“I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican—in that order,” Mike Pence said when he accepted the vice presidential nomination in 2016.

Buddhists have always dealt in politics. The Buddha was under the patronage of kings; Asian countries past and present have Buddhist political leaders and systems; and in the West, the Engaged Buddhism movement treats advocacy for certain political causes as an extension of Buddhist principles.

From a religious perspective, however, Pence had it right. Our political opinions should run downstream of our spiritual beliefs, not the other way around. And there is no hard-and-fast rule that Buddhist beliefs must lead to the liberal politics preferred by many of today’s convert Buddhists.

Sometimes that is forgotten. Over the years, Tricycle has heard from practitioners who are disconcerted when, in dharma talks, teachers merge the Buddha’s teachings with modern political positions they assume their community supports. Post-2016, as polarization in the United States intensified, some centers played host to the denigration of Republican voters.

Despite common ground on many policy issues, a 2022 survey from the Pew Research Center showed that growing shares of both Democrats and Republicans view people from the other party as close-minded, dishonest, immoral, and unintelligent. It seems Buddhist Americans are not immune to this trend.

I say that without judgment, as I have been very much part of it.

I began the work of examining my own biases in the run-up to the 2016 election, when, in search of an answer to the Trump phenomenon, I realized that I was surrounded by a political monoculture. I thought I had made good progress until I fell in love with an Obama-Trump flip voter last year and realized that I was bringing polarization’s full weight upon him, excoriating him for views—and a vote—I hadn’t actually tried to understand. Through our relationship, I started to see how much my mind and heart had curdled from polarization’s effects. Where was the patience, compassion, goodwill, and understanding I had been paying lip service to as a Buddhist?

As a result of the depolarization process, some of my political opinions have strengthened, some have broadened, and some have changed altogether. I allow much less anger, hatred, and fear to take up residence in my mind. I treat others with more kindness and respect, and I try not to assume the worst of their intentions. I was surprised, although I should not have been, when this greater mental clarity and more flexible approach opened up actual dialogue between my partner and me.

Below I speak with John Wood Jr. and Mónica Guzmán, both affiliates of the depolarization organization Braver Angels, about how America got so polarized and how to walk it back. Wood is a liberal activist turned Republican candidate for Congress who now writes about racial and political reconciliation and hosts the Uniting America podcast. Guzmán is a career journalist, author of the book I Never Thought of It That Way, and host of the podcast A Braver Way.

With the 2024 presidential election bearing down upon us, their wisdom is vital.

What is driving you to spend your time on depolarization

Mónica Guzmán (MG): This has been an obsession of mine for several years. My parents voted twice for Trump, very enthusiastically, and my brother and I voted for the Democratic presidential candidates. So our household has experienced a lot of the division that is challenging everyone across the country. But in my own family, I also found the kinds of conversations that led us to understand one another better. That gave me hope and told me that there is a way to [depolarize]. We need to talk about it and help each other out with it more.

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“This idea that politics is still fair game for hatred rests on the thought that we don’t choose our race, but we choose our politics.”

Second, I’m a journalist. I care deeply about people understanding each other as being a key part of how our society thrives. Journalism is a whole institution that is out to help citizens be good citizens by making sure they’re informed. What has happened in a polarized time is that people are tragically misinformed about other people’s perspectives.

John Wood Jr. (JW): I come from a family environment that, in many respects, paralleled the cultural divisions that existed in America back then. My mother is a liberal Black Democrat from inner-city Los Angeles. My father is a conservative white Republican from Tennessee. He didn’t become politically identified as conservative until later on, but he was from a different generation and economic class than my mother was. They had terrible tensions between them. It frustrated me. Good people with whom I had a lot in common couldn’t see what they had in common with other good people, just because they came from different backgrounds.

Being that quintessential mixed kid, I tended to find myself in the middle on the identity spectrum in a lot of ways. I was always a cultural interpreter or translator for some folks to others. Later on in life, I did get into politics, always with that purpose in mind—to make it easier for people to understand and empathize with each other as a means of laying the foundation for more empathetic and understanding politics.

