Responding Adaptively To Populism


Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   2-21,9-22

ABSTRACT:  Basic psychological needs for being valued, being accepted, and being safe are posited to account for most political populism, and these needs point society toward what needs fixing if populist risings are to be assuaged and government is to be less divided—(1) thinking in a balanced way—i.e., seeing and voicing both sides of an issue (seeing and voicing both the pros and cons of a position or proposal, instead of advocating in a one-sided way); (2) dealing in a more informed and tolerant way with differences between us, most especially value or worldview differences; and (3) treating everyone with appropriate respect and courtesy.

KEY WORDS:  psychology, psychological needs, politics, populism, conservatism, democracy


Populist uprisings, such as the one that propelled Mr. Trump to the White House, occur when some segment of society is particularly unhappy, usually because of some perceived threat to themselves and/or their way of life.  Many Trump voters and many members of white identity groups (which includes white supremacy groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers) (1) felt that they were being left behind economically, partly due to globalization and off-shoring of manufacturing jobs, (2) resented being looked down on by the political and intellectual elites of the country, (3) felt that their traditional sense of morals was being attacked and degraded by liberals and in most media outlets, (4) felt that foreigners (immigrants) were replacing them as workers and were more highly valued than they themselves were as citizens, and/or (5) felt that their place in society and their worldview, which they identified mainly with their religion and their freedoms, was being neglected and degraded (white Evangelicals being an important group in this category).  (White identity groups are groups for whose white members whiteness has been a key aspect of their self-esteem and who feel that this buttress to self-esteem is being taken away from them by the diminishing percentage of the population that is white, and by the attention and concern given to immigrants and non-white persons.)

Clearly, at his rallies, Mr. Trump talked directly to these voters, and they were the most likely to be aroused by Mr. Trump’s rhetoric of a stolen election and the need to “fight” to keep what we value in our country.  Currently, these populists and their concerns are the face of the Republican party, though it appears now that Mr. Trump’s hold on the party is starting to fade.

There is no doubt that many persons in this essay’s grouping of populists are also racially prejudiced, but not all of them are.  The same is true of Trump voters in general—many are racially prejudiced and are attracted by Trump’s veiled racial critiques, but many of them are not.  This essay focuses not on all Trump voters but on those who were reasonably satisfied with the country twenty years ago but who now feel left-behind and demeaned.  (Blacks in this country also feel left-behind but have felt that way for far longer than the current populists!)

Understandably, this latest populist uprising in the U.S. has been met largely with criticism and rejection by the elites and the establishment, because its champion, Mr. Trump, was so disliked by the elites and intelligentsia of the country and because it has become an accepted truth in our society that immigrants and non-white persons in our society are discriminated against and disadvantaged, thus making them an obvious target for sympathy and government help.  The populist concerns (above) deserve more serious attention, though, since they do represent the reality of life for these populist voters.  Any “healing” of the divide between sides must include government efforts to remedy the jobs situation.

The negative stereotype of these populists (coarse, rude, prone to violence, backward, and ignorant) is looked down on by societal institutions that promote order and organization.  Their conservative morals (family values, abortion, sexual orientation, gender-change issues, self-reliance) are rejected by society’s elites and traditional media as well as by the Democrat party.  Their religious beliefs are seen as unscientific and backward by Progressives and people in the upper classes, and their desires for freedoms are seen by some as antithetical to appropriate controls on behavior in our society (e.g., gun control). 

Since our politics is carried out largely in opposition and fighting, no leaders have emerged to help society think more broadly about the populist concerns above.  Everything is couched in fighting terms (fight, struggle, attack, defend, overcome, war, insurrection), so the majority that elected Mr. Biden are not prepared to take these populist concerns seriously, and our media (both liberal and conservative) purposely use challenging, provocative headlines regarding sensational issues, to garner attention (and money), thus making the divide worse (intentionally or unintentionally).  We see no public media evidence of compassion and understanding for Trump voters and populists from our main-line churches.  In our individualistic society, we have expected people to fend for themselves (find another job), so we are not prepared to see government active in the employment domain.  If businesses acted to allay the problem, it could take care of it, but again, we expect people to do it on their own, and capitalism is not known for altruism.

As an alternative, if we view the complaints of populists from a psychological point of view, we might find a basis for a more positive response from the rest of society.  My formulation of our human needs/goals structure (applicable to all persons in all societies) is as follows.

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal attainment to enable you to meet your basic needs at least adequately and to take care of yourself and those legitimately dependent on you)

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage (recognizing that some amount of physical and emotional pain are normal aspects of human life and the human adaptation)

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment), mainly through—

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward yourself
            (which may include loving yourself, respecting yourself,
            accepting yourself, and treating yourself well, and which in
            large measure arise from being loved, respected, and accepted
            by others in early life and from creating good outcomes for

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and
            internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree of
            conflict and pain is inherent in being human) (see 2 above)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

3d-having gratifying relationships with others (see 5 below)

4-sex and procreation, including the desire to protect and raise children

5-gratifying relationships with others, including group acceptance for yourself, protecting and defending your groups (family, nation, etc.)       when necessary, and helping those of your groups in times of great need

All of the activities that we create in life are means for reaching these fundamental goals.  Most importantly for this discussion, we react strongly when our current satisfaction of these needs or the methods we use to meet these needs is attacked or threatened, and this is what has happened for many populists and white identity groups.

Besides basic survival needs, the most painful when unfulfilled are our need to be valued (self-esteem and the esteem and basic acceptance of us by others), our need to be included as part of relevant groups (family, social group, work group, nation), and our need to feel relatively secure (to be mostly free of significant survival fears).  For many populists these needs are not met. 

Many of these persons are falling behind economically, and they see other groups to which they once felt superior being praised publicly so that they themselves feel downgraded.  Many of these citizens had manufacturing or industrial jobs that disappeared as our economy transitioned to a financial and services economy, largely because of globalization and off-shoring of these jobs to workers who could be paid less somewhere else.   Our societal institutions have nothing to offer them, because we have always believed that people should find their own jobs and find themselves better jobs if they wish to “move up.”  These workers functioned well in manufacturing jobs and are not oriented to the values of a paperwork and services economy, and almost nothing has been offered to them in the way of retraining.  In addition, a significant minority of the middle and lower classes are now in jobs that do not pay enough to live on, and recent research is showing that it is becoming less likely that people will be able to actually move up class-wise in the U.S. than it was fifty years ago.

These groups are criticized for the practices they value but that are not valued by the elites and liberal media (belief in God, valuing church, a literal reading of the Bible, liking guns, hunting with guns, being openly patriotic, being pro-life, identifying with sports heroes and teams, drinking in neighborhood bars, keeping family close, living near where they were born, disliking taking welfare).  Many persons who resist adding non-white immigrants to the country feel that they are losing social esteem and an accepted place in society since immigrants seem to them (rightly or wrongly) to have more rights and benefits than they do, and being white no longer seems a justification for feeling good about oneself.  “Critical race theory” is often misinterpreted to imply that whites should feel guilty for the sins of their forebears, and these populists take sin and guilt seriously, whereas our elites these days do not. 

Globalization implies that their more near-to-home (insular, isolationist?) worldview is no longer honored or honorable.  They don’t feel equipped to compete in the global market (and may not want to be) and so feel inferior.   They do have their families and social groups, but they do not feel welcome in the governance of the country.  They do not feel economically secure and are therefore fearful, and the rest of the country doesn’t seem to care.  Their identities are not valued by the major forces in society, which also raises fears of displacement.  For these reasons, they feel marginalized and unable to assert their equality.  (These problems do not justify the Jan. 6 violence at the Capitol, but they do explain the feelings and motives of many who were violent.)

It seems clear that the populists being considered here (1) feel fearful and materially insecure due to large changes in our economy, (2) feel personally devalued due to loss of jobs and income, (3) feel personally devalued due to contempt and criticism from more progressive elements of society, and (4) feel excluded from governance due to their inability to function in more highly verbal interactions based in sophisticated uses of information (preferring instead to rely on emotion for decisions and accepting the opinions of those, especially authority figures, who seem to be “on their side”).

There are good reasons, therefore, for them to gravitate toward a leader who seems strong and who gives them validation for who they are, such as Mr. Trump.  He praised them and talked as if he identified with them. He promised to stand up for them and get them jobs.  He assuaged their fear with his never-any-doubts optimism and his absolute refusal to lose or take criticism.  He gave voice to and legitimized their anger.  He projected the strength that they do not feel.

