

I think our present leader has put us in jeopardy. I think he’s caused a lot of the racial problems that we have right now. I believe our present leadership caused it—caused our society to be what I would say is a little too sensitive. And I believe it’s true, what Trump says, that they’re afraid to identify the enemy and say it. I feel for our military and police out there trying to protect us. They can’t do their job properly. People are just too sensitive, and I blame it on our leadership. Like I said, with Trump, I know a lot of people say he’s rude and crude and whatever, but he speaks the truth. That’s the way I feel.

It’s frightening to think, if Hillary was in there. It’s scary . . . .

Her husband says:

I remember the day Trump entered. Now, I can’t tell you that about any other politicians in my entire life, that I remember the day. At first I thought it was a joke. I said, “Wouldn’t that be great if Trump would really run?” I said, “I know it’s a joke, but what if he did?” Then I’m like, oh my gosh, this is no joke. And I thought, this is fantastic! This is what we need. He’s not a politician. Here’s somebody that really knows what he’s doing, knows how to run a business, knows how to put good men together. Isn’t backed by any of the big political money or anything else in the country. This has never happened. This is amazing, and this is someone that appeals to more than just Republicans, he appeals to Democrats, too, you know? Because before this, I wasn’t really interested. I thought, “It’s over, Hillary is going to get in and that’s it.” I really thought that way. I thought, it doesn’t matter, I will vote—I always vote—but it doesn’t matter, she’s going to win. But Trump was the first person where I said, wait a minute, he could be there. We could actually have a chance now.

He says it’s important to defeat Hillary Clinton “so this country can survive.” He says this election is important because “you got to go somewhere so you can take back control of this country.”

Because we’re going to lose it. I mean this last judge, if they put one on the Supreme Court and the Court tilts, we’re screwed. There’s your Second Amendment rights gone, and there’s nothing after that. Once they do that, everything shuts down. I mean you look at every country that takes your guns, they can do anything they want, because you have no way to fight back.

We are always the losers. And I’m like, how did that happen? This is our country and we’re losing everything.

I can’t claim that what I’ve reported here proves anything about anything. The people who talked to me in late March and early April of this year do not constitute what scholars call a representative sample—not of Trump supporters, of Southerners, or of lower-middle-class and blue-collar Americans, much less of American society. They are just a few people I met while driving along a few American roads. Nevertheless, I’m glad I did it, because I do believe that I learned, or at least convinced myself of, a few meaningful facts about U.S. politics in 2016.

I learned that people who describe Trump’s supporters as ignorant haven’t talked to them.

I learned that many, possibly a majority, of Trump’s supporters vote for him not because, but despite, his frequently outrageous comments.

I learned that many of Trump’s supporters don’t necessarily trust him.

I learned that, although much of the country today appears to be brimming with anger, very little of that anger seems to take the form of class resentment. Trump’s self-proclaimed status as a billionaire appears to be an unambiguous plus for him as a candidate. Non-affluent Americans seem increasingly to detest and mistrust politicians, but far fewer seem to detest or mistrust rich people, big corporations, or the growing concentration of wealth in the upper tiers of U.S. society.

I learned that very large proportions of Southern and of blue-collar white people, especially men, hold Hillary Clinton in utter contempt. In all my conversations, I met exactly one woman, and not a single man, who said anything positive about Clinton. In the movie The Grifters, the son can’t understand why his mother detests his girlfriend so intensely. Frustrated, he asks, “What’s your objection to Myra?” Her answer: “Same as anybody’s.” That’s how nearly everyone I met seemed to feel about Hillary Clinton.¹ I’ll leave it to others, or perhaps to myself on another day, to explain why this is so.

I learned that, in addition to a steadily growing partisan divide—liberals vilifying conservatives and vice versa—the United States is also experiencing a growing governing divide, such that millions of Americans find themselves voting for candidates that they can’t stand and don’t trust. The overwhelming majority of those I interviewed simply do not believe that their elected leaders, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do the right thing. In my view, this sentiment is toxic, particularly in a democracy, and, probably more than any other factor, explains Trump’s rise. He’s an alluring candidate for the large and growing proportion of Americans who believe that the core problem with our politics is politicians.

I learned that many non-affluent Americans fear that the hour is late and that “we’re losing everything.”

I learned that many decent, sincere people who feel disregarded, disrespected, and left behind—in ways that I do not feel and have never felt—can disproportionately embrace political opinions that I view as bigoted or paranoid. And I wonder, if there is fault here, whose fault is it?

I learned that possibly the most significant divide in American life today is the class divide. Much current scholarship, and certainly the interviews reported here, suggest that the approximately one-third of Americans with four-year college degrees are essentially thriving, while the other two-thirds fall further and further behind on nearly every measure.² And to make the matter worse, today’s upscale Americans are less and less likely even to interact with, much less actually give a damn about, those other Americans.³ Again I wonder, if there is fault to be assigned here, where should it be assigned?

In 1962, a writer named Michael Harrington, who had a big early influence on my life, wrote a book called The Other America that helped to inspire what, during the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, was called the “War on Poverty.” Poor Americans in 1962, Harrington argued, are “increasingly invisible.” He said: “Here is a great mass of people, yet it takes an effort of the intellect and will even to see them.”&sup4; In 2016, the poor are certainly still at the center of “the other America.” But as far as being “invisible” to most upscale Americans, and treated with arrogance and ignorance and indifference by so many of our political elites, today they have a lot more company.

  1. A July 2016 Pew survey finds that about 78 percent of white Evangelical voters plan to vote for Trump. And of that pro-Trump group, a solid majority say that their vote for Trump will be “mainly a vote against Clinton.” White Evangelical Protestants currently constitute about 20 percent of registered voters and about one-third of Republican and Republican-leaning voters. See “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton,” Pew Research Center, July 13, 2016.
  2. This historically recent class-based bifurcation involving the upscale and rising 30 percent and the downwardly mobile 70 percent is evidenced by many measurements, including education, family structure, income and job security, household debt, physical and mental health and life expectancy, interpersonal and social trust, happiness, faith in the future, the likelihood of experiencing poverty, neighborhood quality and safety, outcomes for children, and others. See Charles Murray, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 (Crown Forum, 2012); Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (Simon & Shuster, 2015); “When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America,” in The State of Our Unions: 2010 (Institute for American Values and the National Marriage Project of the University of Virginia, 2010); Louise Sheiner, “Implications of the growing gap in life expectancy by income,” Brookings Institution, September 18, 2015; “The American Middle Class Is Losing Ground,” (Pew Research Center, December 9, 2015.
  3. See, for example, Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart (Houghton Mifflin Company, 2008).
  4. Michael Harrington, The Other America (Macmillan, 1962), p. 2.

To Protect and Defend: A Letter to Trump Supporters

We write to appeal to our fellow citizens who support or might support Donald Trump for president of the United States.

With you, we wish to ask: What qualities make our democracy possible? For we know from the founders and from our history – we’ve all learned in school – that freedom is not free and that democracy, more than any other form of government, requires what James Madison, a main architect of our Constitution, called “qualities” in citizens and leaders “which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”

Which “qualities” are essential to our democracy? Probably all of us can agree on six.