A common narrative on the left is that Trump is such an unprecedented threat to democracy that there is too much on the line to reach out to the other side. I’m not as familiar with how a parallel narrative would go on the right, but I’m sure there is one. How do you respond to that?

MG: I would say there is too much on the line not to reach out to the other side. What’s happening in our political culture is that the left and the right are attacking the other side, shaming them, defining themselves by who they are not. But so long as we keep splitting ourselves apart, we’re undermining our own ability to build a better society together, because we are continually bringing ourselves to the point where we are incapable of hearing good ideas from the other side. And they’re there!

I talk a lot about the power of curiosity. One of its archvillains is fear. You can’t wonder about someone you think is out to get you. The more afraid we are, the harder it will be to stay open and curious. Certainty is curiosity’s other villain. When you think you know, and won’t think to ask, the less you engage with the other side, and the more you just hear your view confirmed by your side.

This is leading us in the wrong direction. A lot of us think it’s the right thing to do—it’s how we fight for what we believe. But you fight for what you believe by understanding what you’re fighting against: who your opponents are and what motivates them. If you want to fight for what you believe, that means you want to persuade others. You lose the ability to persuade when there is no trust and no connection.

“Certainty is the villain of curiosity” reminds me of what Buddhists call beginner’s mind, the mindset that is open to learning something new. John, same question.

JW: To Monica’s point, you can’t say that you’re taking any of the issues facing American society seriously if you’re not taking the question of how we can marshal enough unity to act collectively as a society seriously. Whether you’re talking about electoral reform or climate change or immigration, the ability of the American people to work together and be neighborly directly correlates to the sorts of politicians we send to Washington and the way our institutions function. Without these things working, there’s no hope for any progress or change being sustainable over time. You might be able to muscle a piece of legislation over the finish line, but if you do so in a way that doesn’t bring the other side along for the ride, then you’re setting yourself up for failure. In that sense, polarization is the key structural issue facing American society because it’s the issue that prevents all other issues from being solved.

You can appeal to that as a basis for understanding the practical urgency of depolarization. But there is a moral urgency to it too. We live in a country where we genuinely don’t understand each other all that well across certain lines of difference, and that can obscure the fact that people are good. And even though we make mistakes and misunderstand things—with severe consequences—we are redeemable. But we have to find ways to work together toward that redemption.

There is a tension between wanting, on the one hand, to break down the walls that divide people, and, on the other hand, to be relentless in the pursuit of justice and truth. These projects are not altogether separate. The question, though, is how we can allow everybody to show up and be fully heard in conversations about justice, fairness, equity, and truth in a way that makes it safe for us to bend and change our minds. That has to happen at some point. We can’t go forward being so rigidly bound to our positions on every single thing that we think that the very existence of my opinion means that yours cannot exist.

Let’s get into solutions. John, you mentioned being a translator or interpreter. I like that phrasing, because when I look at the left and the right, I feel that they’re speaking different languages. When I hear, for instance, someone on the left say “a culture of white supremacy,” I understand what they mean by that, but I can also understand how someone who is not within that culture would understand that term. How do we become “bilingual”?

JW: There are two things. Some of us do need to become more bilingual, since we live and work with one another. In those cases, it becomes a matter of equipping people with the tools for communication, including the meaning and significance of the vocabulary that other people use to talk about and understand issues. You gave a perfect example in terms of the different ways that people would understand the idea of white supremacy, and in modern society, racism is a term that people use in starkly different ways to trick themselves into thinking that they’re in the same conversation, when they’re in fact not.

On another level, it’s very critical for the media and the larger narrative culture to be capable of a good-faith representation of both of the larger hemispheres of our social experience, and in a way that brings them together and humanizes them. That has to be the norm in how we represent the larger discourse and conflicts in the country.