Given their value of loyalty and their lack of alternatives, these voters are unlikely to reject or give up on Mr. Trump or others like him until the system starts to provide them with some of the psychological benefits that Mr. Trump gave them (regardless of the fact that as President Mr. Trump did almost nothing for them).  The system, unfortunately, feels more punitive than compassionate toward them at the moment, greatly augmented by the mob attack on the Capitol building just before the inauguration, and mainstream media continue to find sensational “reasons” to criticize them.  The mob at the Capitol contained many of the kinds of voters this essay describes but also many members of militias, sovereignists, and end-of-lifers (apocalyptists).  Given the one-sidedness of our news outlets (on both sides), it is difficult for many of us to hold in our minds clearly that most Trump voters are not rioters and rarely make political statements at all.  They include many middle and lower middle class citizens, peaceful but fearful and concerned citizens.

For these voters, loyalty and sticking to one’s values are very important.  Further criticizing and demeaning them would simply harden their feelings of victimization.  To move forward, the elites and establishment must accept that there will be no healing until some of the populists’ humiliation and fear are alleviated.   These populists cannot be viewed as alien or enemies to be shaped up but rather as citizens who have been in difficult straits, both financially and psychologically.  It is reality that much of the country has “moved on” from the rural, hometown values and way of life of the populists, to city dwelling and internationalism, and the populists must accept that they will not prosper as much as those in the cities unless they change.  On the other hand, if they choose to stay with their hometown values and way of life and if we as a country wish to have a place for everyone in our society, they must still be accepted and valued in the country, and their needs must still be addressed by the urban majority.  There will be no healing unless both sides decide to live together amicably if not in harmony.

These current populist discussions have focused mainly on jobs and income, on immigration, and on the perceived arrogance and declared superiority of the political elite, particularly of the Democratic Party even though Republican elites are equally blameworthy in terms of jobs and social status.  It is useful to look more deeply into the motivation of populist citizens from a psychological perspective, as above, since every behavior (including all thoughts and emotions) is motivated by something, and human beings are motivated mainly by their needs for survival and to be in a positive or at least a neutral emotional state.  We seek and will kill for the means of survival (food, clothing, shelter, protection), and we seek and will even sometimes kill for escaping from a negative emotional state (mainly fear, shame, guilt, disappointment, vulnerability, helplessness). 

For this analysis to have serious implications for how we treat each other, we have to admit that neither side is ever going to “win” the sniping and back-stabbing war that is going on, and the congressional habit of avoiding everything controversial (so members can be re-elected) will continue, leaving the country dysfunctional and looking silly on the international stage.  The two sides are too evenly matched in voting numbers for either to ever be dominant.  Therefore, for the sake of the country, we will all be better off treating others with a new and different attitude—that of understanding and basic respect and courtesy.  So, why change our attitudes?– because the American people will benefit.


Let us next broaden the discussion from populists/Trump voters to liberals and conservatives more generally.  There are grave dangers in generalizing, of course, but sometimes grouping people into recognizable groups is useful for thinking about the future and about how our society could work together more amicably.  I will try not to draw unwarranted conclusions from the following generalizations about liberals and conservatives.  Bear in mind particularly that “conservatives” here include a group of Trump voters and populists and also all the rest of conservatives.  These groups are similar in terms of values but are quite different in terms of what actions they would prefer to take to improve our political and economic situation.

America is challenged by a division of citizens into two major camps, differing in value sets and in approaches to living.  One group is more traditional and tends to identify as conservative.  People in this group value family connections highly, and loyalty is a key value.  They prefer hierarchical social arrangements and gravitate toward strong and benevolent leaders.  Many prefer to live in small towns or small cities, and they seek when possible to stay in the hometown and maintain connections with childhood friends.  They still go to church (or believe that they should).  They idealize the military, and patriotism is meaningful and important.  They have a traditional distrust of distant government, and extremists in this group have organized private militias and trained for readiness in the event of having to resist the central government by force.  The key contributions to division by this group are trying to keep things local, holding back on change, and distrust of intellectuals and experts.

The other group can be described as liberal or technocratic.  Citizens in this group pursue “modern” approaches to life, including making maximum use of the information opportunities available these days.  They tend to live in urban areas and to work in financial and information firms.  Most have moved away from hometowns and families of origin in order to take advantage of educational and career options.  They value expertise and believe that all problems can be solved by science and planning.  They are not fearful of change.  They are suspicious of emotion-inducing leaders and prefer an emphasis on facts and discussion.  They are not religious but may toy with spiritualism.  They abhor violence and would never think of physical fighting themselves.  They think problems should be solved by central government using information and technology.  They are fine with increasing specialization of jobs with higher and higher entry requirements (and pay).  They seek prestige through education they have received and through the size and influence of their employers.  Extremists in this group can violate laws in order to promote their causes (the environment, equality), and they promote what they view as social change for the better (abortion rights, defund the police, protest marches against police brutality).  The key contributions of this group to national division are their assumption that they are right about everything, their pretenses of being objective, and their disdain for the other group.

We must understand the operations of these two groups in terms of their values.  As explained by Jonathan Haidt in his book “The Righteous Mind: Why We Fight About Values_________,” liberals in our society tend to value change (progress) and autonomy, while conservatives tend to value tradition, order, hierarchy, and sacredness.  These are all human value possibilities and by themselves are not evil or destructive.  To have useful and civil discussions, then, requires accepting that the other person’s values are worth taking seriously.  Liberals should be honest enough to admit that traditions can be useful for societal bonding and order and that pondering the sacred can add depth and empathy to life.  Conservatives should be honest enough to admit that our society needs some changes if it is to live up to its ideals of equality and freedom.  If you are liberal and want to understand others, admit that change is not always good, and tradition is often useful.  If you are conservative, admit that change is sometimes good and that too much adherence to tradition can stymie all improvement.  Both liberals and conservatives should formulate to themselves how their political philosophy advances the other side’s values and not just their own! 

One key factor in our country’s divisions is greater recent interaction of these two groups.  In the past these groups could be secure in their separate enclaves and existences because they were unlikely to encounter direct confrontation by the other.  With current internet and news opportunities, they now frequently see things about the other group that they don’t like or don’t understand that they would not have been aware of before the internet, and their “natural” reactions are to defend their own ways of being and criticize or demonize the other group. This applies to both sides regardless of the fact that liberals believe that they are objective.  If we are to work together better, we will have to understand each other better and tolerate each other with more grace.  (See my essays on Bridging Societal Differences on for key adaptive attitudes and specifics in interacting.)

We might even condense these survival and positive or neutral emotional state motives to concerns about security and self-esteem, for purposes of discussion.  We crave a sense of security about our survival, and even though our circumstances may be extremely unpleasant, we can tolerate this unpleasantness much better if we also feel secure about the future (even if that future is still seen as unpleasant).  (This explains the great importance to many of “knowing” with certainty that there will be a more pleasant afterlife.)  We also crave feeling positively about ourselves (self-esteem), since we depend on ourselves mainly to do what is necessary in order to survive and to have a “good life.”  The most important factors determining our self-esteem are our feelings of agency (being able to do and accomplish things that we want) and the feelings and actions of others toward us.  Self-doubts and negative labeling of self by self or others (idiot, dummy, worthless, stupid, fool, failure, wimp, ugly, “deplorable,” etc.) are quite painful and usually result in obsessive thinking about one’s deficiencies.  If this labeling is chronic, it leads almost inevitably to reductions in functioning and status and often beyond that to alcohol and/or drug addiction, loss of family, and homelessness.

Human beings have evolved (or were created) to use status hierarchies, usually based on inherited status (prince, etc.), earned position (mayor, etc.), or wealth to structure society.  Acceptance of one’s position in these hierarchies acts to reduce upsets and violence over how resources and rewards are distributed in the total group.  People higher in the hierarchy get more pay and adulation, and we tend to believe that they “deserve” it simply because they are higher up on the hierarchy!  Unfortunately we accord more value or worth to those higher in the hierarchy (just because they are higher in the hierarchy and for no other reasons), which causes many emotional problems in those lower down.  We could moderate this status tendency by consciously redefining value apart from status, even while we acquiesce to the redistribution of goods implied by status.


Given the above analysis, the President could help populists/Trump voters by (1) respecting them as citizens (and parting ways with any efforts to castigate and punish Trump voters simply for supporting Trump), (2) including them as participants in the government deliberations and actions that will affect them, (3) taking action to make their economic situations better (infrastructure program? more manufacturing jobs with protective tariffs? large COVID relief package?), and (4) take away some of their survival fears—both economically and psychologically—by providing jobs and by openly valuing some of their values.  Bear in mind that people change best in supportive environments, not in those in which power is being used on and against them.  Unfortunately, presuming that their representatives in Congress will be working for their benefit leads nowhere, since research shows that Congress consists very largely of rich, well-educated persons who predictably vote in favor of measures that benefit rich, well-educated persons (of either major party) rather than those less well off.  This is true of both Democrats and Republicans!

