Kristin Hansen: Are Bridge-builders Being "Too Nice" to the Right?

Guy and I have been participating in a series of zoom calls among people who are concerned about the deterioration of democracy in the United States and what to do about it. Kristen sent out an email to the group in response to a another group member's comment that said that many bridge builders unwittingly aid and abet the right by being too nice to or about them. (Guy and I have certainly been accused of doing that just that--look at, for instance, Jackie Font-Guzmán and Bernie Mayer' response to our CRQ article.)

Additionally, this person said, the “anti-MAGA’ conservatives are turning to the left, not to the cross-partisan groups (many of which were participating in this series of zooms) in an effort to “save democracy.” Why is that, he asked?

We thought Kristin's response warranted inclusion in our blog, and she agreed to let us post it here.  Thanks, Kristin!


by Kristin Hansen

Nov. 20, 2022

I believe that all of us (whether anti-MAGA conservatives, anti-MAGA democrats, or cross-partisan democracy reformers) should aim for as much precision as possible in distinguishing between (a) the political class - elected politicians, candidates, advisors, and operatives - who have coopted the GOP to achieve certain goals we may disagree with, and (b) the tens of millions of right-leaning Americans who have voted— and will continue to vote—"MAGA" if they perceive that this is their best available choice, for any number of reasons. Biden's rhetoric on this has been sloppy and careless in this regard; by referring loosely to "MAGA Republicans" and "semi-fascists" in ways that virtually any right-leaning American could possibly feel vilified. He is cynically stirring up negative sentiment towards right-leaning Americans, in order to turn out more voters on behalf of Democrats in midterms. I really wish he hadn't taken that advice.

I believe that the vast majority of Americans who will vote Republican in the midterms, or who would like to vote for Trump or a similar "MAGA" style candidate in 2024, are not doing so because they consciously prefer autocracy over democracy, or a dictator over a president, or an election denier over an election supporter. We may interpret their vote as an intentional expression of preference for autocracy, dictatorship, or election chaos, but I feel certain that for at least 9 out of 10 who vote in this way, this is not how they would describe what they are voting for. And most or all would assert that they are performing their patriotic duty as Americans by voting.

To the extent some voters may actually, subconsciously, or even consciously prefer to vote for "autocracy" or more "authoritarian" style leaders, it's good to explore the social psychology around this. Karen Stenner's work on "the authoritarian dynamic" is instructive in this regard.  She suggests as many as 1/3 of American voters might be attracted towards more authoritarian leader styles, based on psychological profiling, and that voters will act on this attraction especially in times of heightened uncertainty or threat (sound like now, maybe?).  So then what must we do? Reduce the sense of threat, including the perceived threat that left-leaning Americans pose to their values and preferences. In other words, we need to figure out how to shrink the "Radical Socialist Left" boogeyman in their minds and hearts.  We do that through proximity, invitation, and piercing stereotypes with our humanity.

I do think the primary role of bridge-builders in America at this time is to "call in," not to "call out." That this does not make us irrelevant, in fact it makes us essential. We can't "save democracy" by canceling, condescending towards, or vilifying half the electorate within it. That isn't good math. The system we are trying to "save" needs as many adherents as possible, from all across our diverse and widening ideological spectrum.  I believe that a good and important starting point is to assume good intentions on the part of Americans who don't vote the way we might prefer, even if it seems "obvious" why they should vote the way we prefer. (As a fairly basic example of this, I don't assume someone is a fascist because they are happy about the Dobbs decision, even if Biden's rhetoric conflates these things).

To the extent that anyone - including bridge-builders - engage in "calling out," some wisdom can be drawn from marriage and parenting.  For example: call out the behavior, not the person. Define terms (if I say you are being "anti-democratic," what does that even mean?") Be very specific about what is wrong, why, and the impact it has on me / us.  Don't "generalize," as in "you always do this, or you always say that." If bad patterns persist, consider how both sides—including your own—are contributing to the problem.  Avoid "god complex," "savior mentality," and self-righteousness. If the goal at the end of the day is to stick together, being right isn't the primary goal—being together is the primary goal.

Here are some framing examples that focus on actions / outcomes and avoid vilifying or condescending to right-leaners and / or people drawn to more authoritarian styles:

  • We disagree on lots of things, like abortion. That's OK. Our democracy exists to help us work through difficult issues like this.

  • We disagree on lots of things, and we should feel excited about that. Usually the best ideas and solutions emerge when the most diverse opinions are considered. The business world knows this. We need to feel the same way about government. 

  • Elections aren't perfect, but they're the fairest way we have to choose the people who represent us. What's the alternative?

  • When elections are over, we all have to trust in them, otherwise self-governance unravels and each of us has lost our most powerful voice.

  • Democracy is messy, imperfect, and demanding. The alternative—giving our power to dictators and autocrats—is invariably worse. History has shown this over and over. 

  • An important idea in "representative democracy" is "representative." When systems skew too far away from giving each person an equal vote and an equal voice, people will start to chafe. How can we make our systems as fair as possible, without succumbing to "mob rule?"