MG: Part of what’s getting us stuck is this sense that we have to study up on each other before we can even talk to each other. I would question this construction of “bilingual,” like I have to learn another language. I don’t think we do. The first step out of the places where we each are in our own language and dynamic and ideology is toward a space of inquiry. If you imagine language and how you use white supremacy and privilege, or whatever word it happens to be, and all the ways that they’re tied together, you can see a kind of mind map where everything is linked.

What it means to go into a space of inquiry is that you let those links loosen. Whatever bundle you have, you let some breathing room in, and you’re able to ask, what do I mean by white supremacy? When you do that, you allow someone else to say, “I mean something different” or “that word doesn’t really mean what I think, so let me introduce some other language or concepts.” Then it doesn’t become about how adept or fluent I am with words. It becomes about entering a place where everything is unbundled and, therefore, movable, flexible, and understandable.

When I first met my partner, I gathered a couple of pieces of information about him, and my mind filled in a bunch of other things. I didn’t realize until months later that he had said “a,” and I had assumed that “b, c, d, and e” were also true. Luckily, we stuck with each other through that sometimes uncomfortable process. but what would have been the shortcut that would have stopped the assumptions from happening in the first place? How would I have made a mental map of conceptual links that I wasn’t even aware I had?

MG: Folks who have studied the neuroscience of curiosity have come up with an analogy, which is that it’s a muscle, and the more you use it, the stronger it gets. At first it may seem unnatural to pause and ask, What am I assuming? But that’s where it begins. It’s a pause. What am I missing when I say this word? I know it’s a partisan term, and I have my assumptions about what the other side believes. Or when I hear my friend say this thing about abortion, and then in my mind I download all these other things, that must mean this is what she believes.

I love that this is a Buddhist publication, because I think Buddhism and a lot of spiritual practices are spot-on about the first step in becoming a more present observer of your thoughts. We often think we are our thoughts. We’re not. You can observe the mind, and sometimes you’ll observe the mind doing some pretty stupid stuff. That’s where you have to go, Wait, where did I even get that idea? That doesn’t make sense. Listen to what you’re thinking, and check the links in those chains, and see if they actually hold. They might be made of string.

JW: You always have a clue that perhaps you’re looking at people too narrowly when your own feelings of contempt or judgment toward them begin to rise. That’s a thermometer for you; when it gets too hot, you should probably be looking at things with a broader, deeper perspective. The intensity of contempt and judgment we feel toward people whose views we find disagreeable is usually in direct proportion to the degree to which we are reducing them to something simpler and more basic than they really are as human beings.

The antidote for that becomes knowing something about one another’s stories and understanding something in the chain of experiences that brought us to where we are. If your stomach turns when you see a certain hat or bumper sticker, or you hear somebody say something that has whatever political connotations to you, it’s your body telling you to get curious on some level.

What advice do you have for everyday people who might feel that defending “the other side” is risky? There is a fear of how your own side will react.

JW: That’s a major part of the name Braver Angels. It’s the idea that in the work of humanizing your political opposite, you may not only risk the judgment or misunderstanding of those who think differently from you but also the displeasure or alienation of people who agree with you politically. To empathize with the other side can sometimes be seen as selling out your own. One way of responding to that is being able to make the case not just for the humanity of the other side but, again, the urgent moral practical value of recognizing that humanity.

If you’re out and vocal about the need for us to come together—at least in mutual recognition of human dignity, even if we don’t find common ground on policy—you can’t sidestep the reality that a lot of folks are not there yet. But with any position or stand in life, a person has to be willing and able to articulate a reason for it, to defend it if people are going to challenge you on it. In those cases, it is important to remember that empathy and goodwill have to extend 360 degrees. It is a way of moving through life that centers understanding at the core of how you think about not just your political opposites but about people generally. That way of calling out the best in yourself tends to call out the best in others, no matter who they are or where you go.