There is much talk about our democracy being “under attack,” after the Jan. 6 riot, but consider that if a system is not doing what a large number of citizens want, perhaps it deserves criticism and should change, and remember that the persons with the loudest voices in the media in support of Mr. Trump and the persons in the Capitol mob are only a tiny fraction of the 74,000,000 who voted for him.  Most of this 74,000,000 were sincere in their populist feelings and their feeling that only Mr. Trump would try to help them.  These are fellow Americans who deserve our continued concern.

The main consequence of value differences is that the groups with differing values view members of other groups as strange or deficient.  In order to live together as equals, we will have to accept that other value stances (other than our own) are simply differing ways of achieving the very same human goals (survival, tolerable levels of pain, having some times of positive emotions, raising children, having sex, having some gratifying relationships).  If conversations and other interactions focus on the surface differences, there will be conflict (as we see every day in our media), but if we can view value sets as being relatively equal in value, we can focus on finding solutions to various problems that are acceptable to everyone.  The three most important changes that we must make in order to work together without (or with less) rancor are (1) thinking in a balanced way—i.e., seeing and voicing both sides of an issue (seeing and voicing both the pros and cons of every position or proposal); (2) dealing in a more informed and tolerant way with differences between us, most especially value or worldview differences; and (3) treating everyone with appropriate respect and courtesy.


Liberals are suspicious of conservatives’ overt patriotism, viewing it as unnecessary and misguided, because it seems to idealize the military, soldiers, violence, and war.  Conservatives are glad to have a strong military and are very protective of our nation’s independence, while liberals tend to focus more on international cooperation and treaties, some even thinking that the more countries unite as even larger countries, the fewer wars we would have.  Liberals tend to minimize the violence potential of human beings, while conservatives are afraid of it.

War is hell, of course, and the image that conservatives have of a mighty and always victorious country is only one side of the picture.  The traumatic mental health impact on so many servicemen of their service in Iraq and Vietnam should make clear that war is complicated and there are often no clear “good” and “bad” sides.  If we were fighting to defending our country, it would be easier to justify and to be gung-ho, but it seems we are always out there somewhere trying to change other countries’ behavior and not directly defending ourselves.  The reason for that, of course, is not wanting things to develop to the point that we might have a war on American soil, but this means that servicemen and women risk their lives for something that might happen versus something that is actually happening. 

If there were a nuclear war, millions of Americans would die horrible deaths, even if we were victorious in the end.  Is that what conservatives want?  No, but it can look that way, when armed force is praised without recognition of how it is to be used. 

Since liberals tend to deal in data and information, they are more used to seeing information as independent of feeling, while Trump voters/populists, who rely more on instinct than data, don’t like seeing the bad about the military at the same time that they see the good, so their celebrations of the military seem almost dangerous to liberals.  Liberals’ disinterest in and criticism of the military seems to conservatives to be crazy, because it seems to ignore threats and potential threats to the country.

To pursue a goal of including everyone as Americans and working together on our joint problems, we must accept and not attack the value sets of others.  They are just as American as we are, and their views should carry as much weight as ours do, if we really believe in democracy!  We can disagree on policy and value matters yet still accept others as fellow Americans, as well as treat everyone with respect and courtesy.

Liberals want to have a strong national defense, just as conservatives do, but they don’t want us all to forget how horrible war is.  Conservatives are genuinely appreciative of our servicemen and women, in a more personal way, while liberals may not know anyone serving in the military and hence don’t have any personal alliance with soldiers.

To reduce this seeming impasse, liberals should acknowledge out loud that we need a strong military, even if they want to work hard to have treaties and avoid war, thus embracing the views of both sides.  Instead of viewing overt patriotism as jingoism, liberals should go to Fourth of July parades and parties, wave a sparkler, and have a hot dog in good conscience with their fellow Americans.  Tomorrow they can work for peace.  Conservatives should be happy with and thankful for our military but at the same time temper that with awareness of how terrible war is and how important it is to avoid wars. 

An important cognitive operation that is relevant to these divisions is black-or-white thinking—in this case, seeing only the positives or only the negatives in an issue.  Liberals publicly talk about militarism and the dangers of war without at the same time noting the importance of the military and the contributions of our soldiers.  Conservatives tout the dangers in the world for which we need a strong military and criticize the unreliability of other countries, without at the same time acknowledging that our military should be used only when truly needed and that working together with other countries to prevent wars is a useful thing to do.  If all of us would state both sides and acknowledge both the pros and the cons of issues, it would go a long way toward bridging our divides.  (This one-sided approach seems normal to us because of our adversarial legal system, which pits sides against each other, and our training in debate, which focuses on one side “winning” rather than both sides gaining in wisdom.  This one-sidedness has some value in a legal system, ensuring that the accused are represented fairly, but it is certainly not the best way to find the truth!)

A similar dynamic is operating in the conflict over past heroes.  Some liberals want to dethrone George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they owned slaves, while conservatives would like to ignore those slaves and hold onto what we learned as children about those who founded and served our country in the past.  The fact is that all human beings are imperfect, including our heroes, so there is nothing “wrong” with seeing both the good and the bad, but both sides want to trumpet only one side.  Morals and mores change over time, and our own sense of morals and mores will seem unacceptable to people two hundred years from now, just as those of two hundred years ago seem unacceptable to us, so is it appropriate for us to judge people in the past solely by how we see things now?  We should be a bit more humble.  No matter where we are in time, though, we can appreciate each other as human beings, all of us doing the best we can.  Our Founding Fathers genuinely worked for independence, even if they had slaves and even if they wanted independence mainly so that they could make more money and not pay it out in British taxes.  Once again, if we are willing to see all of reality, we can all be on the same pages.

Liberals tend to overidealize other cultures, thinking that “celebrating” differences is the way to get everyone to accept each other, while conservatives tend to be suspicious of other cultures and prefer to celebrate our own culture.  Liberals, then, see conservatives as ignoring the prejudice and inequity problems in our society, which might just be in an effort to keep up our spirits (by celebrating our own culture), and conservative voters don’t want to acknowledge our problems, because that would contaminate their love of the country.

A bit of humility is in order by both sides.  Liberals may feel good about the huge cities they live in, but they should admit that cities breed crime and take us away from the contact with the natural world that is important for humans to keep perspective.  Conservatives may love their guns, but they should admit that their wish to have guns is motivated partly by getting a feeling of power over others whom they fear (and should ask themselves whether their fears are justified).

Liberals tend to approach solving the country’s problems by having the central government spend money and give things to people (student loan forgiveness is a good example).  Liberals see this as caring for other citizens but ignore the damage such giveaways could do to our values of personal responsibility.  If we expected the central government to do all that, why should citizens work hard to take care of themselves as much as possible?  Once again, it behooves us to find the most workable compromise that honors at least some of the values of both liberals and conservatives.  The alternative is to insist that only one side “win” and to wait to take action on important issues only when one side has enough votes to “win.”  This approach uses demonizing the other side as a tool to “win,” which obviously exacerbates our anger at being degraded and vilified.

To move on to an ethos of seeing both sides of things regularly, we would have to value having a better grasp on the truth more than we value the positive feelings we get from looking only at one side and ignoring the other.  This might seem like a net loss if we don’t consider the better feelings that we will have from working amicably together over the long term and from solving our problems in better ways.  Actions guided by reality are more likely to benefit us than actions guided by ignorance.


One of the most critical issues in human relations is dealing with differences between ourselves and others.  This applies to all levels of relationships, from dyads to nations.  Since other human beings affect us or potentially affect us practically all the time, we are always watchful about what they might do toward us, and we depend for our sense of personal security on being able to understand and anticipate the actions of others.  This means that we are most comfortable with those who are just like us, since we understand them best and feel that we can reasonably predict what they will do. 

The more another person is different from us, the more frightened and insecure we become, or to put it another way, the more effort we must make to preserve our sense of security and to maintain comfortable relations with the other person (by making special efforts to understand the person and predict his/her behavior or by accepting the risks of being around him/her and putting aside our worry).  Many people would identify their reactions to difference as annoyance, irritation, or anger, but these are reactions to the fear and insecurity that they feel first but cover up with angry emotion.  (Differences, if not threatening, can be stimulating and exciting.)

The more differences there are between us and others, the more likely the situation is to lead to aggression and violence.  For example, Americans are more comfortable with Canadians than with Britons, more comfortable with Britons than with French persons, and more comfortable with Europeans than with Middle-Easterners, all because of these increasing degrees of difference. 

