After election 2016, let’s argue more — and do it better

Pacific Lutheran University President Thomas W. Krise in front of the rose window in the Ness Family Chapel of the Karen Hille Phillips Center at PLU in August 2014. Photo by
Pacific Lutheran University President Thomas W. Krise in front of the rose window in the Ness Family Chapel of the Karen Hille Phillips Center at PLU in August 2014. Photo by courtesy Pacific Lutheran University

Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from an address that the president of Pacific Lutheran University will give at the weekly campus chapel service Wednesday. It has been edited for length.

Here we are the day after one of the most rancorous and hate-filled elections this country has ever witnessed. Every presidential contest leaves scars, especially as the margin of victory has become ever thinner in recent years. The 2000 election took weeks to decide and was ultimately settled by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Elections don’t cause divisions so much as they focus attention on them and prompt the question: Where as a nation do we go from here?

Rebuilding a shattered body politic must begin with an understanding of the alienated base that found hope in Donald Trump … Perhaps a place to start is to look at what lessons we can glean from other nations that have gone through divisive elections.

What the Brexit referendum in Britain exposed is that post-2008 — after the global financial crisis — there were many issues swept under the carpet that still have not been dealt with: people in lower-income groups whose wages have not risen and in some cases have fallen, and migration from countries in Eastern Europe that have upset traditional, homogenous communities.

There has been a very real sense that the banks and others who got us into the global financial mess never really faced up to it or paid a penance.

We’ve witnessed a similar us vs. them mentality in this country. It’s clear we need to do something about inequality. This is not about socialism or communism but about making a kind of capitalism that works for people at the bottom end of society.

So if your candidate won last night, how will you approach supporters of those who did not win? It will be tempting to excoriate or patronize them, or to woo them to your cause. But I believe all of these approaches would be mistaken.

I propose a different way forward in healing the wounds of this election. It involves three steps: more listening, more serving, and — perhaps counterintuitively — more arguing.

When I say listening, I don’t mean “debater’s listening,” in which you pay only enough attention to get the gist of the other person’s point so you can prepare your rebuttal. I mean radically compassionate listening: without judgment, without response.

Imagine forming “talking circles” throughout our community, where people of differing worldviews agree simply to listen to one another. The point is not persuasion or conversion. The point is simply to be present, not to bridge political divides, but to reveal chords of connection among us all. You will be amazed to learn that people very different from you have been shaped by similar experiences.

These talking circles can lead to humanizing strangers. And now, post-election, they could re-humanize enemies. This doesn’t require that we try to like each other; it requires only that we try to see and hear each other, that we feel the pain and pride and hope and fear of our assumed enemies.

This brings me to the second step: doing stuff together. This is the genius of PLU’s mission to lead lives of service and care for other people, for their communities and for the Earth. It gets you and me together, not to work on you or me, but to work together on a shared endeavor.

Eventually, service and volunteerism run up against the hard facts of structural inequity and injustice: Serving people regularly at a food bank begs the question why we need food banks at all. Why have our democratic institutions failed for so many? The work of service — if done alongside people not of your set — re-humanizes everyone involved. It literally repairs America.

If we listen more and we serve more we’ll be ready for the third step: arguing more. We don’t need fewer arguments today; we need less stupid ones. The arguments in this election season failed to challenge foundational assumptions about capitalism and government; they centered on symbolic proxy skirmishes instead of naming the underlying change that’s needed; they focused excessively on style over substance, personality over policy.

Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument — between strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.

The point of civic life in this country is not to avoid such tensions. Nor is it for one side to achieve final victory. It is for us all to wrestle perpetually with these differences, to fashion hybrid solutions that work for the times until they don’t, and then to start again.

Thomas W. Krise is a retired U.S. Air Force officer and serves as the 13th president of Pacific Lutheran University, in Parkland.