  1. Self-control. A basic democratic insight is that self-government begins with governing the self. That’s why “America the Beautiful,” the patriotic song we learned as children, prays for America to “confirm thy soul in self-control.” In authoritarian regimes, there is little expectation that rulers will regulate their emotions and behavior so as to demonstrate respect for those being ruled. In a democracy, there is. We typically demand that democratic leaders demonstrate the strength of character to hold in check the natural human tendencies toward self-centeredness, excessive self-regard, casual cruelty, and the need to dominate others.
  2. Honesty. Democracy stems from the sometimes fragile hope that, by arguing and reasoning with one another, we can achieve something good. Chronic dishonesty in our public debate destroys that hope. It breeds mistrust, which makes the debaters suspicious, and it blocks the possibility of shared understanding based in reality, which makes the debate pointless.
  3. Giving reasons for one’s views. In non-democratic forms of government, leaders typically rely on personal assertions to justify themselves. They simply assert that they are stronger or in some way more worthy of admiration or fear than others, or that their rivals are stupid, bad, weak, or in some other way inferior to them. But such personal assertions are not conducive to democratic accountability and cannot provide democracy with the necessary intellectual oxygen. That’s why democratic leaders must also give impersonal reasons for their views – substantive arguments, apart from subjective status claims, that can be evaluated and debated by the electorate.
  4. Judging others as individuals. The slogan “one person, one vote” points to a broader truth: In our American democracy, what ultimately counts – what makes one an American – is individual character, not group attributes such as skin color, religion, or the language of your parents. Judging people by their character and not their group is a core American idea.
  5. Respecting the rule of law. The great enemy of democracy is the arbitrary use of power. The rule of law limits this danger by requiring elected officials to use their power in accordance with public, transparent rules, not just their own whims and preferences. Few things are more dangerous to a free society than ignorance of, or disregard for, the rule of law.
  6. Respecting the independence of the press.Freedom of speech, arguably our seminal democratic freedom, is inseparable from an independent press. And in free society there is a natural clash between politicians, who typically believe that they deserve favorable coverage, and journalists, who often disagree. That’s why we’ve developed an informal but important code of conduct. It’s fine to criticize press coverage. But it’s not fine for politicians to demean journalists, denigrate their motives, or in other ways seek to coerce or intimidate them.

Nearly all of us, including the signatories to this appeal and most candidates of both parties in this election season, at times fail to exemplify these traits. Moreover, our system of government does not require perfect people, as Madison makes clear when he reminds us that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.”

But our system of government does require that most of us, most of the time, at least try to exemplify these traits. And for this reason and others, most of us do try.

Donald Trump does not. We will not insult your intelligence by recounting some of the many examples of Mr. Trump exemplifying the inverse of each of these traits as well as making clear his philosophical contempt for them. You know this behavior as well as we do. Moreover, we suspect that many of you don’t approve of it any more than we do. Instead, as far as we can tell, our main disagreement is whether Mr. Trump’s clear-for-all-to-see repudiation of these democratic “qualities” disqualifies him from becoming the next president of the United States. We say it does. You say either that it doesn’t or that it might not.

You have a number of respectable arguments on your side. We’d like to look briefly at five of them.

  1. They all do it. Yes, they do. But no one does it nearly as much as Mr. Trump. For example, almost all politicians sometimes fail to tell to the truth. But all independent studies of the candidates’ veracity during this election season have found that no other candidate is remotely close to Mr. Trump when it comes to making false and misleading statements. And at a certain point, a difference in degree becomes a difference in kind. Nor does anyone else do it nearly as proudly as Mr. Trump. He doesn’t just violate standards such respecting the rule of law and judging people as individuals – he apparently believes in violating these standards and publicly defends doing so. What for most of us are lapses are for him principles.
  2. He’s the nominee of my party. We acknowledge that it’s harder for Republicans than Democrats to walk away from supporting Mr. Trump. But some of us who write to you are Republicans. And we believe deeply that, at times in our national history, it is important to put country before party. This is one of those times.
  3. His policies and appointments would be better than Clinton’s. Even if we concede this point – and we strongly disagree among ourselves about Hillary Clinton’s policies and likely appointments to important positions – is that fact important enough to override a more basic consideration? We aren’t criticizing or praising Mr. Trump’s policy proposals or his likely appointments. Our objection to him is deeper – we believe that his entire way of behaving represents a rejection of the essential character traits (the “qualities”) that our democracy requires of its leaders. We of course acknowledge that policy positions matter. But doesn’t political behavior inimical to democracy matter more?
  4. Once he’s president, the system will contain and restrain him. Maybe so. But what if it doesn’t? Certainly little to date has done so. And let’s not forget that the U.S. president is one of the world’s most powerful people, with much leeway to take actions for good or ill on many crucial issues, including issues of life and death. We admit that becoming president might change Mr. Trump, requiring him to modify some of his behavior. But we also ask you to acknowledge the possibility that becoming president might not change him much at all.
  5. Today’s politicians are crooked and incompetent and don’t care about ordinary Americans – and at least he’s not a politician. In conversations with grass-roots Trump supporters, this one has probably been the most commonly expressed reason for supporting him. And we understand the point. We agree that millions of Americans are being poorly served by American politics today. We share at least some of your priorities and anger. But we ask you to consider whether Mr. Trump – who as far as we can tell is far more interested in himself than in anyone else – is really going to do anything for you or for the country, other than continuing to say things that aren’t true, make promises no one could keep, constantly brag about himself, and insult and try to bully the growing number of people and groups he doesn’t like. We don’t think he will. We believe that you – that all of us – would come deeply to regret putting this man in charge of our country.

We are not enemies, but friends. We probably have more in common than we realize. We intend this letter less as an announcement of an opinion than an invitation to a conversation. We hope that some of you will respond. Perhaps we can organize some public debates on this topic in the near future, so that we can talk with rather than only at each other. We know that we have in common wanting what is best for our country.


David Blankenhorn, Better Angels, New York, NY

Dale Carpenter, Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law
Dallas, TX

John J. DiIulio, Jr., University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA

William J. Doherty, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN

Don Eberly, Civil Society Project, Lancaster, PA

Mickey Edwards, Former Member of the U.S. House Republican Leadership, Washington, D.C.

Robert M. Franklin, President Emeritus of Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA

Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University, Stanford, CA

Susan M. Glisson, William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation
University of Mississippi, Oxford, MS

Ron Haskins, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

Lanae Erickson Hatalsky, Third Way, Washington, D.C.

Alan J. Hawkins, Brigham Young University, Provo, UT

Margaret Hoover, American Unity Fund, Washington, D.C.

Kay S. Hymowitz, Manhattan Institute, New York, NY

Liz Joyner, The Village Square, Tallahassee, FL

Eli Lehrer, R Street Institute, Washington, D.C.

Linda Malone-Colón, Hampton University, Hampton, VA

David G. Myers, Hope College, Holland, MI

Mitch Pearlstein, Center of the American Experiment, Golden Valley, MN

Robert Putnam, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

W. Bradford Wilcox, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA


1. As of 6/30/16. Organizational affiliations listed for identification purposes only.

Trump’s Candidacy is a Gain for ISIS

It is hard to sort through the multiple “suggestions” made by the presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on the subject of banning “all Muslims” from entry to the United States. Some of Trump’s statements indicate that the ban would exclude US citizens of Muslim faith or background. But when Mr. Trump insists that Muslim members of the US armed forces will certainly be allowed back, the previous assumption about all US nationals with a hint of Islam being able to return home loses in turn in certainty. And while the candidate himself has somehow backpedaled on the categorical nature of his planned ban, his electoral machine is busy touting it in many markets as an act of resolute courage and determination.