When one person reacts with surprise or amazement to an event and the other person with fear, they will be unable to predict each other’s next move.  In a similar vein, those who believe in following the instructions of authority figures (parents, police, teachers, etc.) will distrust and fear those who comfortably decide things for themselves, sometimes contrary to what authority has said.  When one group is brought up to feel shame in order to control behavior and another has been trained primarily with guilt, they will have difficulty understanding each other.  People who are trained to restrict their emotional expression are shocked and unbelieving regarding the behavior of those with much greater expressiveness, and people who are more controlled emotionally are usually viewed as more trustworthy.  Those who are brought up to regard themselves primarily as members of the group (with group maintenance a higher value than individual liberty) will be dismayed and confused by the behavior of those who are raised to place their own benefit above group cohesiveness and security.  People who go to church and believe in God will have more difficulty understanding, predicting, and trusting those who do not share those values and associated behavioral conventions (prayer, “respecting” the cross).  People who view certain objects (a Torah) or figures (God, Allah, Mohammed) as sacred may be offended or feel insulted if other people do not treat those objects or figures with equal reverence.  It is fortunate for human beings that we are all so genetically and physically similar, because if we were more different than we are now, we would probably be killing each other at much higher rates!

Think how you feel if all of the people in the room are very different from you—perhaps speaking a language that you do not understand and observing behavioral rules that you do not understand.  (You think that a slight wave is a friendly gesture, but perhaps because of their culture they see it as an insult.)  You would experience considerable anxiety about being around them, until you learned more about them and could once again predict what will happen and how your behavior might be seen by them.  The important conclusion we reach from these considerations of prediction and uncertainty is that differences are always threatening.

Even small differences in customs, such as eating sitting on the floor instead of at a table or eating with one’s fingers instead of with utensils, can annoy us and make us suspicious of others.  We automatically think that our way of doing things is better, usually without any reflection on whether it actually is better or whether we simply think it is better because it “feels better” to us to do it that way (which is only because that is our already established habit).  Culture is the set of understandings, beliefs, customs, and rules that all members of the cultural group use to organize their behavior and goal attainment efforts.  (Culture is often viewed as sacrosanct, even though it is only made up by human beings, probably because people transfer the awe they felt for their parents as virtual gods to the society as a whole and its forms and rules.)

To have people who are different inside one’s nation, like immigrants, is distressing to some extent to members of the majority group, and everyone is more comfortable if assimilation takes place, where immigrants use only the language of the majority and adopt many of the customs of the majority culture.  We can say that everyone has a right to be different, but that difference does cause discomfort—not just to those who are prejudiced against difference but to everyone simply because difference is inevitably threatening.  These fears and feelings can be overcome or neutralized, but it takes effort, education, and exposure.

There are three reasons for the strength of this fear of and discomfort with difference.  One is that differences make interactions more cumbersome and difficult, since special efforts are required to communicate and to suppress negative feelings that we are having about the differences.  Second, differences make us less trusting, since they make us less able to confidently predict the behavior of the other person (and this feeling that we know what others are going to do is very important to our sense of comfort with them).  Third, to the extent that we (unnecessarily) associate our security and self-esteem with how we do things, the fact that others do things differently is a direct threat to our sense of security and our self-esteem (and makes us want to reject them or make them change to be like us).  If we want something from those others who happen to be different from us (as in trade), we can usually overcome the practical problems of interactions being more cumbersome and difficult.  The psychological issues are more difficult to deal with.

If we believe that planting corn during full moons is responsible for having a good harvest, then we will resist any other ideas about when to plant corn, even though they might produce better crops.  Unfortunately most of these beliefs have not been tested experimentally, so our faith in them is actually weaker than we like to think.  Seeing other groups of people doing these things differently (and succeeding) is a challenge to our beliefs, and we may react with aggression.

The emotions most often felt in response to differences are fear, confusion, distrust, frustration, consternation, suspicion, shock, disbelief, and insult (or disrespect).  Cognitively our reaction is caution, with the realization that we are not confident in predicting the behavior of the other person.  If behavior proceeds farther than a cautious backing off, it may involve aggression, with verbal or even physical attacks, which are seen most often when the misunderstood behavior of the other person is viewed as insulting, disrespectful or as demeaning one’s honor.

On the international scene, at least in years past, for a Westerner to proffer a hand for a handshake that was the hand (right or left) that traditionally in the Middle-Eastern culture was used to wipe one’s bottom was viewed by a Middle-Easterner as a grave insult, whereas the Westerner may have been completely unaware of this assumed association and meaning and did not intend any insult at all.  More recently, some Muslims have perceived critical inquiry and humor regarding Mohammed by non-Muslims as disrespectful or even apostasy and have angrily demanded apologies or even condemned the inquirers and humorists to death.  This critical (and sometimes simply factual) inquiry and humor may have in some instances been extreme or over-stated, but these behaviors may have been intended only to stimulate further thought or as poking fun at hypocrisy.  To these Muslims, Mohammed is sacred and not to be disrespected in any way.  To Western offenders, Mohammed is not sacred and is subject to the same critical or humorous treatment that Jesus or the Pope would receive.  The Pope might wish that everyone perceived him as sacred, but he realizes that those who do not perceive him as sacred do not necessarily intend to violate his sanctity with their criticism or humor–rather they are engaging in the discussion and debate to which our culture subjects everything. 

The offended Muslims have applied the behavioral indicators of disrespect from their culture to persons from other cultures incorrectly (i.e., that anything critical of Mohammed or critical of Islam is automatically disrespectful), since Westerners are operating from a very different value system.  In Western culture, stating reasonable, fact-based criticism and pointing out unacknowledged truths about something or someone through humor are not automatically intended or perceived as disrespectful.  Some Muslims have illustrated their inability or unwillingness to perceive these cultural differences by their own intentional disrespect of Western figures, apparently unaware of the inequity of their actions (demanding “respect” for Mohammed but not giving it to the Pope).  It should be clear that misinterpretations such as these will poison all intercultural dealings, and that persons of all cultures must learn as much as possible about the meaning of various behaviors in various cultures. 

Dealing with disrespect when it is in fact intended is an analogous intercultural problem. Respect and honor are taken much more seriously by some people and by some groups than others.  In some cultures one’s honor must be defended at all costs.  Gang members who shoot people for disrespect or offended Muslims who do the same are going much further in behavioral response than other cultures or subcultures would allow.  The gang members, if caught would be punished severely in U. S. culture.  Muslims who kill persons who supposedly disrespect Mohammed would be praised by some Muslims (though condemned by many others).  Afghan tribesmen who kill female family members who are seen to have dishonored the family with their sexual behavior are seen by many in that culture as righteous and as acting appropriately (and may not even be questioned by legal authority).  For the sake of peaceful coexistence, persons from one culture must be able to perceive that their emotional reactions to disrespect, etc., may be far different from the feelings of persons from at least some other cultures.

As noted, human beings have an instinct to fear those whom they cannot understand, and working a bit harder to understand them is a good solution to this fear.  It can help our instinctual fear, also, to remember that all human beings around the world have the same basic goals in life–
to survive
to have tolerable levels of physical and emotional pain
to have some times of positive emotions (feeling good)
to have sex
to raise children
to have at least some gratifying relationships with others. 

These are also the only goals that human beings have.  All others (such as seeking union with the divine or becoming a world champion at something) serve these goals.  No matter how odd we think their customs are (language, social rules and expectations, religion), those customs are aimed at helping the society’s members to achieve these same goals.  In this sense, we are all the same and can “understand” each other if we wish to.  Exposure through travel can help us to grasp this fact—that people across the globe are basically the same. 

Of course, we have no obligation to accept or value attitudes or values that are fundamentally unacceptable by all human beings.  There was a group in India at one point that valued violence and death (for others) and was even sometimes seen as a religion or sect (“thugee”).  This is so different from our usual human distaste for violence and death that we can legitimately reject it as a “value,” but this is far different from how one prays or even at what point a cut-off for allowable abortion should be set.

Here are some things to focus on in dealing with fear of difference.

1. Recognize and acknowledge your discomfort with difference.

2. We can start to deal with our fears and anxieties about difference by acknowledging that the forms and customs of our lives are only one of many possible ways that things can work acceptably.  People could get along just as well grasping each other by both shoulders as a form of greeting instead of shaking hands.  It doesn’t matter for relating to others that one culture has young people living at home until they marry while another has them leave home on their own before marrying.

3. A further step is to fully accept that there may in fact be ways that are just as good as ours (or even better), and that it is in our interest to be open to considering all possibilities.  We would then fully accept that our nation and culture are not necessarily better than others and that we are probably no smarter than other people either.

