Reaching across the political divide, we’ve been told, is now harder than ever. In North America and in Europe, the left and right appear far apart on key issues like immigration, national unity and economic reform, both sides conjuring up drastically different pictures of the current state of affairs and both sides fully confident that the other’s plan to get us to a better place is, obviously, rubbish.
In the United States, it’s been about a year of almost total breakdown in relations between those in favour and those against Donald Trump and his brand, with both sides even wondering if there’s anything to be gained from talking to the other. From up on our perch here in Canada, it’s been interesting to watch as Americans, especially those on the left, have tried to make sense of the events.
First, it was the campaign period during which Democrats put on their detective gear and gamely tried to figure out who, exactly, these Trump supporters were, where they lived and why they put up with such an outlandish buffoon. Next, there was the election itself and the ensuing shock of having to sit across the Thanksgiving table from folks whom you thought you knew but, now, were certain that you did not. And now with Trump taking the reins in the Whitehouse, we see Trump’s detractors seemingly in wait, hoping that with each misstep or failed agenda, with every baseless accusation and wild rant, more believers will come to see the error of their ways.
But is such passivity really the best we’ve got? (The “we” is appropriate, since as was made plain by the recent backlash, often aggressive, against what was in fact a very mild anti-Islamophobia motion in Canada’s Parliament, a divide exists in Canada, as well.)
Sadly, for the time being, at least, the splintered media seems unable to help. Established news sources, those professing some degree of objectivity and impartiality, are more and more being passed over in favour of online and social media platforms which promise to provide the “real truth,” thereby further reinforcing the ideological siloing.
But is there a more deliberative, more dialogic approach possible? Can we talk our way across the ideological gap? How about the Socratic Method, that form of dialogue meant to get people really thinking about the root convictions behind what they say? What gets exemplified in Plato’s dialogues is a process whereby Socrates dismantles his interlocutor’s viewpoints by showing them that they do not know what they think they know.
Whatever the topic, justice, love, virtue or anything else with a moral component, Socrates pushes his opponent into stating a universal claim (“Justice is X”) and then finds one or more examples of cases where justice is certainly not X. His opponent retrenches and comes up with a more refined account, to which Socrates again finds counterexamples, and so on until the person gives up, admitting that, indeed, he does not know what justice/virtue/etc. is.
The point of the exercise is obvious — to keep people from feeling overly confident in their assumed wisdom and, followingly, to nudge them towards being more intellectually open, towards accepting the possibility that there’s a lot about a topic that they don’t know.
Turning to the classics during times of uncertainty may not be a bad idea. Socrates and, more so his student, Plato, have been brought up in discussions about Trump, of course, most prominently through what Plato had to say about democracy and tyranny. According to Plato, the latter often occurs as an outgrowth of the former gone wild, when the twin props of democracy, freedom and equality, are upheld with a fanatical devotion, forcibly blurring distinctions between competing values, between the deserved and the undeserved, and causing citizens to push egalitarianism to its limit. The result is a hatred of society’s powerful, a lack of respect for established rules, for anything that stands in the way of their freedom, and a mob-style lashing out (“where liberty has no limit”) at those professing to know better than they. Eventually, says Plato, the mob finds its champion, the one who vows to bring down the rich and bloated, and gives him ultimate power to fulfill all his promises.
Is Plato right about Trump in America? Time will tell, of course, but judging by last week’s failure to repeal Obamacare, a Trump tyranny isn’t happening anytime soon. Democracy still has a few virtues to brag about.
So, how would Socrates speak to Trump supporters? The first step is to get the image of Socrates debating a toga-wearing Trump out of our heads, since that’s a nonstarter.
To be sure, Plato’s dialogues did pit Socrates against more than a few arrogant loudmouths like Trump. In the Republic, the professional orator, Thrasymachus, comes at Socrates practically frothing at the mouth, full of ridicule for everyone else’s opinions (the topic is the nature of justice) and venom for Socrates and his “ironical style” of debate. Justice is the interest of the stronger, says Thrasymachus, the old “might is right” claim.
But after a few rounds of verbal back-and-forth, Thrasymachus’ account of justice is found wanting. Socrates shows that justice and happiness are linked and thus even the strong can only benefit by following the rules. As for Thrasymachus, the man, he is left a veritable puddle on the floor, meekly admitting the error of his ways.
Trump is a different breed, though. No one in his right mind would bet on a similar transformation, regardless of how penetrating and decisive the refutation of his claims. The debate could go on til the world ends and Trump would still not admit any wrong. (But see this amusing take on Socrates trying to get through to Trump about women’s rights.)
But back to Trump’s followers, it’s less than clear that the Socratic method would get us where we want to go. Take the immigration file, for instance. The idea would be to ask a Trump supporter why they are against immigration and why they like the idea of putting walls up around America, both literal and figurative. Perhaps the response would be something like, “Immigration is ruining the country.” Dutifully putting on the toga, then, you’d pull back from quoting statistics which show that, in fact, immigration benefits countries like the US and Canada and instead plainly ask what they mean when they think of the idea of a country. What likely ensues is a blank stare followed by further entrenchment in your friend’s mind that you are indeed an idiot. But let’s say that doesn’t happen, what then? You might just have an engaging discussion about the nature of political union, about patriotism, civic pride and community. Likely, you’ll find a lot of common ground. You both love your country. You both think strong community ties are awesome.
This line of discussion surely is beneficial. Unearthing commonalities across the ideological spectrum is no small work and steering debate onto shared territory is always a good idea. It humanizes, it legitimizes and forges connections where seemingly none previously existed.
So the Socratic approach has its pluses. But can it take you farther? Will it make a Trump fan move a smidge towards a more reasonable position on immigration? Not likely. Politics is not purely about morality. It’s also made of assumptions about empirical matters (stats on jobs, stats on crime) and assumptions about how the future will turn out if various policies are put in place. Neither of these sets of assumptions, really, are going to be affected by Socrates’ approach. You and your interlocutor may hold hands and do a round of “We Are the World” but you’ll still part in disagreement on how, in fact, you’re going to “make a brighter day.” And Trump supporters are still going to believe that the community and country you both love will truly be best served by letting an unhinged former game show host call the shots.