Nancy Gibbs is the director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.
The road to political sanity may run through a bridge game in Atlanta: four women playing together for years, two Democrats, two Republicans — one of whom is quiet about how she voted last time, the other a fervent supporter of the president.
In 2020, the bridge game went online. And conversation about politics went off limits.
Until a funny thing happens, when the quiet Republican asks whether everyone had seen the latest Trump sound bite. The two Democrats clench and look to change the subject. But then the proud Trump supporter allows, to everyone’s surprise, that she cannot abide the incumbent president and his crew any longer.
What’s the wise response? Pause, ponder, weigh the possibilities.
Whether it’s your friend or someone in your family, or anyone with whom you’ve been at partisan odds these past four years, the temptation is to fire back that “You voted for him, you wanted him, cheered for him, you funded and fueled him, and now you have regrets?” There must be penance and flagellation, expiation in exile, bread-and-water rations, a vow of abstinence from Fox News.
Or you can gently affirm them in a way that welcomes them back to the fold without rebuke. A celebration of the prodigal returned, because anyone can be wrong, even profoundly and flamboyantly wrong, and there is no way forward without finding a way to leave what’s past behind. Yes, reconciliation would be easier if they said, “Gee, I was so blind about him, I can’t believe I fell for his gaslighting, I’d do anything to undo my vote, but I’ll work to my last breath to help defeat him this time.”
But that’s a lot to expect and, besides, that is not how people convert. Maybe alone, in the dark of night, they reckon with their judgments and quietly whisper to themselves, “How could I be so stupid?” But by daylight, they face the fear of being cast out of their tribe or abandoned by all sides. You can brand them with a scarlet T and scorn them forever, or you can recognize that flaunting your righteousness is not just shallow, it is also shortsighted. Especially with voting imminent in some states, when wobbly voters will test what the future will look like if they switch sides.
No one will ever be persuaded to your cause if you deride their character and dismiss their dignity. Neither burning at the stake nor reform school has much chance of working on individuals who wandered away from the traditional GOP into MAGA America and now find themselves in the wilderness. Pride and denial make the journey back rocky. Smooth the path for them. Suck it up. Let it go. We have work to do.
I’m not advocating mercy for the Republican officeholders who have enabled a lawless president for 3½ years, even those who, when his polls dip, occasionally show some spine. Far too much damage has been done to U.S. security and our social fabric to absolve those who mock Trump in private but massage him in public. They have contaminated the GOP, and it falls to principled conservatives to clean their own house.
But how we judge our public leaders, and the standards we hold them to, is different from how we treat one another. Trump succeeded by salting our wounds; it took the worst president in history to bring out the worst in us, with the help of a media ecosystem that profits from political poison. As it is, too many politicians love to make us hate each other, and too many of us find comfort and company in our shared derision. But if we can close the gap, maybe we can talk.
Which brings us back to the bridge table, and the social value of strategic silence. “Taking it in stride seems like the most generous move,” one of the Democrats says. Surely this quest for clarity, and charity, must start with our family and friends, who we know in all their complexity: Yes, maybe I’ve heard you sound like a homophobe or make sexist jokes, but I also know you’ve adopted special-needs kids and work as a volunteer firefighter.
There’s no room for complexity on Twitter, and it has all but vanished from our politics, which grow ever more virtual and, therefore, unpracticed with real people. But complexity is where progress incubates, where compromise lives, where hope resides.