Religion is cited by some as the reason that they cannot accept those who are different–both people within and people outside of their own culture.  In my opinion, the same arguments above apply here as well.  God didn’t say which language we should speak or which laws we should pass, just as He didn’t specify that the cross should be the symbol of Christianity.  Most of us would treat our neighbors decently even if God did not say to, because it makes for better relations if we do, and we feel better when we have good relations with those around us. 

4. Stop wanting others to change so that you can be more comfortable or get what you want.  A significant amount of conflict between people is due to some wishing others to change or be different so that they will not feel threatened with regard to those others’ views or behavior.  We see this most starkly in marital relationships and in the people who would like everyone who is not Anglo-Saxon in background to leave the country, so they could feel more secure.  It would be convenient and more comfortable if everyone’s ways of doing things were the same, but we will accomplish more by adapting to differences than we will by trying to convince or force others to change.  Trying to get others to change for your benefit is usually a losing proposition, since they are just as attached to their ways of doing things as you are to yours, and it is quite difficult for any of us to believe that changing our ways will benefit us (unless our backs are “against the wall”).  We should contemplate and accept the fact that people of other political persuasions are just as attached to their ways of doing things as we are to our ways and have just as much justification for being that way as we do.

Allowing others to be who they are works miracles in relationships.  If you have troublesome marital conflicts, reflect on how your fights involve each person trying to get the other to be different (see something a different way, react differently to something, behave differently).  It is clear, isn’t it, that if both of you stopped trying to get the other person to be different, most of the fighting would stop? 

In general, it would be in the best interest of the human race for people to be more similar to each other around the globe, since they will then get along better because they are more similar to each other, but while that is evolving, we will do better to get used to differences and to discover that differences are not necessarily threatening.

5. Allow others to be who they are, within reason.  Approach all relationships with the assumption that it is good for people to be who they are and who they want to be (you included).

6. Try to understand the differences.  Inquire of the other person what he is thinking, feeling, and intending to communicate, until that is clear.  If these things are still confusing, inquire into the reasons why the person is thinking, feeling, and intending as he is, until you understand the experiential and cultural background for the behaviors.

7. Use instances of difference as an opportunity to understand the nature of the difference, and use that to test and revise or confirm what you believe.  Get the “big picture” regarding the other system of beliefs and how it compares with your current beliefs.  If the other system has features that seem more workable to you than those of your own system, consider integrating those into your beliefs.  This does not mean giving up your beliefs but rather improving them.  After all, “beliefs” are just that; they are not certainties.  It is not disloyal to your ancestors to improve on their belief systems; rather it is moving to ensure that their descendants will function in life even better.

8. Try to understand your feelings.  Check out why you are annoyed or angry.  Acknowledge it if you feel threatened or fearful.  Ask yourself if you have any actual reason or evidence for thinking that your way is better than that of others.  Check out whether you are feeling annoyed or angry because you really don’t know whether your way is actually any better.  Check out whether the observed difference is challenging some of your treasured ideals.

9. In the interest of future amity, revise your emotional reactions to the other person’s behavior in the light of what that person actually meant and intended, instead of in terms of the signals that you usually receive from people with whom you are familiar.  Next time you can respond differently and with less fear.

10. Use your opportunities to learn about human beings in greater depth.  Pay attention to the fact that all human beings have basically the same needs and motives (physical survival, tolerable pain, somewhat pleasant life experience, the affirmation and support of others, raising offspring, feeling secure in life).  If we understand another person’s feelings and motives, we can empathically appreciate what he or she is doing, even if the behaviors are very different from what we are used to.  Travel, reading, and classes on other cultures and religions are also good ways of doing this.

11. Do not support political appeals to hatred or violence toward those who are different simply because their difference is threatening or offensive.  These issues are capable of non-violent and understanding solutions.

(For more details about how to understand others, see the essay “Why Do We Fight About Beliefs?” on


Everyone likes to be treated with respect and courtesy.The dictionary defines “respect” (in the sense that we are concerned with) as holding someone in esteem or in high regard. “To esteem” means to set a high value on and to regard highly and prize accordingly.  When you respect someone, then, you hold him in high or special regard, set a high value on him, and regard him as valuable.  We crave being respected and treated with respect, because being respected tells us that we are valued enough to be given basic recognition of our right to be alive and to be a part of the group.

If you have a generally positive attitude toward others, enjoy positive relating, and recognize empathically that it feels good to be treated with courtesy and respect, it makes sense to be courteous and respectful toward everyone, all the time.  You can develop these qualities by observing how others do it.  Be aware of others’ needs and feelings, including their special sensitivities and quirks.  Tailor your words and actions to convey positivity and concern, which means that you will usually avoid words and behavior that could hurt or harm others.  View yourself as a basic equal to others, which means that you won’t assert or even intimate that you are better than them and deserve more than they do.

When we respect a person, we respect her rights and try not to infringe on the person or cause her distress or discomfort. We try to make it pleasant for the person and try to make her comfortable, by treating her with courtesy and consideration and paying attention to her feelings and needs.

Treating others with respect elicits the same from them toward us, and being treated with respect causes others to view us more positively and to be more willing to cooperate with us in our efforts to reach our own goals.  Treating others with basic respect makes society a more positive and comfortable place and makes all social relations go more smoothly.  Disrespecting others results in conflict and even violence (e.g., gang members killing others for being disrespected), since the disrespected person must struggle to maintain self-esteem and self-respect and to regain basic group acceptance.

Ideally, we would feel that every other individual had a high value to us, but even if we don’t feel this way about everyone, we can still treat others as if they had a high value. You can treat them with courtesy and consideration, honor their rights, and try to make being around you pleasant for them, whether or not you value them highly, because it will be to your benefit to do so. You can treat them as if they were worthwhile, special, and important. You can pay attention to their feelings and needs and do what you can in small ways to make them comfortable. 

The payoff for you is that if you treat well a person whom you don’t particularly like, he or she will treat you better than if you treated him or her badly.  (It is not hypocritical to treat someone you don’t particularly like as if he had a high value, since his basic value as a human being is enough value to justify treating him with basic respect.)  (Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone treated everyone else with this basic concern and respect?)

Everyone deserves basic respect at all times, since all of us are basic equals and have the same fundamental value in the group.  No one is more special or intrinsically valuable as a person than anyone else, even if some are higher on our instinctual status hierarchy.  We can accept the status hierarchy rule that those higher up get more at the same time that we honor every individual’s basic worth as a human being.  Even when individuals behave in destructive ways, it is best to treat them with basic respect even while we are administering punishments or avoiding them. 

 Many people grow up learning to use disrespect as a means of inducing others to conform (implying that the other person is essentially a non-person to scare them into conforming), but more can be accomplished and more of the basic conformity that society needs can be gained by treating others with basic respect at all times (even murderers and rapists), thus holding open an invitation to them to be liked and more highly valued as members of the group by changing their behavior, and by making our negative reinforcements of them separate from our attitude toward them. 

We see the disrespect/reject method employed every time someone “takes a shot at” someone with other views.  If liberals say about Trump conservatives “Oh, they just like to fight” as a criticism in response to bar room fighting, or “They are hicks—they don’t know anything,” these are put-downs which push us farther apart.  Hillary Clinton’s famous use of “deplorables,” while probably overinterpreted, is a classic put-down.  Mitch McConnell saying that his main goal was to prevent any bill from passing that Pres. Obama wanted was also a put-down, though an implied one.  The two of them inevitably would have agreed on some things, so painting everything that Obama wanted as bad is no more true than for a liberal to say everything McConnell stands for is bad for the country.  Conservatives saying that liberals have no “family values” because both members of couples work or because they are for abortion rights is a put-down.  It could be much more useful if a conservative and a liberal would discuss what they mean by “family values” and why they have the positions they do—much more useful than saying such things only to people of your own persuasion so you can play “ain’t it awful” with each other.

Actually this game is one-sided in my opinion, since at least in the media, it seems that liberals speak badly of conservatives (at least of pro-Trump conservatives) much more than conservatives speak badly of liberals.  A main issue for pro-Trump conservatives is that liberals disrespect them, whereas very few liberals take seriously any criticisms of them by pro-Trump conservatives.  Liberals have much more changing to do (basic respect) if the two groups are going to feel basically equal as human beings.

Ultimately the key to healing divides is greater understanding of the people who are different from you.  As noted already, we are all seeking the same goals with the same motives—survival, tolerable levels of pain, some times of feeling good, having sex, raising children, and having some gratifying relationships.  We can benefit everyone by trying to figure out how the methods being used by another person are aimed at achieving these goals, rather than disassociating from and disrespecting them.  (See my essay “Discussing Politics Wisely and Compassionately” on for how to seek this understanding.)

