Building Back Better

The U.S. election has revealed politics to be as fractious as ever. We need to question our own assumptions and listen harder to our political “enemy” if we truly want better politics.

Rokas Aleliūnas for Noema Magazine
Eddie Barnes, a journalist-turned-political campaigner, was involved in the campaigns against the Scottish independence referendum and the Brexit referendum. He currently works for the think tank Our Scottish Future and is a 2020-21 Berggruen Institute fellow.

GLASGOW — And there it was again. Here in the U.K., it happened around 1 a.m. Trump — dead in the water, so we’d been told — was suddenly up. Across Twitter feeds and WhatsApp groups around the world, there was that same familiar sound: the noise of a million liberal chins hitting the floor.

Once again, we’d expected people to behave like us. Once again, they didn’t. Once again, our reaction was disbelief. They’re doing what? Voting for him? What the hell is the matter with these people? You’d think, after the last few years, we might have learned to expect the unexpected. But it seems very little has seeped through into our online cocoons.

Wondering exactly what the hell is wrong with people has been my personal preoccupation for much of the last few years. Six years ago, I was involved in the Scottish independence referendum campaign, defending our place in the U.K. Pretty much every leading economist, business group and forecaster backed us up. We had the evidence to show that this was the case. We’d wave it around and think our job was done. But every time, nothing much would happen to the polls. Indeed, they kept on tightening. I couldn’t come to grips with it. Why couldn’t they see what was good for them?

That time, we won: The economic risk was indeed too much for most Scots to risk independence. Then a couple of years later, I spent a bit of time in the Brexit referendum, this time on the Remain side. Once again, the economic case was a no-brainer. Once again, most business leaders and job creators were on our side. Once again, however, we watched as voters walked away. It wasn’t so much that they didn’t believe the economic arguments; the trouble was the other side was making an entirely different, and more resonant, argument — pledging to “take back control.” We tried yelling again. This time, it failed.

A few months later, we blinked back astonishment when Trump was elected. And then on Tuesday night, we found ourselves shocked yet again. Why do we keep getting this wrong? Why do we keep being surprised by the powerful forces of change and disruption? It appears Trump may be on his way out, as things stand. But Trumpism isn’t.

“There was that same familiar sound: the noise of a million liberal chins hitting the floor.”

Might it not be the case, whether we are disbelieving Remainers, staggered Democrats or confused Republicans, that some questions closer to home need to be asked? I think so. Because the current response — questioning people’s good sense — isn’t working. While meaning to ask for somebody’s support, you end up insulting them instead.

Or worse, you end up finding comfort in your sense of moral and intellectual superiority. After the Brexit vote, my fellow Remain voters began sticking “Don’t Blame Me, I Voted Remain” badges on the back of their cars. I guess it had the merit of making them feel good about themselves. An anti-Brexit campaign group spent millions of pounds seeking to reverse the result. They attended marches with clever ironic placards showing how amusing they were and spent a lot of time telling Leave voters how wrong they’d been. None of it altered the fact that, unfortunately, we had been beaten. And none of it made a blind bit of difference: The money may as well have been spent buying free Mars bars for everyone.

So, after this last painful decade of political campaigning, I find myself asking what does? Make a difference, that is. A good place to start has been to question my own assumptions. Those assumptions for somebody like me — middle-class, rationalist, educated — is that there is a hierarchy of interests out there. Big-picture issues like the economy, the environment and globalization come out at the top. Things like nationhood and sovereignty and immigration come way down the list. Deep down, I know I’m right about this — I mean, what the hell is the point of worrying about walls and borders when those borders might be underwater in a few years’ time? Puffed up with my sense of rectitude, I reach the easy and obvious conclusion that my job as a political campaigner is to tell people on the wrong side that they are wrong, to knock down their arguments and let the world see my rightness for the right-thinking that it is.

“A different approach might start by questioning the primacy of reason as a persuasive tool.”

And how daft is that? Progressives — whether they be urban Remainers in Britain or coastal Democrats or forlorn Republicans — might want to ask themselves a simple question. When somebody stands in front of you and declares “I told you so,” have you ever responded by saying: “You’re quite right. You did. And now that you have reminded me, I will reflect on the error of my ways and change accordingly”? I mean, ever? It follows that, if we really want to persuade people to our side of the fence, another approach might make sense.

A different approach might start by questioning the primacy of reason as a persuasive tool. In her 2019 book “Stop Being Reasonable,” Eleanor Gordon-Smith nails the issue brilliantly. When it comes to public discourse, we rationalists seem to think that the “proper” way to engage in persuasive discourse is to “step into a kind of disinfected argumentative operating theatre where the sealed air-conditioning vents stop any everyday fluff from floating down and infecting the sterilized truth.” Our “clods of humanity” and our “muddy reality” — our emotion, ego, history, culture — are all left outside. Somehow, we convince ourselves that the process of changing people’s minds involves a “gladiatorial contest of ideas where we leave the persona behind.”

Gordon-Smith goes on to question the very nature and value of reason, evidence and facts as reliable sources. After all, as she rightly asks, when is it possible to know everything? To give an example of my own, in 2014, as we biffed Scotland over the head with our tracts of reason and evidence on the costs of leaving our own Union, not a single one of us anticipated that Britain — and Scotland with it — would be leaving the European Union within two years. The supposed solidity of our 2014 reasoning didn’t take long to come unstuck.

“Somehow, we convince ourselves that the process of changing people’s minds involves a ‘gladiatorial contest of ideas where we leave the persona behind.’”