Candidate Donald Trump is not the cause of concern here. President Donald Trump, if the string of political surprises that has shaped the current political season continues, will not be the cause of concern either. Candidates engage in polarizing rhetoric to activate sluggish bases, while presidents of the United States are not absolute potentates — this country is endowed with a constitutional system that safeguards rights, and continues to generate legions of political office holders who will keep even an inordinately reckless president in check. The real cause of concern in the Trump phenomenon is that a political campaign has been constructed on the premise that resorting to blatantly discriminatory postures will yield positive electoral results, and that this premise — previously dismissed as out of line with the values and convictions of US society and culture — has been vindicated.

Either out of outright support for his discriminatory postures or out of a lack of consideration of their gravity, Republican primary voters have not chastised Donald Trump for his positions towards Muslims, Hispanics in general, Mexicans in particular, women, and the handicapped; they have instead enabled him to become the party’s standard bearer. This public endorsement has elated the candidate, inviting him to further escalate his rhetoric. To the cry of no more political correctness, the decorum previously expected in open political exchange has been shunned. And so have courtesy and basic manners. The currency of debate has degenerated from arguments competing to win the minds of an attentive public, into insults, bullying, and verbal attacks, phrased to demean, polarize, and mobilize.

US political culture is resilient. As considerable as is the damage afflicting it, the way to recovery will be found, with or without a President Trump. However, the spike in corrosive rhetoric unleashed by Trump has already had a deeper negative impact internationally — one that may amount to a fatal blow to the already damaged system of globally shared values.

Surely, Donald Trump is far from being the primary culprit in degrading and ultimately defeating what seemed in a moment of optimism a universal consensus on rights and values. By feats of commission or omission, major international actors, including the US Administration, the United Nations, and the West in general, have contributed to the attrition of principles they proclaim — freedom, dignity, justice, and equality. Guantanamo Bay is maintained as a legal black hole — providing solace worldwide to dictatorships and rogues factions subverting or ignoring international norms. “Collateral damage” continues to be condoned, and is even set to be tolerated at higher levels, in drone attacks engaged in extra-judicial executions, offering ready justifications for terrorism. Most dramatically, a selective layered reaction has been set in addressing terrorism as a function of the identity of its targets: Western victims command outrage and decisive policy measures; the pain suffered by local ethnic and religious minorities, such as Kurds, Christians, and Yazidis is met with solemn denunciations and condemnations. As for the on-going killing of the nondescript general Sunni Arab population, which constitutes the vast majority of the victims of terrorism and despotism, it does not seem to summon more than nominal objections.

This selectiveness has raised questions in the Arab and Muslim worlds about the commitment of the West to the values it has advocated as universal. ISIS, al-Qa‘idah, and other manifestations of radical Islamism, have thrived on the notion of Western hypocrisy — that the West merely uses rights, values, and democracy as tools to secure its interests at the detriment of the rest, in particular the Islamic world. Radical Islamists have described the international system as an abject fraud and universal values as a cynical farce. Muslims, they argue, are targeted and discriminated against not as particular individuals responsible for their specific actions, but as a collective, and should thus react as such.

The official stand of Western governments, and of mainstream culture in the West, has consistently been that the free world will not succumb to the temptations of reductionist judgment and collective punishment which such logic incites. Alas, the Trump phenomenon reveals otherwise.

The locutions of the Republican candidate are welcome additions to the radical Islamist propaganda efforts. In Trump as a demagogue and a populist, ISIS and affinity formations have a tactical ally and a source of support. However, in Trump as a presidential candidate, and possibly as president — either way endorsed by a vast popular base — radical Islamism can legitimately state that it has achieved a strategic victory. The positions of exclusion, enmity, and conflict between Islam and the West are now shared by a dangerous fringe in the Islamic world, claiming authority over the religion and culture of well over a billion Muslims, and by a sizable fraction of the political landscape in the United States.

By a process of bilateral reinforcement already in motion, the two parties are in a better position to defeat their common enemy: the proposition that the human race is united by shared values. Those who watch with concern the continuing loss of the universal in global culture and international relations can no longer hope for a self-correction based on rational interests. By appealing to primordial fears, the promoters of hate and distrust have the momentum set in their favor. To reverse it, the tasks due are enormous. The stakes are even more so.

Hassan Mneimneh is a Scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C., a Principal at Middle East Alternatives, and a Better Angels program leader.

Moderate and Mad as Hell


In 1787, 81-year old Benjamin Franklin was the most famous American on earth. Admired for his expertise in both natural and political science, he enjoyed the intellectual status to tell others how best to govern. Franklin harbored many concerns about the proposed Constitution and had argued vigorously for provisions that did not make the final draft. Yet, in the final hours of the Constitutional Convention’s debate he addressed the delegates seeking their support for the document:

Mr. President, I confess that there are several parts of this Constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: for having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects…

On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the Convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and…put his name to this instrument.

Franklin’s timely display of moderation and profound humility persuaded others to compromise enough to create this country. Yet today, the very qualities that gave us such strength at our founding have been maligned by extreme positions, leading to political paralysis and a dismal failure to solve the pressing problems of our time.

The insidious allegation that has crept into America’s political ego is that moderates lack principles. Moderates are unwilling to take decisive stands and are, therefore, untrustworthy members of a tribe or a movement or a political party. They seek only to split the difference between the positions taken by their noble opponents. Their support for compromise results in mediocre solutions, which are at variance with greatness. Or so the argument goes.[1]

These claims are not only false, but dangerous and is time for moderates to say so.

Being moderate is not a political description; it is how one understands the motivations of others and how one solves problems. A moderate is a realist, accepting how people are, not how we would like them to be. A moderate is open to listening to the truths of others. It is a personality trait, not a political ideology. Hence, describing someone as a moderate Republican or Democrat speaks more as to how that person interacts with others and processes information than what they believe. And there may be a lot of us. Forty-one percent of voters described themselves as “moderate” in exit polls during the 2012 presidential election.[2]

Moderates know the history of our country as a successful accommodation of competing views and respect that tradition of conflict. They seek understanding, balance and proportion. They are skeptical, although not necessarily dismissive, of extreme positions. They understand it takes all kinds of perspectives to create policies in a turbulent world.

At the core of a moderate’s moral code is a profound sense of humility. Their loyalty, rather than pledged unwaveringly to political party, is channeled into sustaining our democracy.

Humility is a willingness to listen respectfully to others and to question our own certainty. It requires the courage to compromise when appropriate. A humble person recognizes the sovereignty of another to think differently and the value of that different thought. “A stand for compromise is not the stuff of heroism, virtue or moral certainty,” historian Barbara Oberg has written, “but it is the essence of the democratic process.”

Humility should not be confused with weakness or absence of conviction. The guiding stars of humble persons are usually quite clear; they just don’t blind one to believe in their own perfect knowledge. There are times a moderate stands purely on principle; it is just not all the time. In short, moderates want to change the world but realize they cannot do it unilaterally.