Perhaps many conservatives seek self-esteem in their small-town relationships while many liberals seek self-esteem in their achievements (education, money), but they are both seeking to feel good about themselves.  Perhaps conservatives tend to value the life of a foetus over the consequences for parents of having more children while liberals tend to value the freedom of a mother to decide whether to be a mother over the life of a foetus (at least an early-term foetus), but they are both expressing something important in their values.  They may favor different values, but liberals are not against children and most conservatives are not against mothers working, so understanding could enable us to overcome such differences.


Working together cooperatively in government would flow naturally from having certain attitudes and behaving in certain ways toward everyone, including those who are “different.”

The most basic of these is that every person deserves to be seen as having basic value, just for being a live and functioning human being.  Everyone has this basic value—babies to old age, all genders and sexual orientations, all religions, all income levels.  This notion of basic value still leaves room for individual differences in wealth and overall value to other individuals; this is no claim that all people must be equal to everyone else in all respects.

This basic value of everyone implies a basic equality as well, as embodied in the American ideal that everyone should be able to pursue life, liberty, and happiness (which is not possible if differences in opportunity become too large, due to disproportionate wealth or prejudice).  In this sense we are all equal (and all put on our pants one leg at a time).  We can view everyone as basically equal, if we are willing. 

This basic equality implies that the benefit that each of us receives from government actions should be similar if not equal, even if some specific government actions aim to benefit only one group of citizens (which we expect would equal out for all groups over time).  This principle of equal deservingness leads directly to the notion of compromise so that all groups benefit as equally as possible from every government action.  Each action can be tailored purposely so that the values of every group receive respect and each group benefits in some way.  These relative benefits will vary from action to action, of course, but if we sincerely apply this basic equality principle, then over time all groups can feel that they have been respected and taken into account.

This concept of everyone having basic value could help us to expand our “in group” (the people that we care about and are willing to help) to include everyone in the country (or everyone in the world!), which would help greatly to allow us to compromise—letting others get some of what they want while we get some of what we want.  We are much less willing to compromise with those whom we class as being in our “out group.”

It is tempting to assume that since our own views make so much sense to us, others “should” naturally agree with us.  A person’s views, though, are partly the product of his/her unique life experience and only partly the product of knowledge, so any two people will inevitably have somewhat different views.  This means that a political discussion cannot usefully be focused on getting another person to agree with our views, except perhaps through better agreement on the facts underlying a particular proposal.  The most useful political discussions take place in a context of accepting that we will always have different views, so that we forget about trying to get the other person to agree with us and focus on understanding the other person’s views as a product of what he believes and what he has experienced.  When we understand this (where the person is “coming from”), we are more willing to enter into compromises that benefit everyone.

Basic value and equality lead directly to the everyday behavior of treating all persons with basic respect and courtesy, as discussed above.

Here is a summary of behaviors and attitudes that “grease the wheels” of relationships.

  • viewing others as having basic value just for being human
  • viewing others as basic equals as human beings
  • treating others at all times with basic respect and courtesy
  • treating others fairly
  • accepting that we will inevitably have somewhat different views
  • dealing with differences by seeking understanding and being tolerant
  • stopping using fighting as the way to get one’s way, since fighting simply leads to more fighting, and neither of two fairly equal sides will ever be able to vanquish the other
  • assuming that others are doing the best they can, even when they disagree with us
  • rejecting false information about others that appeals to our self-interest or prejudices
  • not insisting on winning over others (or, alternatively, trying to help everyone “win”)
  • stopping trying to get what we want by taking advantage of others
  • not seeing status as equivalent to personal worth and not taking status positions so seriously

(For more on these attitudes and behaviors, see my essay “The Solution To All Human Interactional Problems” on


We have focused on individual changes so far, but there are also some changes in our society-wide assumptions that would help us to do better by all groups in our society.

To accommodate more of our citizens in a “good life” we will need to change some assumptions about our economy that we have lived with for centuries.  In this age of automation and information, we may have to, through the government, ensure that everyone can find/have a job, as well as paying for job retraining (which is occurring because of the fast pace of change in technology and consumer habits).  Given greater and greater specialization, a variety of jobs are no longer available in every locale, nor are retraining programs available everywhere.  We may also have to put back on employers some moral responsibility for the consequences of cost-cutting measures and losses of jobs, such as paying for retraining for every employee let go.  The government may need to be involved in creating or subsidizing jobs for those who can’t compete in the workplace.  These changes will be difficult to make for any society, as are all cultural changes (e.g., coming as a society to accept homosexuality). 

Neither major political party has recognized openly that our economy presents enough difficulties (instability, no benefits, off-shoring) for workers seeking jobs that society must make job-finding or job-creating help available, but at the moment it is still morally OK to watch more and more people suffer from joblessness or low incomes (working in fast food, bicycle delivery people, day labor, practically all manual labor) and possibly join the populists.  We calm ourselves by enthusing over the recently lowered unemployment rate, but income problems for workers persist, and while many populists have jobs, their incomes are not keeping up with inflation.  We may say that having a minimum wage that is sufficient for a decent life will result in more unemployment, which, if true, leads the discussion toward income redistribution.  Useful work by everyone is better for society overall than redistribution and it is more productive of feelings of self-worth than cash benefits by themselves.

Another factor we could change is how we value and treat our fellow citizens.  If we value our fellow citizens, then we should have more compassion for them and their situations instead of living as if we each are responsible only for ourselves.  This is one of the negative consequences of our American individualism.  We “come together” only for war or natural disaster; the rest of the time you are totally on your own.  This is not to advocate for irresponsibility or mooching.  In a society in which everyone can have a job, those who choose not to work or participate cooperatively should be on their own (no government benefits), but those who do their part deserve our appreciation and support when needed.

It may be helpful to look at what we can do in terms of the universal human goals mentioned above.  Societally, we could do some of the following, to deal with the unfilled needs of others and to civilize our political interactions.

1-life maintenance and support (sufficient capacities and goal attainment to enable you to meet your basic needs at least adequately and to take care of yourself and those legitimately dependent on you)

It is desirable for every citizen to contribute something to the welfare of the total group as well to their own welfare, if only through working to support themselves.  Our society pays many “disabled” people not to work, in effect, when many of them could work some jobs for some hours per week.  These disability payments prevent these persons from having the good self-esteem gained from contributing, and they foster an atmosphere in society that views work as something to avoid (perhaps left over from times of having to work constantly just to survive, when now we are actually wealthy enough to think of work more in terms of fulfillment and contributions to the group).

Since our society is moving toward needing fewer workers (especially manual workers) due to automation and the change to an information economy, while our population continues to increase, it would be good for the emotional health of the country to provide jobs for everyone.  Our capitalistic economy, as it is, is not doing this job adequately at the current time, and it could be done by government, through supporting work that contributes but that we are unwilling to pay for (like adequate street cleaning and other trash removal, attendants at parks and other recreational sites, creating more parks, etc.) and through paying part of the salaries for workers that businesses would like to hire but don’t have the money for.  The costs of this service would be paid for, of course, by our taxes.  As part of this scheme, those who refused to work would not receive any government support of any kind!  This scheme sounds heretical but despite the corruption and manipulations that would ensue to some extent, it could be better for everyone than our current situation.

Another action that government could take would be to plan for and support to some extent manufacturing sorts of jobs making products that have been off-shored but would be good for us to be able to manufacture ourselves if needed in times of great business disruption (such as steel, computer chips).  These could be supported through tariffs or simply through redistributions from all of us to those workers involved.  Naturally these products would be more expensive than those from other parts of the globe, but the country must decide whether to put itself at risk of economic blackmail and shortages due to war by not being able to make them for itself.

A final, again heretical, suggestion would be to support through taxes the incomes of all workers who are not paid enough in our economy to have a decent life (fast food workers, etc.).  This would relieve a great deal of stress and anxiety on the part of those workers and their families and would benefit society at large through creating an atmosphere in which we have some confidence that our fellow citizens would care for us if we needed it.  This is a reprise of the problem of not enough jobs and the fact that people are “forced” to take these low paying jobs out of survival necessity.  Businesses justify this system by saying that if they raised prices and paid workers appropriately, their business would decline so much that they then could not pay the workers appropriately.  Perhaps we should take the step of trying this out and finding out how prices actually change with higher wages, and if there is a continuing problem, the rest of us, through the government, could step in for the benefit of both the businesses and the workers.  (Let’s be clear—the alternative of raw capitalism, as we now use it, is to create a larger and larger underclass of unemployable citizens, due to increasing levels of training required for new and different jobs, and to further increase the atmosphere of insecurity and isolation for most workers.)

