Lonely Hearts Club
Send Mike Pence a Valentine.
Right now is the best window we will get to interrupt the vicious conflict cycle we’re in. We’re halfway between presidential election cycles, which means, believe it or not, tensions will only get higher, Common Ground USA’s Nealin Parker recently told me.
Political violence will escalate in the months to come; that’s a predictable pattern in high conflict worldwide. And while voting rights and gerrymandering are very important, there is no greater threat to democracy than political violence. It leads to cycles of revenge and, eventually, public support for authoritarianism.
So this moment might not feel like the calm before the storm, but it is! And so far, not enough people are taking advantage of it, Parker told me. Too many people are just fighting the same fights, the same way. “What you’d like to see at the leadership level,” she said, “is a kind of rejection of that which got us here as the main tool to get us out.”
That’s why former vice president Mike Pence’s speech to the conservative Federalist Society last week was so startling—and important.
“I heard this week, President Trump said I had the right to ‘overturn the election,’” Pence said. “President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election.” This represented Pence’s strongest rebuttal of Trump’s election narrative to date.
Now, many of you may be thinking, “Don’t be naïve! He’s just reading the political tea leaves! He sees that Trump’s support is waning, and he’s trying to differentiate himself for political purposes!”
I understand. I would have had the same response five years ago. And it is partly true, no doubt.
But having interviewed a lot of people trapped in high conflict, I also know this: What Pence did is one of the hardest things a person can do, regardless of his motivations.
One reason high conflicts go on and on is because it is so terrifying for anyone to defect. Publicly disagreeing with your group goes against every survival instinct in conflict. It is literally like walking through fire, and the experience registers in our brain the same way. It is excruciating.
I’ve met activists, gang leaders, guerilla members and politicians who have defected, and they all say the same thing: it was almost unbearable. They felt alone, vulnerable, filled with doubt and despair. Old friends suddenly stopped speaking to them. And conflict entrepreneurs everywhere rejoiced in their suffering. (Hours after Pence’s speech, former Trump advisor and current conflict entrepreneur Steve Bannon called Pence a “stone cold coward,” quite predictably.)
How did they endure it? Usually, there was someone just outside the conflict who welcomed them home. A pastor, a wife or a child who embraced them, despite everything.
Here’s the painful truth: communities have to welcome former combatants home. Otherwise, they will go where they feel like they belong, which is usually back to the conflict.
So if you want to find a way out of the conflict trap we are in right now in America, I’d suggest doing the opposite of your instinct. Send Pence a Tweet. (Here’s mine.) Or comment on his Facebook page. You don’t have to agree with him to acknowledge that he’s interrupting the conflict.
Humans need groups to survive. So our best option is to welcome Pence—and any other defectors, left and right—into a new group. That group is the exhausted majority of Americans. The ones who can see that we are destroying ourselves from the inside out; who understand that we must find a way to co-exist, as we continue to disagree. And that is the group Pence spoke to, for a fleeting moment, in his speech. “Frankly,” he said, “there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”
The time is now for Americans to do something different. To stop being manipulated by conflict entrepreneurs. To do the counterintuitive thing.
Here’s to walking through fire, together,
I host Slate’s weekly How To! podcast, and I write books and stories about change and people who have undergone transformations (and the researchers who study them).
I’m interested in hearing your stories about trying (and failing and trying again) to make change in your neighborhood, your home, your place of worship. Wherever it is.
You can always find me on Twitter or email me at email@example.com.
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