In short, antiseptic rational discourse doesn’t get close to reflecting the soiled, complex assault on our senses that adds up to our experience of life. Therefore, should we in any way be surprised when it fails to convince people to change their minds? And when we respond to this failure by just getting shoutier and shoutier, and more disdainful and contemptuous of the other side, should we be surprised when they take even less time to examine our arguments?

Too much politics these days has a performative quality to it: It is less interested in the art of persuasion than in the number of likes it can get on Twitter. Most of these likes come from people on our own side of the aisle. Thus, the incentive grows to appeal to your base and perform for your own people. This is a waste of everybody’s time. A better use of your time is to rediscover the value of empathy.

This isn’t a new observation: It has been four years since Arlie Russell Hochschild published “Strangers In Their Own Land,” her account of life among Tea Party Louisianans. There, she advocated for the need to build what she describes as “empathy bridges” — where we seek, literally in her case, to live among others, and to understand from the inside out, how people come to form their view of life. But it does bear repeating — because it appears we aren’t yet getting the message.

“Antiseptic rational discourse doesn’t get close to reflecting the soiled, complex assault on our senses that adds up to our experience of life.”

Of course, this must not fall into condescension. Nor is it about finding a mushy compromise. What the search for empathy does do, as Arthur Brooks, author of “Love Your Enemies,” has put it, is to help us “disagree better.” In other words, instead of lapsing into a contempt-driven war where the aim is to destroy the identity of the other, the search for empathy means we gain a better understanding of why we disagree and, in so doing, are able to focus on the roots and causes of our differences.

Clearing the air like this then helps to have a better, more constructive disagreement about the facts and the issues that matter. This process is enriching and curiously liberating. Suddenly, there aren’t quite so many people who, through membership of your respective groups, one is required to hate or belittle any more. Instead, you can have a proper disagreement without trying to take the other down. And given these people are often your neighbors, who may have icing sugar, monkey wrenches and plug extension cables that you need, that can be of practical as well as spiritual benefit too.

Central to this — indeed, possibly the central point of it all — is the need to start listening better too. That doesn’t mean listening to the din and clatter of social media. It means really listening hard to what other people are saying and thinking. Purely as a persuasive device, it turns out this can be extraordinarily effective.

“A change of mind happened, without prompting, and a plan of action was formulated.”

Last year, the campaign group People’s Action conducted a “deep canvass” research experiment in three U.S. states: Michigan, South Carolina and Pennsylvania. Picking the issue of immigration, it had people carry out conversations with voters that encouraged them to share their own relevant and emotionally significant stories and, in this test case, to build empathy with newly arrived foreigners. Researchers concluded afterward that such “respectful, non-judgmental conversations” were able to “move voters where many other tactics have failed” and were as much as 100 times more effective than traditional phone canvassing or leafleting. People’s Action is resolutely pro-Democrat and, in the context of the presidential election campaign, it boasts that for every 100 conversations between volunteers and voters, it found that 3.1 voters were added to Joe Biden’s vote margin. It may not seem like much but People’s Action claims such a shift would translate to 108 electoral votes.

I am less interested in the political effectiveness of this for the Democrats than I am about a side-effect: As the People’s Action team notes, the program also helped voters “make new meaning of their own lives.” In this case, the exchanges “opened up a different worldview based on a clearer sense of linked fate and mutual interest with groups — in this instance immigrants — that had traditionally been the target of racial scapegoating.” In fact, it occurs to me that this is less a beneficial side-effect than the primary beneficial outcome for “deep listening” itself. Politics will always divide people; indeed, division is necessary in a functioning democracy. As it happens, I lean instinctively toward the center-right. The point is that mature democracies divide in mostly civil ways — and that doing that requires a basic emotional and empathetic grasp of how the other side thinks and feels. Doing this is a good enough goal in itself.

It’s something we have been trialing, tentatively, in Scotland too. Until COVID-19 brought matters to a halt, a new think tank set up by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Our Scottish Future, held a number of “community assemblies” where we brought together people from both sides of our own political divide. One element of each assembly involved having to listen to another person for 90 seconds without interrupting — try it, it’s harder than you think. It was intriguing to see people’s surprise that they shared common priorities and values with each other. We also witnessed groups reaching fresh conclusions about how to navigate some of our thorniest problems.

“Political messages that seek to mock or smack down your opponents’ case are as useful as misfiring cannonballs that plop pointlessly into the sludge of no man’s land.”

For example, in Scotland, there is currently a furious debate going on about whether we should hold another referendum on independence, six years after the last one. At one of our assemblies, and having spoken to “No” voters, some pro-independence voters said they felt that a new referendum should require their own side to win a supermajority — say 60-70%. With the thoughts and fears of “No” voters at the forefront of their minds, they decided they didn’t want independence if a large minority of their fellow Scots didn’t, and they didn’t want it at the price of a divided nation. A change of mind happened, without prompting, and a plan of action was formulated.

In our polarized public space, where political camps are staked out with ever-higher fences and moats, political messages that seek to mock or smack down your opponents’ case are as useful as misfiring cannonballs that plop pointlessly into the sludge of no man’s land. We all may feel we’ve done our job by sending them on their way — but if we were to peer over our battlements, we’d notice just how useless the effort had been. A process of unlearning is required.

Seeking out common values and shared common space, building “empathy bridges,” spending 90 seconds just listening to somebody of a different political opinion and agreeing to ditch the pointless chase for likes on social media are all ways to cut through. They may help return the focus to a great founding democratic notion: the battle of ideas and the search for solutions. This week’s election has shown how far America has to go in pursuit of that ideal. Many other Western democracies have an equally long road to travel. After this last fractious decade of futile division, it is a goal we can all unite around.