2-having no more than a minimal or at least no more than a tolerable level of physical pain and bodily damage (recognizing that some amount of physical and emotional pain are normal aspects of human life and the human adaptation)

Healthcare for everyone guaranteed through the government would help with pain and bodily damage that now go untreated due to low levels of pay and insurance for workers.  Healthcare businesses howl at a single-payer system, but will not themselves change anything in the current system toward providing healthcare for all.  Medicare provides good enough healthcare right now to demonstrate how we could have government-supported healthcare for all.

3-having some pleasure and pleasant emotion in your life (including feeling some amounts of happiness and hope, and ultimately some (for many people, small) amounts of satisfaction, contentment, and fulfillment), mainly through—

3a-having a good relationship with and good feelings toward yourself
            (which may include loving yourself, respecting yourself,
            accepting yourself, and treating yourself well, and which in
            large measure arise from being loved, respected, and accepted
            by others in early life and from creating good outcomes for

Americans of all political persuasions get precious little training and support in having healthy self-esteem.  This is evident from the emotional neediness of Facebook users and the anger and hatred of the internet users who are out to hurt other people.  The understanding and the techniques are available to have good self-esteem, as listed just above.  (See my book How To Feel Good About Yourself:  Twelve Key Steps To Positive Self-Esteem (2010).)  The problem with the self-esteem of most people is that they have been trained to criticize and attack themselves for ever going against what they have been taught and for acting in their own best interest when someone else’s needs are involved.  It would be healthier to recognize that we always do what we believe to be in our best interest but to integrate this with a clear awareness that taking others into account is an important component of determining what is in our best interest.  See the book for details!

3b-having minimal or at least a tolerable level of emotional pain and
            internal conflict (though recognizing that some degree of
            conflict and pain is inherent in being human)

(See #2 above.)

3c-feeling an adequate level of security

Two key aspects of the insecurity of Trump voters/white identity groups are (1) job insecurity (see goal #1 above) and (2) the demeanment by liberals of their values and beliefs.  Liberals can help by taking the conservative values and beliefs of these groups seriously and viewing them as another legitimate way to seek to achieve our universal human life goals, and by seeing democracy’s project to be mainly finding ways to honor both (all) legitimate approaches to living, in the effort to find useful political compromises.  This, of course, would require giving up the political style of attacking and demeaning those with different opinions in an effort to vanquish them and force people to live like we do (instead of how they themselves want to).

            3d-having gratifying relationships with others (see #5 below)

4-sex and procreation, including the desire to protect and raise children

All Americans could benefit from better publicizing of proven childrearing techniques that create healthy and happy people as well as more ways to be in control of one’s reproductive life in general.

5-gratifying relationships with others, including group acceptance for yourself, protecting and defending your groups (family, nation, etc.)       when necessary, and helping those of your groups in times of great need

See the suggestions above under #3a and #3c, which if implemented would make our public relating much more civil and comfortable.

Despite the differences, mainstream America still has more similarities to these populists than differences, and there is no reason to perceive these differences in values and way of life as a personal threat or as a threat to the progress of the nation as a whole.  People with different ways of life can work together in a country if the groups accept each other (requiring dealing on a large scale with the inherent fear that humans have of people who are different). The populists must accept and not vilify growing internationalism but work with government to make the situation work for them as best it can, while the elites and liberals must accept that the values of these populists (family, independence, hard work, religion) do have value.  Neither side can view themselves as “better than” the other if we are to live together amicably.  If we can see all of us as honorable parts of the country, then the rest of the country should be able to take an attitude toward the populists of togetherness, compassion, and forgiveness (uncharacteristic of humans as this might be!).


It is taken as a truism that people should avoid discussing politics and religion if they wish to have a civil conversation, but a democracy needs all of its citizens to share ideas so that the best solutions to problems can arise.  It is very possible to have productive and civil conversations about difficult topics if you follow certain principles about human relations.  These principles can be applied, of course, in any relationship, including couples, families, and groups that need better understanding and cooperation among their members, but to do so requires us to turn from our society’s emphasis on fighting to get our way and “winning” at the expense of others rather than taking care of each other.  The results of this this completely self-centered attitude have been that our Congress spends most of its time deadlocked, that many citizens feel that their needs and values are ignored and devalued, and that citizens are angry at each other as being enemies and obstructions in finding suitable solutions to joint problems.

The approach described here is based in understanding why people have the positions that they have (their rationale and their background), including yourself, and, using that to seek the best possible compromises available.

1. The first requirement is to accept that those who differ from your beliefs are fully human.  As advocated here, everyone is fundamentally equal, and we all have the same fundamental goals in life.  Therefore, we must open our minds to the views of others if we are to understand them and if we are to enable them to understand us.

2. As explained by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Righteous Mind, liberals in our society tend to value change (progress) and autonomy, while conservatives tend to value tradition, order, hierarchy, and sacredness.  These are all human value possibilities and by themselves are not evil or destructive.  The second requirement for having useful and civil discussions, then, is to accept that the other person’s values are worth taking seriously.  Liberals should be honest enough to admit that traditions can be useful for societal bonding and order and that pondering the sacred can add depth and empathy to life.  Conservatives should be honest enough to admit that our society needs some changes if it is to live up to its ideals of equality and freedom.  If you are liberal and want to understand others, admit that change is not always good, and tradition is often useful.  If you are conservative, admit that change is sometimes good and that too much adherence to tradition can stymie all improvement.  Both liberals and conservatives should formulate to themselves how their political philosophy advances the other side’s values and not just their own! 

3. It is also crucial for everyone to accept that his or her “side” is never going to “win” or vanquish the other, particularly since each “side” expresses values that are important for a society to be able to function and endure.  We must be willing to live with the best compromises that we can come up with.  Deciding on policies that “give” something to all sides is our only way forward.  Democracy is not a competition or a fight.  Getting your own way at the expense of others is actually damaging to democracy, since democracy is based on notions of basic equality and on putting together many different views as the best way to find the best solutions possible at the moment. 

Difficult discussions must have the goal of creating and maintaining “good,” “positive” interactions—interactions in which both parties feel comfortable and safe (as a result of understanding each other and feeling treated appropriately by the other person) and in which the interaction enhances the welfare of both parties.  These interactions succeed through understanding and cooperation and result in minimum amounts of conflict and violence between people.  We can move toward this goal if we make a habit of thinking of every policy decision as an opportunity to make it a “win-win-win…,” for every major side.  We can be civil and humane if we (1) focus on understanding why the other person has the views and feelings that he has and (2) learn to make and value effective compromises.

4. We must not be afraid of the other person or group.  Our TV “news” shows us mostly the bad side of people, and all news outlets are to some degree biased (even CNN and NPR).  Human beings construct their worlds out of what they observe and experience, so if they see only violence, they conclude that the whole world is violent.  If they see footage of a riot, they

imagine that the whole city is in flames, when it is only a two or three block area.  It helps to have actual exposure to members of groups we fear, because it is likely that they will then not seem dangerous to us.  The more we can identify with others, the less fear we have of them.

5. It helps to make your discussions civil to have the assumption that all persons have basic value just for being human.  Treating others as basic equals leads to the best possible relationships between equals!

6. It will help you to keep your feelings under control if you assume that others are doing the best they can (just as you are doing the best you can), even when they disagree with you.  If you make any effort to understand others, you will see that we are all motivated and trying every day to reach the same goals (feel secure, feel valued, have some happiness, have some gratifying relationships, raise good children).

7. One must also not believe that the other person or group is evil.  This may be difficult if one’s religious group promotes the concept of evil and uses fear of evil as a means of assisting members to maintain self-control.  Seeing those we fear as evil understandably makes caring for people who are different from us difficult.

8. No one has the right to claim that his or her values should dominate society.  We cannot eliminate those who think differently; we must live with them, as equals and not as captives. Try to view differences as things to explore and learn about.  There is no objective reason to say that any one value stance is automatically any better or more true than another (although we can compare the results of various values if implemented in policy). 

9. Too often discussions about differences are approached by both parties with the aim of changing the other person’s mind so that they will be more like us.  This is practically a guarantee of failure in the discussion, since both parties will be defensive, rejecting, and/or aggressive in manner, which makes better understanding impossible.  Give up the idea that you can get others to see things exactly as you do.  The reason they don’t is not because they are stupid or stubborn but because they have had different lives than yours.  The growing urban—rural split in our society illustrates the negative result of people living apart and having no idea how the other half lives.

The way to accept that you can’t get everyone to agree with you and still get value from political discussions is to change your focus from trying to convince the other person to agree with you to trying to understand his unique viewpoint.  Understanding your viewpoint and his viewpoint will allow you to see useful potential compromises more easily.

