The Citizens Handbook
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Healing a Divided Public

How should activists respond to the election of Trump as president?

Trump’s hectic pace and showtime performances have led most people to focus on the person. It’s an easy focus because he delivers a daily steam of new material. But its a distraction from a more important issue: The wide rift between those who voted for Trump and those who did not. Healing the rift will not be easy, since it requires time, and face-to-face dialogue between people who live in separate worlds, who can't even agree on basic facts.

Bringing together Trump supporters and detractors needs the skill of convening. A convener is a person who enjoys bringing people together. We all know people who are good at convening. They are the ones who organize potluck dinners, special events, babysitting networks, choirs, community groups, and parties. They are people who enjoy the company of others, and recognize the overarching importance of developing and maintaining human relationships. If the project is to heal the rift between Trump supporters and detractors, the emphasis needs to be on finding convenors who can bring together people who would not normally talk to one another.

So how would you put this into practice? Let's say you've found the right person: a lively, friendly, capable convener, and they have agreed to help. What then?

A small core group should form around the convenor. At this early stage, the group will face a number of questions. One of the most important is whether to proceed as a new and independent group, or to try to collaborate with an existing group or institution. The tendency is usually towards new and independent. But this approach can lead to rapid wilt. There Is a good deal of evidence to suggest it fragments the grassroots, making it more difficult to get anything done. The best approach might be to identify other groups interested in promoting dialogue, and form a coalition.

Since the project focuses on bringing together people with different views, the main job will be getting people to show up. For suggestions on how to do this see Getting People. Because people are largely motivated by self-interest, you might also try to identify a common interest that will serve as a focus for bringing people together.

The issue that brings people together might be small and mundane. Some of the best issues have focused on food. Gandhi didn’t win Indian independence by focusing on the big issue of democracy; instead he started small with the price of salt. Renowned activist Srdja Popovic tells the story of how the rising price of cottage cheese brought together in large numbers of people in Israel. Popovic is worth quoting at length:

If you are reading this I assume you care at least a little bit about making a change for the better in the world. At one point or another in your life, you've probably tried to petition, organize, march, or do something else to raise people’s awareness of some very important topic or another. Maybe you just tried to convince a friend or a parent that their politics were all wrong. I'm willing to bet you a scoop of Israeli cottage cheese that I know what happened: you spoke passionately about saving the endangered North Atlantic salmon or about buying iPhones for chronically sad Bulgarian orphans, but people just nodded politely.

I'm being cynical, of course, but only because I want to be absolutely clear about this very important principle of nonviolent activism: namely, that people, without exception and without fail, just don't give a damn.

This is not because they're bad. Most people are decent and kind and unassuming. They believe, in the immortal words of Liz Lemon from the television show 30 Rock, that all anyone really wants in this life is to sit in peace and eat a sandwich. But they also have a lot on their minds, things like jobs and kids and big dreams and small grievances and favorite TV shows to keep up with and boxes filled with stuff they need to ship back to Amazon. You may think that these things are silly. You may accuse people who just care about taking it one day at a time and tending their own garden of being selfish or blind or even immoral. The worst activists I've ever seen did just that. They got nowhere, because it's unrealistic to expect people to care about more than what they already care about, and any attempt to make them do so is bound to fail.

From Blueprint for Revolution, Srdja Popovic, 2015.

 

So the first get togethers should not focus on national politics or policy issues, but some small local concern that crosses party lines. Once the group has gathered a substantial following and made some progress on a local issue, it can gently move toward addressing the rift between Republicans and Democrats. Moving into this territory requires a trained facilitator who can encourage genuine dialogue. The facilitator's main job will be to encourage people with different views to listen to the other, and ask questions, rather than trying to score points. There is a lot of good practical information on dialogue and non-violent communication that can reduce "sidedness" and help people to come away with a feeling of accomplishment.

Before the 2016 election, The Pew Research Center surveyed the views of Democrats and Republicans and found that there was an astonishing lack of agreement on basic facts (see diagram above). So a dialogue session might include a focus on figuring out an objective and mutually acceptable way of determining the validity of relevant facts. Agreeing on the basic facts is a first step. If there is little agreement on basic facts, resolving differences on complicated issues becomes next to impossible.


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The Troublemaker's Teaparty is an updated and expanded print version of The Citizen's Handbook. It contains all of the handbook plus additional material on preventing grassroots wilt, strategic action, direct action and media advocacy. You can get a copy of The Teaparty from Amazon or from New Society Publishers.