extend the olive branch

Opinion: Why we must decide to cooperate

The cooperative effort to understand each other forms the mutual respect necessary for compromise.

  • Friday, November 13, 2020 1:07pm
  • Opinion

By Rich Moniak

Among the first words heard in the victory speech by President-Elect Joe Biden was a “pledge to be a President who seeks not to divide, but to unify.” Seeks is the operative word. He can’t do it alone. And the first move to do this work belongs to those of us on the left.

Biden is on track to win a higher percentage of the popular vote than Ronald Reagan did in 1980. But that it will still be around 51% is a reminder that America is deeply divided. A fact being amplified by Donald Trump’s unfounded accusations that the election was stolen.

According to Attorney General Bill Barr, the Department of Justice hasn’t “concluded that voting irregularities have impacted the outcome of any election.” And while he authorized federal prosecutors to “pursue substantial allegations of voting and vote tabulation irregularities,” nothing they find is likely to rise above his multiple caveats that the evidence not be “specious, speculative, fanciful or far-fetched.”

Those words describe the 10 lawsuits filed on behalf of Trump’s campaign, several which have already been dismissed. None included credible evidence of widespread fraud. The primary argument made in latest one in Pennsylvania is the state “created an illegal two-tiered voting system” that made almost all mail-in ballots illegal. But the 105-page complaint describes only a few “suspected instances of mail-in ballot fraud” involving a total of only 13 ballots.

When this is all over, Trump will have lost the election, a dozen lawsuits and will have embarrassingly little or nothing to show the nation that fraud occurred at any level. But he will have convinced between 20-30% of the voting public that the election was stolen.

That range is comparable to the number of voters who, for different reasons, believed Trump and President Barack Obama weren’t legitimately elected. David Greenberg, Professor of History and Media Studies at Rutgers University, points out that such whining began after Bill Clinton won the 1992 election and occurred again after George W. Bush won eight years later.

“Is it just a coincidence that five presidents in a row now will be deemed illegitimate by the opposition” Greenberg asks. “Or could the reasons lie … in a broader truth about our political culture today?”

New Yorker author Evan Osnos described that culture as “bounded by a contest between reason and violence — a seesawing battle … between the aspiration to persuade fellow-citizens to accept your views and the raw instinct to force them to comply.”

That metaphor from a child’s playground is both fitting and flawed. It depicts the appearance of reasoned debate but with a winner-take-all goal. The loser can bow in compliance. Or walk to another playground, which today means retreating to the echo chambers of social media and biased cable news feeds.

A hint of what’s missing is in the article’s tagline — “the country teeters between persuasion and force.” Before breaking in either direction, there’s a moment of balance. An effort to hold the seesaw in that position implies a common objective. The pursuit of dominance gives way to sustained cooperation. Genuinely listening replaces arguing at each other.

Listening without judgment, blame, or criticism is an essential component of Nonviolent Communication championed by Marshall Rosenberg. In his Voices in Wartime Anthology.

Andrew Himes describes its application to healing psychological trauma caused by violence. The listener must be able to repeat the story in such a way that the victim “can say, ‘Yes—you were listening. … And you retold it with truthfulness and emotion that I can recognize.’”

Practicing that kind of intense listening in our political discourse would put an end to immediate rebuttals. The cooperative effort to understand each other forms the mutual respect necessary for compromise to be viewed as meaningful progress rather than unconditional surrender.

“The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate is a choice we make” Biden said. “And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate. And I believe that this is part of the mandate from the American people.”

For our part, he asked that we “give each other a chance … put away the harsh rhetoric” and “listen to each other again.”

That’s an olive branch his supporters need to hold out in humble silence.

• Rich Moniak is a Juneau resident and retired civil engineer with more than 25 years of experience working in the public sector. Columns, My Turns and Letters to the Editor represent the view of the author, not the view of the Juneau Empire. Have something to say? Here’s how to submit a letter to the editor or My Turn.

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