The United States enjoys a legacy of public humility reaching back to President Washington and before. Time and time again, American leaders have recognized that to solve the toughest problems they needed to reach out to the other side and to moderate their positions to achieve a lasting result. This is the essence of democracy. Our rich heritage of public humility has created the safe spaces for the Republic to flourish.

Franklin’s comments on the Constitution provide an example. Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address struck the same accommodating chord by not celebrating the bloody victory over the Confederacy as all expected, but asking rather for understanding and kindness. Any modern leader would detail the victory, implicitly take credit and thank the Maker for the blessings bestowed upon the winning side. Instead, Lincoln noted both the common humanity and the moral failure of both sides,

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other…the prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.

He closed with no expression of that moral superiority which is so evident in current political discourse,

With malice toward none, with charity toward all…let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln spoke with empathy and humility and with a sacred purpose to unify. Pulitzer-prize winning author and historian Jon Meacham would approve,

The capacity not to betray anyone’s fundamental principles, but to understand that we live in an imperfect and fallen world, is a mark of a great leader. [3]

Humility is the key that opens the door to purposeful dialogue. But we have lost dialogue to debate. We are so certain in our opinions that we do not listen anymore. We rush in to tell our truths about the way things are and must be, not allowing that there might be other truths and possibilities. We talk over each other, with not even a gap for politeness, much less for silence and consideration and that “doubting of your own infallibility.” As MIT professor William Isaacs quipped, “People do not listen. They reload.”[4]

Moderates, on the other hand, value humility over party and even over ideology because they seek first to solve problems. “The greatness of America,” Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in 1835, “lies in her ability to repair her faults.” In the face of crisis we have historically banded together, compromised and overcome. Americans fix what is broken.

But today the incessant bickering has led mostly to paralysis. While political and ideological conflict is part of our national DNA, the inability to solve difficult problems is not. This failure is disgraceful: significant policy challenges such as immigration and failing public infrastructure remain unsolved. Too many leaders would rather be right than competent. Instead, we need those who practice moral humility and are committed to repairing our faults.

This is not about short-term wins and never should be. This is about governing a diverse nation over the long-term; about meeting the test of whether a free people are truly capable of governing themselves. The moderate’s natural tendency to acknowledge the sovereignty of another to think differently is the skill set least evident and most needed today.


Two truths underlie how moderates understand the world:

  • People are different and issues are complex.
  • People are different; wired differently, raised differently, with different moral foundations. We are separated by great personal and public divides; race, education, culture, religion, geography, age, gender, wealth and poverty, liberalism and conservatism. We hold our personal and sacred values dearly.

When a society is both free and diverse it can be hard to find enough common ground to meet common challenges. A community of people with different backgrounds, values and personal styles must somehow temper at least some of those characteristics in order to make collective decisions. This is the mixed blessing of freedom; we traded authoritarian certainty for self-determination, giving up the notion centuries ago that a king or supreme religious leader or anyone else would make our decisions for us. We are the ones we have been waiting for.

And issues are almost always more complex than we would like them to be. There are more than two sides to each story. What we perceive so clearly proves not to be so. Our field of vision is limited by the lens through which we see. Recognizing complexity means we not succumb to oversimplification. Like a game of pick up sticks, every issue has some relation to another and it is hard to address one without impacting something else. By experience, we know this to be true. Once we know more about a situation, first reactions often prove to be the wrong reactions.

People are different and issues are complex. One might think this is obvious and we should dedicate more time and talent understanding our challenges and what divides us. But not today. Our differences are pronounced and they increasingly sort us out. Whenever possible we live, work, play and worship with people who think and look like us. We read the same books, watch the same television shows, hit the “like” button to the same articles and hover together at social gatherings with people who think and look like us. This mutual re-enforcement cements the notion that we are right and the others are wrong. Our positions simplify and harden.

This problem is exacerbated by social media. We’re choosing the news and opinions to which we are exposed, intentionally shutting out other crucial information.

Those who dare to take the time to understand the realities facing others, or to consider life’s complexities, are charged with being equivocal or indecisive or lacking principles. Nonsense. People are different and issues are complex.

Failure to understand these truths has brought anger and intolerance. As a result, we’re no longer working together to solve the problems a free people must solve. Americans once rolled up their sleeves; now, we put up our dukes. We are deeply and emotionally polarized.

Polarization is an intense commitment to a person or idea which paints the rival person or idea as not just wrong, but corrupt or immoral; when one way of thinking is assumed to be morally superior and entirely correct and the other side entirely wrong.

How bad has it become? About a quarter of all Democrats and over a third of all Republicans view the other Party as “a threat to the nation’s well-being.”[5] More surprisingly, 50% of Republican parents today would be upset if their child married a Democrat (that number is about 30% for Democratic parents).[6]

These statistics are staggering. I know many people with whom I fundamentally disagree but have never considered them a threat to the nation’s well-being. And as a parent, the last concern I would have is the party affiliation of my son’s fiancée. But such are our times.


Those who are driven by a fear of people and events they do not understand and who long for certainty and order challenge the moderate, and understandably so. Many can no longer rely upon the institutional anchors that have steadied our ship since the Second World War; the corporate, non-profit or government entities that provided jobs, safety, certainty and order. Fear and anger grow from a justified belief that the game is rigged for a powerful few. There is a real sense of loss out there: loss of security, loss of control, loss of hope.

The moderate is wired to trust, to listen and deliberate; not to lash out or blow up. But the very skills needed to find common ground are not in vogue. While the nation’s chorus of voices is increasingly loud and discordant, the moderate’s harmonies are barely heard.

This is an important point. There are many voices in our melting pot of a country. We are liberal and conservative, libertarian and socialist, unattached or disinterested; and mostly we fall at some difficult-to-define location along the continuum. Our distinct moral foundations are, in large part, already set.[7] This essay is intended, in part, to explain how and why moderates focus on resolving problems and to let people know there are others who think the current public discourse is insanely divisive.

In 1990, a diverse group of 30 South African leaders gathered to envision the future of the country. The noted facilitator Peter Senge led these visioning workshops.[8] Although the apartheid government was still in power and Nelson Mandela still in prison, it was clear the great sweep of history was about to change the country. Senge was asked to help the group prepare for the dramatic social and political changes ahead.

On the last day of the workshops, all gathered around the television to hear President de Klerk list the previously banned black organizations that would now be lawful. One of the community organizers, Anne Loetsebe, realized the path to the end of apartheid and to political empowerment had just been cleared. Friends and family members would soon be released from prison.

They also listened to a broadcast of Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1964 “I Have a Dream” speech. It had not been allowed to air in South Africa until that day. Many had not heard it.

Before the group broke up to leave, it was customary for each person to say whatever he or she wanted about the day’s events. A tall Afrikaans business executive who has been relatively quiet during the previous sessions stood and looked directly at Anne Loetsebe. With moistening eyes, he quietly stated, “I want you to know that I was raised to think you were an animal.”

And then he began to cry.

