February 15, 2024 | by M. Robert Weidner, III

It’s An Election Year. Can We Be Friends?

“We became very dear friends. That doesn’t mean we didn’t fight each other. We fought each other like tooth and tongue but afterwards, we’d put our arms around each other and laugh about it.”Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) remembering Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.)

Sens. Kennedy and Hatch served for decades together in the U.S. Senate. One was a lion of liberalism from New England. The other, a devout Mormon and political conservative from the Mountain West.

Politically, the two could not have been more different, but their friendship was so dear that when Sen. Kennedy passed away, his widow, Vicki, asked Sen. Hatch to eulogize her husband.

Remembering this relationship is important as we enter another divisive election year.

A Tipping Point Toward Violence?

I am not naïve. Sens. Hatch and Kennedy were, I am sure, sometimes unkind. Perhaps even the mild-mannered Sen. Hatch swore when disagreeing with his political opponents.

But, today, slammed doors and stony silences seem quaint.

Consider the results of a 2023 survey by Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), which found:

  • More than one third of Americans think authoritarianism may be necessary. Specifically, 38 percent of voters agree with the statement, “Because things have gotten so far off track in this country, we need a leader who is willing to break some rules.”
  • Support for political violence has increased. Nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) agree “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” That number was up eight points from 2021.
  • The United States is off track. Three-fourths of Americans (77 percent) believe the country is going in the wrong direction and 55 percent believe things are worse now than they were in the 1950s.

Another survey found one third of Americans would be upset if their child married someone from the “opposite party.” (Political affiliation was not a question Kathy and I asked about when our children announced their engagements.)

Somewhere, Sens. Hatch and Kennedy are shedding a tear.

Workplaces Are Places to Repair Divides

Americans are worried about these trends. The PRRI survey found 75 percent of all Americans — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents — believe U.S. democracy is at risk.

The business community could argue it is up to politicians to cure what ails us ideologically.

We should not. Our workplaces can be places to repair divides. I offered some ideas back in 2022, but here are three additional ways we, as members of the business community, can reduce political animosity.

First, be a truth seeker. Dr. Kurt Gray, a University of North Carolina professor of psychology and neuroscience, has found one of the best ways to reduce political polarization is to actively correct conspiracy theories. This misinformation includes incorrect beliefs about how much members of the two parties dislike one another. Gray’s own research has found Republicans and Democrats overestimate the extent to which the other side demonizes them by up to 300 percent. (For more advice from Gray, listen to this conversation from the podcast Hidden Brain.

Second, get better at arguing … but not so you can win. In the business world, there is rarely a perfect solution. No one is ever right all the time. The goal of arguments is not to claim victory, but to find a path forward. Learning the skills to navigate tough conversations is key to driving consensus. In 2017, the insurer Allstate and the Aspen Institute designed a framework for better arguments. The key components are to:

  • Take winning off the table (surprise!)
  • Prioritize relationships
  • Listen passionately
  • Respect context
  • Embrace vulnerability
  • Make space for new ideas and to change

A third way to reduce animosity is to work across the aisle on solutions that matter. Businesses solve problems, and there are plenty of places where we can take those skills to forge a better political landscape. The nonprofit organization Braver Angels facilitates conversations between self-identified liberals, conservatives, and independents. The organization’s We The People Project should hold particular interest for our industry. Its mission is to create “a working-class coalition” of people from all political backgrounds who want to improve economic outcomes for Americans without a four-year degree. (I would like to believe Braver Angels would embrace MSCI’s new Skilled Trades Scholarships Program, which helps shopfloor employees at our member companies further their education.)

Projects like these give Americans the opportunity to channel their own inner Orrin Hatch or Ted Kennedy.

There is a fourth way we can reduce polarization: voting. According to a Stanford University Graduate School of Business article, when voter turnout is low it allows candidates to “appeal only to the most rabid members of one’s political base.”

The Metals Service Center Institute does not endorse candidates, but we do talk about the public policy issues that affect our member companies and the people who work for them. And we do encourage everyone in our community to ask deep questions about these issues and listen to all candidates as they outline their potential solutions.

Opening our ears is the only way to get back to a place where we can fight like tooth and tongue, but still have a laugh after the voting is finished.

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