Carl Rogers, for whom Rogerian argument is named, took a concept that worked in couples and small-group therapy and extended it to large groups, even nations. Rogerian therapy is based on nonconfrontational communication. This communication is hampered, whether in dealing with individuals or nations, by the fact that there is no longer anything approaching a shared worldview. Rogers wrote, “Although society has often come around eventually to agree with its dissidents . . . there is no doubt that this insistence upon a known and certain universe has been part of the cement that holds a culture together.” In the Rogerian approach to argumentation, when views of what that worldview should be collide, effective communication requires both understanding another’s reality and respecting it.
I was reminded of Rogers’s emphasis on shared common ground after the recent midterm elections when I saw headlines like this one from the Wall Street Journal: “What the Midterm Election Shows: America’s Two Parties Live in Divergent Worlds.” Almost half of voting Americans revealed through their choices that they feel very real threats to their “known and certain universe.” There is no place in that universe for abortion, same-sex marriage, gender fluidity, or immigrants. Throughout the Obama years, as liberals cheered change, there was a seething hostility that the election of Donald Trump brought to the surface. America’s (liberal) dissidents, those who threaten the security of a white Christian worldview, have increased in number to the point that they too constitute around fifty per cent of the voting public. Rogers would advocate that the two sides come together by seeking common ground—seeking that which they can agree on as a starting point for discussion. That’s hard to do, though, when the two sides live in divergent worlds.
President Trump’s strategy as the midterms approached was the opposite of Rogerian argument. He went on the offensive, attacking the other side rather than seeking common ground. He rallied his supporters around causes by attacking liberals and condemning them as threats to nationalism—which many on the other side read as white nationalism. He played on the fear of the “other.” He intentionally broadened the gap rather than trying to bring the two sides together because establishing common ground among his supporters was more important. He created common ground within his base by constantly stressing how the other side advocated policies that threatened his supporters’ world. A group of families traveling from Honduras to seek asylum in the U. S. became the equivalent of an armed force attacking our Southern border—and a threat to our way of life. A search for common ground could have focused on how to control our borders, but, with the elections looming, it was more expedient to constantly refer to the liberal desire for open borders, making liberals appear to be as far as possible from protecting the American way of life.
Having a Democrat-controlled House next year may make compromise more essential, if not more palatable, for conservatives. There are just too many differences in worldview between Republicans and Democrats to make common ground appealing to either party. While the Right can argue that they are protecting the most basic of American values, the Left can argue that their beliefs are firmly grounded in our country’s beginnings as a nation of immigrants seeking freedom from tyranny.
Photo Credit: “Anger! A couple arguing :(” by Free Images on Flickr 08/09/17 via a CC BY 2.0 License