We’re talking past one another: A lesson Democrats must understand
President Donald Trump and his opponents obviously are talking past one another. This by itself is hardly surprising: Seldom has the nation been so sharply divided on so many issues at once.
What is striking, however, is the divergence not just in what they are saying but how they are saying it. Both sides clearly have written off their opponents as hopelessly evil. Thus, neither is even attempting to persuade in the usual sense. But what they are doing instead of attempting to persuade is quite different. Understanding this difference is crucial to deciphering the current campaign and ultimately to reopening communication across the chasm.
In short, many progressives have embraced so much abstraction in their discourse as to render much of it delusional. The president and his supporters, in turn, are so hostile to abstraction that even concepts like law and objectivity have no place in much of their political speech.
Much of today’s progressive discourse sounds like preparation for an imaginary seminar or trial. The speaker imagines her or himself speaking to an intelligent, open-minded professor or judge with broadly similar norms. The goal is to demonstrate to this hypothetical arbiter that the speaker is “objectively right.”
Speakers dismiss political objections if she or he believes an available rejoinder that would “win” in such a trial or seminar. Secretary Clinton’s supporters, for example, brushed aside the political vulnerability her private email server created because reasoned explanation could quiet voters’ doubts. Similarly, voters’ worries about losing their current health insurance are dismissed because Medicare-for-All is, in fact, the superior health care financing arrangement. And we are told not to worry about voters’ hesitance about socialism because the ideological difference between Soviet-style socialism and democratic socialism is clear.
This mode of discourse is comfortable to progressives, who have relied heavily on social change litigation. And a great many progressives, like me, find seminars comfortable and familiar. Many voters, however, regard the seminar room as an inhospitable place where progressive elites threaten humiliation to any daring to disagree.
The president’s mode of discourse is also familiar to me, from an earlier time in my life. I grew up in the shadow of the University of Michigan. Although I never studied at Michigan, I still feel a sense of pride and comfort whenever I see someone wearing the maize and blue.
Some signs in Ann Arbor say “Go Blue!” or “Beat Ohio State!” Although those are literally directives, nobody takes them as such. They are just statements of belonging. Other signs say “U-M #1!” even though, most of the time, that is not true under any plausible metric. But these are not lies: They, too, are merely statements of belonging.
In the same way, many of the president’s supporters do not take what he says as literal directives — few probably want losing presidential candidates incarcerated — but rather as affirmations of team unity. My old neighbors with the “OHowIHate Ohio State” bumper sticker would never harm an OSU student or want to see the university disbanded or defunded. The president’s supporters do not expect his bragging to be any more true than that in Michigan’s rousing fight song, “Hail to the Victors.”
Many likely do believe some truth underlies the president’s bluster. But simply disproving this or that specific claim is unlikely to shake their faith because they do not expect all his claims to be literally true. Lecturing Christians or Jews about whale digestion will not make them atheists, Jonah notwithstanding.
The power of the president’s communication is that it both conforms to and shapes the core narrative of a community. His speeches and tweets reinforce his leadership by echoing his movement’s values and grievances. They then leverage that leadership to identify those whom his followers should regard as untrustworthy. Progressives find his fury at those he appointed embarrassing for the president, especially in light of his promise to hire “the best people” into government. From the perspective of members of his “team,” however, apostates’ disloyalty is the worst moral offense.
When athletes are penalized for misconduct, fans rally around them as a matter of loyalty. President Trump’s interventions on behalf of Roger Stone and his other friends similarly looks to them more like loyalty than corruption. In contrast to progressives’ abstractions about adhering to “proper” roles, the president’s supporters bypass complex ethical ideas to focus on simple moral imperatives like defending one’s friends.
Loyalty, then, is the key to cutting through this narrative.
The Trump administration has been deeply disloyal to those who put it in office, on trade, on taxes, but especially on health care. His supporters will not engage in a policy seminar about health care financing and do not trust progressives’ experts. But the mid-term elections showed some real unease that Republicans are playing them for suckers.
Progressives should not abandon the facts or the search for the best answers to our problems. And they certainly should not abandon legal and ethical principles, abstract though they may be. But they must move beyond the fantasy of deep, fact-based, intellectual, personal deliberations in our pervasively shallow, impressionistic, anti-intellectual, impersonal world.
Instead, they should focus on demonstrating that their political “team” is a more inviting place than the president’s and takes better care of its members. A good start would be dispensing with seminar room discourse that triggers many voters who feel humiliated by better-educated elites.
David A. Super is a professor of law at Georgetown Law. He also served for several years as the general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Follow him on Twitter @DavidASuper1