Senge writes,

As I watched this, I saw a huge knot become untied. I don’t know how to describe it except to say it was as if a rope simply became untied and broke apart. I knew intuitively that what had been holding him and so many others prisoners of the past was breaking. They were becoming free…from that moment I never had any doubt that significant and lasting change would occur in South Africa.[9]

Senge’s story is a glimpse into how the moderate’s ethics present in the real world. The thirty participants were collaboratively seeking a better path for the nation. The white businessman clearly and courageously stated the personal assumption he grew up believing. Without such candor he, and perhaps the entire group, could not move forward. The very fact that people of fundamentally different views were in the same room and struggling to accommodate each other’s values reflected humility in their relationships. And their whole purpose in gathering was to envision a different and better future. Each element of this process required the exercise of bravery; the courage to engage, to speak directly, to give up power and to envision something different – even something very uncomfortable.

The Latin root of the word “resolve” is solvare, “to loosen or to untie.” Senge’s keen intuition was that the bonds which had so severely separated the South African community were being untied by the participants.

Anglers refer to a “wind knot,” that mess of fishing line that bunches when a rod is badly cast. Unraveling is tedious work. What you cannot do is pull quickly in frustration. You must take the time to create the space for the knot to untie. That is our task; finding the time and patience and understanding to loosen the knots.


Addressing public policy through a moderate’s lens and recognizing the legitimacy of fear is not the end of the story. Moderation is an approach, an established behavior. It answers the question how. The following is what I believe. I am a Centrist.[10]

Dr. Charles Wheelan, professor at Dartmouth College and author of The Centrist Manifesto, explains the ideal:

Identify the problem. Assess the causes. Evaluate the possible solutions. Recognize the legitimate differences of opinion. And then do something responsible. Our dysfunctional two-party system has lost its ability to do that.[11]

Centrism is not some middle-ground compromise between conservative and liberal. Rather, the Centrist draws from the most compelling ideas from each Party. For example, Centrists respect the historical strength of the Republicans’ fiscal conservatism and appropriate skepticism of ever-enlarging government. The Centrist also admires the Democrats’ natural empathy for the truly disadvantaged and long-standing efforts to protect civil and personal rights. The list of respected accomplishments of both sides is long. But we have reached the point where many of us support positions articulated by both parties and reject certain ideas from both parties. It would be considered political heresy to mix them up. Centrists, Wheelan concludes, will “take the best ideas from each party, discard the nonsense, and build something new and better.”[12]

Take the federal debt. I and most people I know are deeply troubled by its size. Unless we make some painfully tough fiscal decisions, and soon, we will leave those who follow us with an unmanageable financial mess. We also respect scientists’ warnings on climate change and its human causes. And because we know and love gay friends and family members, we support gay marriage and are perplexed why it is so troubling to others. We are deeply worried about poverty and the effects of income disparity. Clearly, no current political party is friendly to all these priorities.

In general, Centrists are committed to fiscal responsibility and recognize this will require a combination of revenue increases, spending cuts and reforms to our major entitlement programs. We recognize that history is strewn with the carcasses of failed nations and empires that refused to balance their books. Revisiting the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction committee’s work would be a reasonable place to start.

Centrists are committed to environmental responsibility in the sense that we truly consider ourselves stewards of the planet. We embrace the value of science and innovation, and the discipline of the scientific method. Climate change is a potential threat to our country and the international order. We must reduce carbon emissions, provide for energy alternatives and work to create a sustainable and safe water supply. This is not fluff; it is not even political. Being thoughtful and long-term about environmental policy is a matter of safety and survival.

Centrists are committed to social tolerance and believe the federal government should not involve itself in private behavior that does not affect the broader public. We will work to heal America’s division on social issues rather than exploiting them for political advantage.

And Centrists will fight for economic opportunity. We believe markets are a powerful tool for promoting prosperity and innovation. The role of government is not to pick winners and losers but to create an environment in which the private sector can thrive; to provide a meaningful safety net; and to ensure that every American has an opportunity to achieve his or her economic potential. We must stop talking about this challenge in vague terms and start implementing programs and practices that create – and demonstrate – economic progress.[13]

This is what Centrists believe. The Centrists are without a home and I believe there are a bunch of us.


My goal has been to define a moderate, explain the Centrist movement and give some comfort to those who may share this angst and aspiration. The goal is not to convince others to join our team. Changing minds is a fool’s errand. Researchers have been telling us that for years. But finding some common ground by changing hearts? There is some hope for that.

How do you change hearts in the current political cage fight? In the same way we always have; we open ourselves to personal collisions with people who are not like us. This is hard and rare. There are too few opportunities to collide with another; to engage in the difficult conversation about one’s experiences and values.

The moderate Centrist believes that not all deep conflicts are ideological. Rather, they may reflect our different opinions as to how complex systems work. I might see the causes of poverty in one way if I were born into poverty; quite another if I were born into wealth. It is easy to devolve into some shorthand description of the Other, without understanding a whit about the Other. It is difficult to place yourself in the Other’s shoes. We are victims of our experiences and the only path forward is to listen carefully enough to come close to understanding another’s reality.

But there are rules for such personal engagement. The parties should treat each other as they did in Peter Senge’s example above. They listen to each other’s truths with empathy, they treat each other as equals and they honestly articulate their assumptions.[14] So often our conflicts result from a lack of human understanding, or some game about who actually has the power in a situation, and/or the fact that the true reason for the conflict is not the one being discussed. I’m convinced that the moderate Centrist can help heal the heart of America.

Is there such a person as an angry moderate Centrist? We do not take to the streets and our ideas do not translate easily to bumper stickers. But I admit I am angry.

I am angry that our political discourse is so superficial and coarse. We are not listening, we are not humble, and we are not resolving anything of importance. That is not being politically correct; it is being mature and mindful of the experiences others have faced.

I am angry because our policy challenges are complex and the answers will require focused thought, time and some significant level of compromise and sacrifice. I am fed up by too many people proposing simple answers to complex questions. That is not being elitist; it is being serious and realistic. I’m also angry at myself for not raising more of a ruckus long ago when I saw the trends so evident today.
Our nation’s knots are tied so tightly now. We are angry with each other and deeply troubled about our future. Some find solace in concepts of isolation and moral certainty.

Unrelenting moral certainty troubles the moderate Centrist. The opposite of moral certainty is not ambivalence. It is toleration, moral humility, intense personal engagement and a fierce loyalty to governing a diverse nation in complex times.

Steven Merritt Seibert is a lawyer and facilitator, a former elected official and state agency director, and a respected leader in the business, government and civic sectors. Seibert is a Floridian. His website is


    1. David Blankenhorn, “Why Polarization Matters,” The American Interest (Dec. 22, 2015).
    2. Charles Wheelan, The Centrist Manifesto, (W.W. Norton, 2013), pg. 11.
    3. Jon Meacham, from lecture in Tallahassee, Florida (Feb. 18, 2016); reported in Tallahassee Democrat (Bill Cotterell, Feb. 20, 2016).
    4. William Isaacs, Dialogue: The Art of Thinking Together, (Crown Business, 1999).
    5. Pew Survey (2014).
    6. David Graham, Atlantic Magazine (September 27, 2012).
    7. For a discussion of “moral foundations,” see generally Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, (Pantheon Books, 2012).
    8. This story is related in the Introduction of Senge, Scharmer, Jaworkski, Flowers; Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations, and Society (Doubleday 2004).
    9. Senge, from Introduction.
    10. See generally, Charles Wheelen, The Centrist Manifesto. Virtually all I write in the next few pages is a footnote to Professor Wheelen’s work.
    11. Id., pg. 12.
    12. Id., pg. 23.
    13. See
    14. See generally, Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (Simon and Schuster 1999).