MG: Let’s be honest. Where we really need bravery and courage is with our own side. In fact, I think there is a more urgent need to be able to call out your own side than the other side. Shaming the other side doesn’t work. It’s just part of the mechanism now, part of the script. There’s no bravery in it.

What led me to this work was, after the 2016 election, hearing people say things about Trump voters and beginning to feel personally implicated. They’re talking about my parents now. Then my heart starts beating, because I need to do or say something, but what are people going to think of me if I defend my Trump-supporting parents? It started as a little party trick. I would wait until the right moment, take a sip of my drink for courage, and then say to the room of people dehumanizing Trump voters, “My parents are Mexican immigrants who voted for Trump,” and just let that bomb drop and see what happens. In Seattle in 2017, that was a big bomb.

Then I would follow up with, “I see my parents every weekend. I love them. They’re great people.” I’m sure some people looked at me weirdly, but I was encouraged by the fact that more often than not, they would ask me to tell them more. One of the privileges of having relationships with people on the other side is that you can represent them to others when they’re not there. And that’s what I did with my parents over and over again, with their permission. “Let me tell you how my dad came to his very conservative beliefs on immigration, even though he’s an immigrant himself.”

It comes back to what John said about getting curious not about each other’s opinions but about the path that led us to them. That is what allows us to relate. Once you relate, then you can debate with some level of goodwill. Debate before you can relate, then you’re just competing.

Monica, in your book I Never Thought of It That Way, you explore an idea from philosopher David Smith that people’s opinions, political and otherwise, are dependent on their experiences and context, and thus a lot less of an intentional choice than we often think. Can you talk about that? Reading that was a big “aha” moment for me.

MG: It was a game-changer for me too. [Stanford University scholar] Shanto Iyengar and others discovered in 2016 that when it came to how people evaluated résumés, there was more discrimination based on someone’s politics than their race. This idea that politics is still fair game for hatred rests on the thought that we don’t choose our race, but we choose our politics. That I hold my opinion because I want to, and I picked it and it’s mine, and I’m not going to let go of it until I want to hold another one.

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That’s not how this works at all. I give the example in the book that I love Star Trek. My husband loves Star Wars. There is no amount of arguing that is going to get him to agree with the truth that Star Trek is a better narrative universe! We know that it’s because his parents took him to the prequels a billion times in the theaters. He has a life-size Yoda from his grandmother that is still in our house. So our opinions have deep roots, and to speak to each other as if I can change my opinion like I change my clothes, and I’m just refusing to change it because I don’t like your argument, [doesn’t make sense].

Persuasion is much more complex and interesting than that. In the book How Minds Change, David McRaney writes that all persuasion is self-persuasion. I don’t change your mind. You change your mind. But you don’t change your mind because you change your mind. You change your mind because some preponderance of evidence built up over time mixes with your values and experiences and sets you on a path that fits you better.

JW: Persuasion becomes effective when you recognize the fact that you don’t really change what people believe. You speak to what they already believe. You show them how a larger understanding of reality is more consistent with the things that they truly believe, deep down, than the way they are seeing the world in that present moment. You begin to get at the deeper “whys” behind people’s beliefs, and suddenly they can come to a new point of view through their own convictions.

“We can show each other that there is greater meaning to be found in connection, in relationship through understanding, through compassion and curiosity.”

The funny thing about human nature is that, on the one hand, our ideas and perspectives are forged through experience. On the other hand, we have this incredible capacity for growth and change over time. There is an aspect of human nature that wants to find greater collaboration, harmony, and connection with other people—it’s not just the selfish, self-centered side that matters. So human beings are this mixed bag, but the more we lean into love and compassion and curiosity and courage, the more available we become to deeper connections and stronger relationships, and therefore, a more flourishing life and greater pathways toward meaning.

So much of what keeps us anchored in polarizing points of view is wanting to hold fast to the things we think have meaning. We can show each other that there is greater meaning to be found in connection, in relationship through understanding, through compassion and curiosity. Then suddenly we tap into people’s incentives for transcending where they are in favor of where they could be.

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