Reflection 75: Toward a More Civil Political Conversation, Part 1

This Reflection is part 1 of a two-part essay offering a program for creating a more civil political dialogue, across partisan lines. This Reflection provides a goal for the work, and a series of premises and orienting mindsets upon which my specific communication strategies – the subject of next week’s Reflection – are based.


  1. In the current hyper-partisan political environment, well-intentioned people are divided and disempowered.

We live in a culture in which we are powerfully inducted into partisan “tribes” – liberals, conservatives, libertarians, Evangelicals, etc. – and, then, reflexively define ourselves and others by positions taken on the current, emblematic issues that define tribal membership: Pro-choice vs. right to life; small government vs. government as social problem-solver; security vs. privacy, etc.

The result is that the mainstream political dialogue shrinks into a partisan, win/lose knife fight on these emblematic issues. And, since that dialogue tends to be dominated by the shrillest partisan voices, we wind up judging the “other side” by their worst examples.

My belief: If we are able to foster a dialogue that moves beyond this engrained, ossified pattern, a meaningful group of well-intentioned people can emerge, from across the political spectrum, interested in fostering a more civil and, thus, more meaningful political dialogue. The strategies I suggest, at their most visionary, envision a reshuffling the political deck; nurturing a “coalition of the well intentioned” across party and ideological lines.

  1. We can shrink the partisan divide – and foster a more civil dialogue – if we focus on the values that underlie our political positions.

Without regard to partisan political orientation, there are a series of values that underlie most seriously offered political positions. And while political partisans may place greater emphasis on one group of values over another, well-intentioned people – the people we seek to engage – are likely to agree that all of these values are positive and worthy of consideration.

A number of thoughtful people have attempted to enumerate these values. And while these efforts vary in their particulars, what’s encouraging is their similarity and the fact that they each articulate sensible and constructive needs, longings and aspirations – values around which we can unite. So, example:

  • Jonathan Heidt, in The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion (2012) lists five values: Care, Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Sanctity (that is, respect and reverence for the rituals that embody our foundational principles);
  • Marshall Rosenberg, in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2003), lists eight Universal Human Needs: Autonomy, Connection, Integrity, Interdependence, Physical Well-Being, Play, Meaning, and Peace; and
  • Radical Decency is premised on seven values: Respect, Understanding, Empathy, Acceptance, Appreciation, Fairness and Justice.
  1. Models for a more effective dialogue that exist in other contexts need to be applied in the political sphere.

In the last few decades, a number of highly effective models for facilitating more effective communication – between couples, at work, and in politics – have been developed with each, in their own way, seeking to create conversations that are more:

  • Authentic – vivid and real; and
  • Mutual – willingly engaged in by all parties.

See, for example, Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want: A Couples Guide (1988, 2010); Gottman, The Seven Principles for Making a Marriage Work (2011); Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (1989, 2013) and, importantly, Lichtenberg, et al., Encountering Bigotry: Befriending Projecting People in Everyday Life (2002).

Models such as these can, and should, be applied far more systematically in the political sphere.

Orienting Mindsets

  1. A different and better political dialogue needs to be grounded in good relationships.

At first blush, this goal might seem unrealistic. After all, we live in a world in which Republics/conservatives demonize Barack Obama and Democrats/liberals do the same George W. Bush and, now Ted Cruz; where every word, every image of “that” person is like finger nails on a black board.

In my view, this demonizing mindset is an emotional distortion. Most people who are interested or involved in politics want to do something constructive. And, on the flip side, politically aware and active people who consciously seek to do bad things – or who are knowingly cynical or ignorant – are in the minority.

More deeply, I fully subscribe to this perspective, offered by Harville Hendrix in the couples context but applicable, it seems to me, in all areas of living: Every person makes complete sense if we just know enough about how he was raised, as well as his innate disposition, life experiences, and hopes and dreams for the future.

When we bring this mindset to the people on the “other” side, politically, our quick dismissal of them as perverse, cynical and/or immoral will be progressively replaced by genuine curiosity – about who they are and what makes them tick. And this, in turn, is the emotional gate-way that takes us down a path that, beginning with understanding, can flower into empathy and, even, respect, acceptance and appreciation for the personhood of those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

  1. Think long term.

The goal and specific strategies for transforming our typical political dialogue – discussed in part 2 (Reflection 76) – represent a dramatic shift from our usual ways of interacting. For this reason, efforts to implement this approach will meet the normal resistance that crops up when something new and different is introduced. In addition, because trust across partisan political lines is so low, prudent participants will have an additional reason to be cautious, lest their more authentic ways of sharing be used to undercut their credibility.

For this reason, we need to think long term.

Seeking to implement this new way of interacting is likely to require multiple contacts, the goal being to habituate others to a very different kind of conversation and, very importantly, to build trust.


Both of these orienting mindsets – relational and longitudinal – are beautifully reflected in the following comments from Elli Sparks, a political activist, quoted in Daley-Harris, Reclaiming Our Democracy: Healing the Break Between People and Government (1994, 2013):

My relationship model is different. I adore romantic relationships, so I use romance as my model. That first meeting with the editorial writer… it’s like a blind date, only you’ve decided beforehand you are going to marry this fellow. You are going to be sweet and interesting, but not too intense…. If it doesn’t work out with the editor, you are going to marry one of his friends at the newspaper – the business editor, environmental writer, or city editor. Someone at this paper will find you interesting and compelling – it’s just a matter of being persistent until you find the right connection.


In most political dialogues, the assumed goal is to persuade the other side that you are right and they are wrong. Rejecting that model, I am offering a 2-tiered approach in which an initial relational focus (Level 1) sets the stage for more specific policy discussions (Level 2).

Level 1: The political conversation we are seeking to encourage would have, as its initial goal, a better understanding of the wide variety of ways in which well intentioned people can translate their values and, with them, their hopes and dreams into public policy perspectives and specific programmatic positions.

In the course of this dialogue, participating political partisans would, it is hoped, deepen their respect and understanding for what the “other side” is about and develop an increased sense of empathy, acceptance and, even, respect and appreciation for people with whom they disagree.

Level 2: As Level 1 takes hold and deepens, the hope is that participants would be able to coalesce around currently less obvious policy initiatives, in one or more area, which express their shared values and, at the same time, are sensitive to the diverse policy and value perspectives, shared in their Level 1 discussion.

Note, importantly, that Level 2 is a very ambitious goal. Success does not depend on reaching this Level. A meaningful Level 1 dialogue, without more, would be a very positive result.