10. Our American emphasis on winning tends to push us to fight those with whom we differ (war on drugs, war on poverty, winner-take-all elections), as if one side will win and the other lose.  Persons who are going to understand and basically accept each other must accept that all positive values and viewpoints can be useful.

If we could treat everyone with respect and courtesy and avoid disapproving of them in our discussions, this could be enough for us to have useful and civil discussions, but few people are prepared emotionally to do this without accepting the above principles and adjusting their negative instinctual reactions to things that they find disagreeable.  We must stop trying to win and work toward finding the compromises that are good or at least acceptable for all.

11. If we agree to take the views of others seriously with the hope of eventually finding the best compromises possible, then the purpose of sharing ideas about public policy must be to understand why the others’ views “make sense” given his life experience, rather than trying to change his views to be like ours.

12. In our discussions we must treat all others at all times with basic respect and courtesy.  Some people feel that if they treat an opponent with respect that this means that they are to some degree “giving in” or agreeing with the opponent, but this is not so.  You can treat a person with whom you disagree with respect and courtesy and still completely disagree (if you can think for yourself).

We all use facial and kinesthetic cues to indicate that we approve or disapprove of what others are doing or saying.  This serves a social control purpose, as we try to “keep others in line.”  It would help sensitive discussions if you moderate these reactions during the discussions, by resolving ahead of time to just listen and not try to change the other person by approving or disapproving.

13.  The purpose of political discourse cannot be to take advantage of others, since this just makes things worse, so stop trying to take advantage of others, and accept that in a democracy you should not get more as a citizen than you are willing to allow others to have.

14. It will help the relationships between discussants if you acknowledge when the other person has made a potentially useful point.  This doesn’t mean that you agree with everything the other person says, nor does it mean that you are changing your position, but it helps the other person to feel understood.

15. In your discussions, stay aware of the needs and situations of all citizens, not just those you choose to have contact with.  As preparation for discussions, watch and read varied news and political outlets (Wall Street Journal, Fox News, N.Y. Times, Fox cable news, CNN, etc.).  Go to community functions where you can interact with those who have different views than yours.  Otherwise, you will lose touch with many of the country’s citizens.

16. Go into the interaction with a positive attitude, thinking that you will learn something interesting!  Do not set it up in your mind as a battle or a challenge.  Nothing someone else could say could invalidate your point of view, and nothing you could say will invalidate the other person’s point of view.

17. If you can come to the discussion with the above values in mind, then the first thing to actually do when you sit down together is to spend sufficient time finding out about the other person, rather than trying to put forth your own positions.  Ask questions rather than make statements.  Ask about his background and what it was like for him growing up.  Ask about what he wanted to be when he grew up and how that changed over time.  Ask about his job and how he sees himself being treated by the overall economic system.  Ask about how he would like the country to be in the future and what would help it to get there.  Ask about how he views other citizens and how he feels about them.  Ask about his experience with those who are different from him.  Don’t respond, criticize, or comment about his answers.  Your job is to understand, not to evaluate or oppose.  (Voting is where you get your chance to oppose.)

Figure out why what he believes are natural conclusions (to him) given his background and life experience.  How we perceive and feel about how we have been treated, by our parents, our teachers, our employers, our elected officials, and our extended family, are primary forces in making the world seem as it does to us (which is not how the world “really” is, but is why we all have different views of the world).  There is no such thing as “I just know it.”  There are always reasons why you believe what you believe.

18. Before entering the discussion, figure out how your own positions relate to your background and how you have grown up to view the world, so you can at this point share the same kinds of things about yourself with the other person that will make your beliefs “make sense” to the him/her in terms of your background and life experience.  Accept the fact that with different background and life experiences, your beliefs would be different—no less true (to you), but different.  This tells us that no beliefs about political matters are sacred—they are simply someone’s belief about what works best, given that person’s background and life experience. 

This getting acquainted process takes time, and both parties must be willing to invest the needed time.  That commitment itself signals an interest in the other party that is rare these days.

19. If the other person is challenging or critical while you share your background or views, you need not walk away.  If you don’t feel threatened (if you are not ashamed or guilty about who you are and how you got there), there is no need to ever feel shamed or give up.  Stick with information, not justification, and certainly do not counterattack.

You must want to explore and understand more than you want the other person to change.  Hopefully, since you each have only your own opinion and not the truth, both of you will walk away a little bit changed.

20. In your assertions, stick to “I” statements and questions (“I believe that ____ would solve this problem best, because I have observed ____ and seen ____ in my life).  Avoid “you” statements and telling the other person what she believes and why it is wrong.  Don’t do what politicians do, which is assert something as a fact that is really an opinion (“The fact is….,” “Everyone knows that….,” “The truth is….), because things are truly not that clear or one-sided. 

21. When you share your views with the other person, treat it as just information and don’t try to make it a justification of your beliefs.  Stick to the personal (what you believe and why) rather than arguing political theory (conservative, liberal, libertarian, etc.).

22. If the atmosphere heats up, take a break.  Calm self-acceptance (being OK with yourself, not boasting or justifying) will calm the other person and promote an atmosphere of exploration rather than fighting. 

23. Only after equal sharing, you may then wish to explore how the other person’s life information relates to her political opinions–e.g., “How do you think your problem finding good jobs relates to who you voted for?”  Above all, do not be defensive about yourself or critical of the other person.  Your own views make so much sense to you that it is tempting to jump ahead to “How could you possibly believe that?” kinds of questions, but this is tempting only when you can’t imagine how anyone could possibly believe those things.  The fact that the other person does believe those things proves that others can have those views, so your job is to understand why the other person believes those things.  Expressions of understanding can aid in this process, such as “I see how what you’ve experienced in life would lead you to see politicians in the way you do.” 

24. Put forth your views on policy questions calmly and illustrate what you believe would be the consequences for society if they were implemented.  Question if your own choices in these matters would really benefit everyone or just your own group of people.  You are responsible for the impact of your ideas on everyone if implemented.

25. Speaking more loudly or forcefully does not give your views any more weight, nor does calling others names or saying negative things about them.  That simply says that you don’t know how to make your communication effective.

26. Beware of exaggerated language in political discourse (“oppression” is in most cases actually “harm,” and “greed” in many cases is actually “desire”).  If you refer to “law and order,” make clear that you (probably) do not mean policepersons with clubs and machine guns.  If you use these sorts of inflammatory words, you will lose the respect of the other person.  Politicians and cable news exaggerate all the time, thinking that it will be more convincing (and more inflammatory), but it’s just an insult to your intelligence.

27. In assessing a position, the key questions are (1) whether it is consistent with reality or based on false or shaky beliefs, and (2) what all of its consequences (on every group) would be if that view determined our law and/or governmental actions.  Every policy/law has some negative consequences for someone.  If your view is adopted, then you are responsible not only for the results that you like but also for the damage that your policy/law does to some citizens. 

Make it an expectation that all speeches and writing advocating for any position on an issue (in Congress, in the media, etc.) must include some discussion of both the pros and the cons of that position.  Do this in your own discussions and writing.  Do this when you think about and formulate your views.  To do this, you will have to admit that you could be at least a little bit wrong or that your idea is not perfect!  Our habit in this society is to make everything a debate, which encourages people to state only what they want you to believe.  We learn much more when both sides must explain the things that are problematic in their positions.

(For more on these issues and values, see my essays “The Solution To All Human Interactional Problems” and “Bridging Societal Differences” on  You can address questions to me at

(from bridgingsocietaldifferences3; written for wisdomselfmgmtbk4


The most important point here is that treating people with basic respect and courtesy will get us more from them than disrespecting them, both because everyone likes being treated with respect as a basic equal, and because you will never convince anyone to see the world the way you do, since each of us has his/her unique experience on top of our unique DNA.  So, you will get more by working together with them than you will by trying to force them to be like you (which would be convenient but is impossible).  Some people do like to fight and contest, but they, then, are worse off in life for it.

Individually, in order to heal our divisions or at least reduce them enough so that we can work amicably together—

  • We can acknowledge that all citizens are basically equal in their access to government and should be basically equal in having their needs understood (and possibly met).  (Stop competing and trying to get more than others.)
  • We can use our empathy and experience to understand the needs and beliefs of others better, so that we can work together.
  • We can acknowledge that we have only our own opinions and not “the truth” or what is good for everyone else.  We can “live” this by stating both the pros and the cons of everything we claim or propose, rather than creating two sides of an argument that seem incompatible and unbridgeable simply because of our ardor.
  • We can treat everyone with respect and courtesy at all times.
  • We can interact and communicate with every other person in a way that establishes comfort and trust and that recognizes the value of every other person.  This will enable us to work together to find solutions that benefit everyone.