In Defense of the Practical Politician

Is any group in America today more reviled and detested than professional politicians? I recently spent a week driving through Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio interviewing blue-collar Americans about politics. I learned a lot, but by far the loudest and most consistent message from these interviews was contempt for professional politicians. Recent national opinion polls confirm that most Americans simply no longer believe that elected officials, including those from their own party, are honest or can be trusted even to try to do what’s right for the country.

These beliefs are having profound consequences. To take only the most obvious example, by far the most dynamic force in U.S. politics today is the Trump movement, and much of Trump’s appeal derives from the fact that he’s “not a politician.” Of course this phenomenon is nothing new: running “against Washington” accurately labels earlier presidential campaigns from Carter to Reagan. But it’s gotten worse: A recent Pew survey found that now a majority of the American public believes that “ordinary Americans” could do a better job of solving the country’s problems than elected officials.

This isn’t right. Whatever the problems in our politics – and yes, there are many! – something is deeply wrong in any society in which the governed hold the governing in this much contempt. I’m not sure of everything we’ll need to do as a society to fix this problem, but I do have one idea. It involves remembering something distinctly undramatic that happened in a little college town in Kentucky. In 1962. Involving a 39-year-old guy from Mississippi. Who wanted to be Governor one day. And who taught me Sunday School.

In April of 1962, William F. Winter of Grenada, Mississippi, was serving as state tax collector, a post to which he had been elected in 1959.1 Previously he had served three terms as a state legislator. He was visiting Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, he told the assembled students, as “a practicing politician seeking to discuss compromise in politics.” He titled his remarks “In Defense of the Practical Politician.” Both his argument that day and his subsequent political experiences in Mississippi seem startlingly relevant to today, when Americans seem unified about nothing except that we all disdain the “practical politician.”

He told the students that he did not come to Kentucky “espousing compromise” as a “cynical, smoke-filled room, money-under-the-table concept,” but rather “as that process that has reason as its chief constituent and that permits order and progress to be substituted for impasse and frustration.”

Ever the politician, he flattered the students by reminding them that Kentucky, perhaps largely by virtue of its geography, “has provided so many of America’s tempering and conciliating voices,” including Henry Clay (“whose name has become synonymous with the fine art of compromise”), Kentucky’s “native son” Abraham Lincoln, former Chief Justice Fred Vinson, and former Vice President Alben Barkley. Such leaders

were not grim, narrow-minded fanatics insistent on every letter of their position as if it were providentially inspired. These rather were reasonable men, conscious that they did not have all the answers and willing to concede to others the possibility that they, too, might be at least partially right.

Winter then carefully interrogates the concept of compromise. For starters, is all compromise beneficial? No. The readiness to compromise is essential to serving the public interest, Winter argues, but whether any particular compromise is worthy or unworthy depends on the “sincerity, intelligence, and honesty” of the individuals involved, exercising judgements “for which no manual can be written.” There is no formula for compromise that can guarantee success.

Is compromise typically an easier course of action for the politician than its opposite? No. Compromise on important issues involves “more real anguish” for the politician than “any other area of political experience.” For “what legislator worth his salt has not lain awake at night and wrestled with his conscience as he pondered the eternal problem of expedience versus judgment?”

Winter knew first-hand whereof he spoke. In 1962, he was a moderate in a state in which the very word “moderate” had been successfully transformed into a term of vilification and abuse. For example, the Governor of Mississippi at the time was Ross Barnett, an extreme racial segregationist. His campaign song (I remember hearing it often as a child), “Roll with Ross,” included this verse:

He’s for segregation 100 percent

He’s not a moderate, like some other gent

He’ll fight integration with forceful intent

His campaign brochure (Dynamic Leadership – To Keep Segregation and Improve Our Standard of Living) boasted: “Ross Barnett is OPPOSED to ‘moderation’ in any form.”2

These were winning slogans in Mississippi in 1962. So William Winter, the moderate reformer who wanted to be Governor one day, knew very well the stress and anguish experienced by the politician who must constantly calibrate when, and in what ways, to speak out even for “moderation,” much less the progressive change that the reformer in him sought.

Is standing up for “judgment” over “expedience” worth losing the next election? For Winter, the question was a hard one. But he argues that political expediency “should not automatically be made a matter of reproach” and insists: “It is not merely cynical to say that a defeated politician can’t help anybody.”

Is “any politician who ever concedes anything lacking in courage?” Winter argues that often “the very opposite is true.” In many cases, “perhaps most,” the

willingness to compromise involves great courage…. Some of the most courageous public officials I have known have been the quietly dedicated men of reason who have worked under the most unrelenting pressures to gain acceptance of unpopular but necessary agreements, while bombastic orators denounced them as traitors or worse.

Is logrolling and political favor-trading – the stuff of which many political compromises are actually made – bad for our democracy? No:

A dam in Wyoming or an air base in Texas is usually worth more to a President in the enactment of his program than the hoopla that attends the adoption of his party’s platform…. Let me mention that I emphasize this without apology. It is simply one of the most effective working tools that a political leader has….

Finally, does American politics suffer from too many career politicians? Would our government be purer and more effective if it were more frequently led by political outsiders? No. Our history shows that success in politics is quite different from, and usually “more difficult” than, for example, success in business or the military. That’s why “the most effective political executives and legislators have been by and large the men who have come out of politically oriented backgrounds.”

Therefore, when all is said and done, we Americans

owe much to the practical politician and the adjustments he brings to the inexact science of government. If he is less than certain, it is because he knows, with Holmes, that certitude is not always the test of certainty. If he is less than an intellectual, it is because he knows that not all answers are found in books. If he is less than perfect, it is because he is dealing with less than perfect men.

About five months after he delivered these remarks, some less than perfect men – men of unwavering commitment to principle who believed that compromise is treason and that moderation is cowardice – decided that the U.S. Supreme Court had no authority to require the University of Mississippi to enroll James Meredith, a young African American. One of those men was Governor Barnett. In a series of emotional public appeals – “We must either submit to the unlawful dictates of the federal government or stand up like men and tell them, never!” – the Governor urged white Mississippians to gather at the University in force to prevent Meredith’s enrollment. Mississippians responded, and on the night of September 30, 1962, two people were killed and several hundred were injured in what amounted to a state-sponsored riot on and around the University campus in Oxford, Mississippi.

William Winter, privately appalled by the Governor’s behavior, was among the small number of Mississippi officials who publicly criticized Barnett. Yet his criticisms were mildly stated and almost always indirect. For example, in a March 1963 speech in Vicksburg, he observed, without mentioning the Governor by name or the Ole Miss riot specifically, that “very few mobs ever spontaneously and automatically form.” But “regardless of what motivates unthinking men to take the law into their own hands, it is the clear and unmistakable duty of Southern politicians to see that it does not happen.” He then called for new political leadership that would

appeal to the best that is in us – not the worst; to our higher selves not our baser instincts. Only in this way can our section [of the country] diminish some of the tensions that have already caused us so much grief and even now threaten more…. [Mississippi needs a leader who] can successfully turn his people from a preoccupation with the race issue and the supercharged emotions of anxiety, fear, and hate….

