From now until at least the midterm elections in November, we’ll be featuring essays from powerful cultural voices alongside one simple thing, chosen by the author, that you can do to take action against the paralyzing apoplexy of the daily news. Maybe it’ll be an organization that deserves your donation; maybe it’ll be an issue that deserves greater awareness. Whatever it is, our aim is to remind you, and ourselves, of the big and small things we can do to work toward justice and change.
Phone A Friend
by Elizabeth Cobbs
I commit to take action because, in a democracy, we must find ways to disagree without vilifying one another. This means I’ve got to call my sisters.
The 2016 election of Donald Trump made politics personal in a way I’d never experienced. During my teens in the 1970s, I threw myself into the Women’s Movement and had friends in the anti-war, Chicano, and Black Power movements. As activists, we reserved our deepest disdain for those who thought like us but belonged to factions whose differences weren’t discernible from ten feet. The Man himself was far away, and we didn’t revile him personally so much as in principle. We considered fellow citizens who had voted for “Tricky Dick” Nixon deluded but not malicious. They incited pity.
Life was simpler. I was younger. It was the seventies.
Then I became a professional historian and embraced a responsibility to tell all sides of every story. I found myself plumbing and sometimes admiring the intentions and accomplishments of politicians for whom I would never have voted, but whose lives contributed to the mosaic of democracy. I strove to represent them fairly. University students let me know in anonymous evaluations when they detected bias, and I’m pleased to say such complaints were rare. Raised a Kennedy Democrat, I even married a Reagan Republican. While remaining active in private, I took care not to reveal my political preferences in any professional context.
Over the next several decades I patiently waited out the terms of various presidents whom I considered wrongheaded and jovially sat down to Thanksgiving dinner with family members who had helped elect them. I come from a large clan, and like most Americans we didn’t discuss politics much, thinking we didn’t need to. We trusted that the game of politics would be played within boundaries, and so stilled our tongues out of politeness. Politicians might cheat and lie, but the press would catch them and the American public would take umbrage. Republicans and Democrats alike would object if their representatives disgraced themselves publicly. The system appeared imperfect but reliable. Bums were booted out.
Then, in 2016, Donald Trump announced to a campaign rally: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” He offered to pay the legal expenses of supporters who beat up his opponents. He revealed that he enjoyed grabbing the genitalia of strangers. His offensive statements went on and on, and his supporters didn’t care. The candidate defined egregious, yet it was as if all boundaries had vanished. Boasts about political and personal violence elicited no objections from his side.
It was then that I went to family members whom I had never previously tried to sway. Surely they would recognize the rare, indeed unprecedented, character of my request, I thought. Surely they would care. As a historian, I asked them not to vote for a candidate who fell so far outside the traditional parameters of acceptable behavior by either party. As a woman, I asked them not to vote for a man who leered at his daughter and joked about his ability to get away with groping others.
Angry responses ensued from the men, followed by silence from the women. Trump was their guy, for better or worse. I had no words to convince them they were wrong.
Donald Trump lost the popular vote but captured the Electoral College two weeks before Thanksgiving. A black cloud drifted over the national holiday celebrating family. I bailed. My letter to my two sisters explained that I simply could not face sitting down with anyone, especially any woman, who endorsed That Man. Betrayed, baffled, bewildered, I had few skills, and no tolerance, for interacting with others who had such a profoundly different point of view. Give me a year, I asked—or four—until our next Thanksgiving dinner.
The decades of polite silence had served none of us. We couldn’t find the line between confrontation and conversation. As sisters, we should have common values to fall back upon, yet it seemed we didn’t. It still seems we don’t.
This clarifies the choice for us as a family, and by extension for us as a nation: allow the rift to widen until there is no way across, or build a bridge now. A family destroyed is a personal tragedy. A nation destroyed can mean civil war and poverty for generations, as Southerners will attest.
Our common values may be the place to start. Points of agreement can build trust and diminish the sensation of the ground disappearing under our feet. Of course, it is easier to rant that anyone who defends (or attacks) the forty-fifth president is simply immoral or ignorant, but this might not be the best way back from the ledge.
Allow me to suggest a process for those who wish to undertake reconciliation for the sake of our country. For me, it will begin with a call to my sisters to request a conversation about our common values. They are kind, law-abiding people whose personal rectitude suggests there must be “self-evident” ideals on which we can agree. They merit this expression of trust, as do I.
Once we get through this abstract exercise and find the points of agreement I believe exist, we can trade criticisms of the imperfect human beings for whom we respectively voted. This should create other points of commonality. I am bound to agree with any criticism they make of Donald, and they will nod at any criticism I make of Hillary.
Good. Quicksand still surrounds us, but we’re up on somewhat firmer ground. Where do we go from here?
The next logical thing would be to make a list of policy issues, moving from easiest to hardest. With our list of common values on the chalkboard (okay, we’ve morphed into a small community meeting now), we can tackle each practical problem in turn without reference to politicians who are out of office, in office, or running for office. We can brainstorm alternative problem-solving strategies consistent with the values we all hold dear. My sisters are practical people (another point of commonality!), so there is a reasonable chance that if we hew to specific issues and eschew conversation about our putative team leaders—none of whom is doing an especially swell job—we can devise blueprints based on reasonable compromises. After that, we can discuss how to pressure all individuals in office to better serve our common values and goals.
Some hard issues will remain, of course. Every country, every family, faces them from time to time. But we stand a better chance of meeting the challenges if we learn how to conduct open, respectful conversations.
Time is of the essence. Democracy is truly at stake. As the Founders prophesied, united we stand, divided we fall.
So now I need to reach out to a supporter of Donald Trump. Will you, dear reader? Surely it’s worth a try.
Take action today:
Faith is the antidote to fear. We can choose to believe in the goodness of our fellow citizens as a place to start. They may support Donald Trump, but they are not Donald Trump. I find faith challenging, but my plan is to have a conversation, avoid jargon, and bake an apple pie (food induces oxytocin, the bonding hormone). Other tips for reaching across the aisle can be found in this Forbes article.
Elizabeth Cobbs is an award-winning historian and author of, among other books, The Hamilton Affair and The Hello Girls.