Like many Americans, I have been lost in a swirl of emotion, confusion, shock and dread since 3am on November 9th, 2016, when Donald J. Trump was deemed the President-Elect of the United States of America. Let me repeat that: The United States of America. Trump won by winning the Electoral College vote 290-232 but losing the popular vote by over a million ballots.

Continued from Part 2:

  • Break it Down. History has shown us that one way to overcome such deep and hostile polarization as is evident in the U.S. today is not to try and convince each other of the merits of our principles, but rather to break the conversation down into focusing on those local problems that we jointly share concern and energy for addressing. Today, most American’s share a genuine interest in creating an educational system for their children that ensures their employability in the future. They share a need for decent and affordable healthcare. They prefer to feed their children food that won’t poison them or inflict them with obesity and diabetes. They are interested in protecting their homes and families from violence and from increasingly destructive storms. They want to feel valued and respected and that they are living a meaningful life.  These are challenges that citizens in other countries have found ways to come together to address and manage (the Scandinavian countries are out in front on much of this). Instead of only blaming and demanding that our Federal and State governments fix these problems, perhaps the citizens in our local communities are better positioned to identify local solutions to these issues that work best for them. This was one of the aspects of our democracy that Alexis de Tocqueville found most promising in 1831, and that is often still true today.
  • Find and Create Conditions for Constructive Conflict. The tone and climate of our last election is a harbinger of more terrible things to come. The expressions of contempt, hate, and distain that pervaded many of the campaigns are a slippery slope. And the boldfaced lying and cheating by politicians on both sides are simply the latest indications of the decay of our cultural and political world. This cannot and must not become the new normal, as history has shown us that it will readily devolve into violent confrontation. In the short term, we must actively confront this trend through naming and shaming and holding our leaders accountable. The popular media and the press should play a leading role in this, which they utterly failed to do over the last two years (on the contrary, the more provocative the candidates behaved, the more they were rewarded by coverage by the media). But winning the long game on civility will require us to learn to parent, educate and entertain our children differently. A Costa Rican colleague of mine, who lives in one of the most peaceful nations in the world today, claims that the primary source of their peaceful culture today is policies implemented decades ago that mandated peace education (teaching of respect, tolerance and conflict resolution) in every school classroom throughout the country. Socializing all children with such attitudes and skills at home, in schools and through the media plants the seeds of peace that can transform cultures in the long run.
  • Know that this Current Political Shock can be an Opportunity for improving our magnificent but deeply flawed nation.  As Thomas Jefferson said in 1787, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing… God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion.” Research has shown that major destabilizing political shocks such as the one we are currently undergoing, can result in dramatic shifts for the better. Typically, they introduce anxiety, uncertainty and instability in the short term, without evidencing much in the way of substantive change. But over time, as one change affects another, which affects another, and so on, they can evidence profound shifts in the status quo. These sometimes take years even decades to happen. For example, Thomas Friedman has written recently that perhaps the many technological breakthroughs that occurred around 2007 (the iPhone, Facebook, Watson, etc.) may have led to the countless changes that created the economic conditions (such as automation in manufacturing) for the political upheaval we are seeing today. So the question for us is what are the small changes that we are willing to make happen as a result of the current shock? Will they be more of the same inclinations toward blame, scapegoating, intolerance, enmity and division? Or will we see a billion small acts of reflection, restraint, responsibility, and attempts at reconciliation eventually burst forth into a different culture of functional civility that will better position us to face our next set of daunting challenges together? Know that our government and our country have the self-correcting capacity to heal itself – but only with our help. 

Peter T. Coleman, author of The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts, is associate professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, director of the International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution, and on the faculty of Teachers College and The Earth Institute at Columbia. In 2003, he received the Early Career Award from the American Psychological Association, Division 48: Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict, and Violence. He lives in New York.