For new state priorities, Winter favored improved public education and economic development. For the “ever-present problems of race relations,” he urged a search for solutions “other than the bull-whip and the shotgun.” The speech’s overarching theme was that “the South will be able to prosper and progress only as it increasingly finds common cause with the nation of which it is and always has been a vital and irreplaceable part.”3

This way of talking, as uncontroversial as it may seem today, was not particularly popular in Mississippi in 1963. Winter had to work as “practical politician” in Mississippi for 17 more years, almost certainly experiencing more disappointments than joys and even on good days usually having to settle for a glass half full, before finally achieving, in 1979, his goal of being elected Governor of the state.

What can we learn today from William Winter’s words and actions in “defense of the practical politician”? First, we can recognize that this practical politician did what he could, as often he thought he could, to improve the lives of Mississippians. He was consistently decent, honest, empathetic, and intelligent during years in which those qualities were not widely noticeable in Mississippi politics. He worked hard with countless fellow citizens over many years, and often under extremely trying circumstances, to begin to replace “impasse and frustration” with “order and progress.”

On the race issue – the first and in some ways only issue of Mississippi politics – William Winter as a practical politician made a limited but real difference. The historian Charles C. Bolton, assessing Winter’s early career, finds that, after the 1959 state elections, “Winter stood as one of the most-recognizable statewide officials who represented the racially moderate position in Mississippi politics.”4 Assessing Winter’s role in the state in the late 1960s, after his first (and unsuccessful) campaign for Governor, the historian Joseph Crespino describes Winter in 1967 as “a moderate reformer who represented the earliest incarnation of the New South Democratic leadership” that in the 1970s would include Governors such as Jimmy Carter of Georgia and Reubin Askew of Florida.5

Serving in the state’s most important office from 1980 to 1984, Winter was certainly one of Mississippi’s best Governors of the 20th century – in part because he had worked hard for, and won, the support and respect of the great majority of the state’s black leaders. Since leaving both office and the pursuit of office in the early 1990s, he has embraced racial healing and racial justice as central personal priorities. Today he is a still-active leader of the William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation at the University of Mississippi and the nearly universally acknowledged senior leader of Mississippi progressivism.

The great Mississippi writer William Faulkner once suggested that the artist’s goal is to put “a scratch on the face of anonymity.” Faulkner surely made his scratch. In the realm of Deep South politics in the second half of the 20th century, so did William Winter, and I don’t know of many others who can make a better or more honorable claim.

What traits most define this man and this career? I can think of three – all three of which seem to be in short supply and held low regard today.

First, William Winter is a grown-up. He has an adult character structure, reflective of qualities such as the capacity to cooperate with others, the recognition of one’s own limitations, the willingness to see issues from different sides, reasonableness, and the strength of character to hold in check the natural human tendencies toward narcissism and selfishness. How are these qualities faring in our public life today?

Second, William Winter was a depolarizer. His whole approach to politics was based on the idea that, despite our deeply felt and often painful differences, we can find ways to live together and make progress together. Arguably today’s most significant political trend is polarization. Regarding the race issue, Ross Barnett’s days are over. But regarding the values of compromise and political realism, the Ross Barnetts of this world – “He’s no moderate, like some other gent” – are growing in number and riding high and sassy.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, William Winter was a professional politician, a lifelong insider. That meant that if he wanted to keep his job, or gain a better one, he had to focus not solely – and often not even mainly – on the merits of issues, but also on the realities of power and the chances of winning the next election. For the professional politician, issues matter, but so do interests, which means that much of the stuff and glue of everyday politics is transactional, consisting of bargaining, trading, and deal-making. Unlike the activist or amateur politician, who is often fueled by passion, a professional politician is required by his circumstances to maintain a measure of detachment. Today’s front-page crisis is important, but so are the institutions and the interlocking relationships that will remain in place after today’s front-page crisis is over.

The story goes that in 1787, as Benjamin Franklin – by most accounts, one of the wisest of Americans – left Independence Hall on the final day of the Constitutional Convention, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” To which Franklin replied: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

It turns out that wisdom is not a cornpone notion or a synonym for “intelligent” or “good.” In recent years, a small but substantial academic literature has found that wisdom is its own thing: a distinctive quality of mind and heart, rare and invaluable and not like anything else. In 2009, a couple of scholars surveyed this literature and found that several traits appear again and again in definitions of wisdom.6 Prosocial attitudes and behaviors that reflect compassion and concern for the common good. Pragmatic knowledge of life and the use of that knowledge to make socially constructive decisions. An ability to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty, and to see multiple points of view. Emotional stability and mastery of one’s own feelings. A capacity for reflection and self-understanding.

The list reads like a description of William Winter. More important, it reads like a description of his Practical Politician. What are a republic’s prospects, one is forced to wonder, if its voters and politicians turn away from wisdom?

Read William F. Winter’s “In Defense of the Practical Politician.”

Read William F. Winter’s “The Problems of Southern Politics.”

1. If you think that serving as Mississippi’s top tax official in those days was a snoozer of a job, you’d be wrong. For starters, there was no salary. The tax collector was paid a commission on the taxes he collected. Moreover, part of the job was to collect a black market tax on liquor, the sale of which was prohibited by state law but widely practiced nonetheless. Such a lucrative and corruption-friendly job arrangement (let us count the ways!) had led Winter, as both the Governor’s appointee and as a candidate for the post, to call for its comprehensive overhaul – a change that he and other reformers had achieved by 1963.

2. See Berri Gordon, Ross Barnett and Racism (Mississippi Department of Archives and History, 2015).

3. William Winter, “The Problem of Southern Politics,” remarks delivered at All Saints’ Junior College in Vicksburg, Mississippi, March 27, 1963.

4. Charles C. Bolton, “William F. Winter and the Politics of Racial Moderation in Mississippi,” Journal of Mississippi History (Winter 2008).

5. Joseph Crespino, In Search of Another Country: Mississippi and the Conservative Counterrevolution (Princeton University Press, 2007), p. 211.

6. Thomas W. Meeks and Dilip V. Jeste, “Neurobiology of Wisdom: A Literature Overview,” Archives of General Psychiatry, April 2009.

David Blankenhorn is president of the New York City-based Institute for American Values. You can follow him on Twitter @Blankenhorn3.

On Polarization

President Obama on polarization:

And that starts by acknowledging that we do have a problem. And we all know it.  What’s different today is the nature and the extent of the polarization.  How ideologically divided the parties are is brought about by some of the same long-term trends in our politics and our culture.  The parties themselves have become more homogenous than ever.  A great sorting has taken place that drove Southern conservatives out of the Democratic Party, Northern moderates out of the Republican Party, so you don’t have within each party as much diversity of views.

And you’ve got a fractured media.  Some folks watch FOX News; some folks read the Huffington Post.  And very often, what’s profitable is the most sensational conflict and the most incendiary sound bites.  And we can choose our own facts.  We don’t have a common basis for what’s true and what’s not.  I mean, if I listened to some of these conservative pundits, I wouldn’t vote for me either.  I sound like a scary guy.  (Laughter.)

You’ve got advocacy groups that, frankly, sometimes benefit from keeping their members agitated as much as possible, assured of the righteousness of their cause.  Unlimited dark money — money that nobody knows where it’s coming from, who’s paying — drowns out ordinary voices.  And far too many of us surrender our voices entirely by choosing not to vote.  And this polarization is pervasive and it seeps into our society to the point where surveys even suggest that many Americans wouldn’t want their kids to date someone from another political party.  Now, some of us don’t want our kids dating, period.  But that’s a losing battle. (Laughter.)

But this isn’t just an abstract problem for political scientists.  This has real impact on whether or not we can get things done together.  This has a real impact on whether families are able to support themselves, or whether the homeless are getting shelter on a cold day.  It makes a difference as to the quality of the education that kids are getting.  This is not an abstraction.

But so often, these debates, particularly in Washington but increasingly in state legislatures, become abstractions.  It’s as if there are no people involved, it’s just cardboard cutouts and caricatures of positions.  It encourages the kind of ideological fealty that rejects any compromise as a form of weakness.  And in a big, complicated democracy like ours, if we can’t compromise, by definition, we can’t govern ourselves. . . .

. . . The second step towards a better politics is rethinking the way that we draw our congressional districts.  (Applause.)  Now, let me point this out — I want to point this out, because this is another case of cherry-picking here.  (Laughter.)  This tends to be popular in states where Democrats have been drawing the lines among Republicans, and less popular among Republicans where they control drawing the lines.  (Applause.)  So let’s be very clear here — nobody has got clean hands on this thing.  Nobody has got clean hands on this thing.

The fact is, today technology allows parties in power to precision-draw constituencies so that the opposition’s supporters are packed into as few districts as possible.  That’s why our districts are shaped like earmuffs or spaghetti.  (Laughter.)  It’s also how one party can get more seats even when it gets fewer votes.

And while this gerrymandering may insulate some incumbents from a serious challenge from the other party, it also means that the main thing those incumbents are worried about are challengers from the most extreme voices in their own party.  That’s what’s happened in Congress.  You wonder why Congress doesn’t work?  The House of Representatives there, there may be a handful — less than 10 percent — of districts that are even competitive at this point.  So if you’re a Republican, all you’re worried about is what somebody to your right is saying about you, because you know you’re not going to lose a general election.  Same is true for a lot of Democrats.  So our debates move away from the middle, where most Americans are, towards the far ends of the spectrum.  And that polarizes us further.

America’s Descent into Third World Politics

Having worked in the international arena for over ten years, I have personally observed the replacement of decades-long progress in advancing democracy and the rule of law worldwide with the stunning rise of an authoritarian model of politics. Studies now document a worrisome trend: freedom and democracy are in retreat.

Democracy is not just about elections; it is about the rule of law and respect for individual rights.  The retreat of democracy today is harder to detect because it hides behind a superficial commitment to elections. Elections are held, of course, but are increasingly a pathway for the rise of tyrants who have little interest in constitutional limits on power.

The patterns are familiar everywhere.

In every case, authoritarians attack and undermine opposition groups in civil society. For them politics is a zero sum game; if they can’t have what they want, no one will. They take personal control of whatever political party they manage to capture, then shred it to pieces if they must once they’ve achieved their objective.

Among the tyrant’s many enemies is the press, even as the press is used in their rise. They bully into submission reporters who get in their way. They threaten to curb the free press (“open up our libel laws”). They allow their loyal ruffians to physically intimidate adversaries, all the while denying responsibility.

In every case the demagogues and extremists blame the outsider for their countryman’s woes. Their product is paranoia, fear and contempt for anyone different from themselves. Foreigners are a part of a conspiracy to destroy their country from within, they say. Other countries are robbing them blind and they are getting nothing in return, they claim. Free trade means the theft of our jobs, never job creation.

Truth and facts matter little if at all, particularly from those calling attention to the leader’s deep personal flaws. Facts can’t be allowed to get in the way of power. So they cut off all social media and information sources but their own; others can’t be trusted.

Ruthless and narcissistic candidates rarely present a policy program to fix problems, believing that knowledge and competence is a sign of weakness. The solution is not a policy program; it is a person – the Big Man. The Big Man knowingly lies and manipulates, often with broad approval, and surrounds himself with sycophants who bow in obedience in his presence.

Tyrants always exploit society’s divisions. The most convenient scapegoat among demagogues and extremists is the least popular religious or ethnic minority. If our group has lost power, it can only mean that some other group has gained it at our expense.

Never are voters told that they share responsibility for improving their own lives, like working hard at their own education to adapt to a changing economy. Nor does the citizen bear responsibility whatsoever to help improve his country – only to vote for the strong man who will do it all for them.

Does any of this sound familiar?

There are two things that are equally shocking about the above in the age of Trump. For one, Mr. Trump apparently admires this model. He has suggested that authoritarians are better at running their countries and has advocated more advanced forms of torture.  He quotes Mussolini, and in the most telling revelation of Trump’s undemocratic authoritarianism of today, he expresses admiration for Vladimir Putin, one of America’s top foes.

The second sobering reality is that a sizable block of the Republican Party has embraced Trump, apparently concluding that challenging times requires desperate measures. That voters are angry over the collapse of the America dream deserves our full respect; their choice of an authoritarian solution does not. It is a sign of broad moral failure and cultural decline. Trump is winning, fair and square, in spite of many well-known defects, offering proof that authoritarianism can be seductive even in America.

One thing is likely, whatever the outcome of this year’s election, existing party politics will almost certainly never be the same and will need to be rebuilt. Dangerous toxins have entered the blood stream of American politics.

The Republican Party is close to being captured by the very demagoguery that the Founding Fathers feared, and the Democratic Party is being riven with a movement describing itself as revolutionary, led by a self-described socialist espousing a program well outside the American mainstream. There many not be an easy short-term solution. In the meanwhile, Americans who see the dangers and wish to resist the expansion of these influences need to do what conscience requires.

Don Eberly served in the White House under two Presidents, played critical roles in Iraq and Afghanistan’s postwar reconstruction, and published several books on civil society.



Better Angels on Christianity Today’s “Quick to Listen” Podcast

Christianity Today has a launched a new podcast called “Quick to Listen” (A warm twinkie to those who can tell us where that title comes from!) Hint here.

Anyway, this week’s podcast – on the issue of balancing religious freedom with LGBT protections – mentions an important meeting that Better Angels hosted at Centre College a few weeks ago. One of the podcast’s participants discusses her participation in and experience at the gathering and gives a nice shout-out to David and the project in a special section at the end of the show.

It’s worth listening to!

Red States Redder, Blue States Bluer

The study shows that state policies across the country became more liberal between the 1930s and 1970s — and then stopped. In more recent years, overall economic policies have been constant, but social policies have become more liberal.

The findings also confirmed what might have been suspected for some time: that over the past 20 years, states have become more politically polarized — not just in voting for president or members of Congress but also in state-level policies. And that if a state has conservative economic policies, for instance, that conservatism prevails across social policies as well.

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In the News

Partisan Deadlock and the Value of Listening
Richard Aldous, The American Interest, 8/9/2016

Listening to Trump Voters
David Blankenhorn, The American Interest, 8/2/2016

SMU Law Professor among Those Urging Trump Voters to Reconsider Based on American Principles
Dallas Morning News, 7/7/2016

Taking on Trump
Richard Aldous, The American Interest, 7/6/2016

To Protect and Defend: A Letter to Trump Supporters
Multiple Authors, The American Interest, 7/4/2016


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