Perspective: The politics of peace

Those willing to set aside suspicions about their political opponents can find unexpected common ground

Our political age has come to mirror what’s called the “prisoner’s dilemma.”

Two bank robbers await trial. If they remain silent, it might be hard for the prosecutor to prove their guilt. So separately the prosecutor presents each prisoner with an offer: a reduced sentence in exchange for testifying against the other prisoner.

Herein is the prisoner’s dilemma: Stay silent or take the deal?

Thankfully, most people don’t face this kind of situation. But every day we make judgments about whether to trust or cooperate. Nowhere does this play out more acutely than in the political arena.

Studies demonstrate our tribal differences over politics are deeper and more intense than at any point in 50 years. Having spent my career on public policy issues in Washington, D.C., and in more than 30 state capitals, the biggest change I’ve witnessed over a generation is that our politics have become devoid of the kind of trust rooted in personal relationships.

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As cable news and online platforms increasingly mediate political discourse, lawmakers are incentivized to promote their own brands, rather than work cooperatively to solve complex problems for constituents. But in my interactions with hundreds of lawmakers and activists from both parties, I’ve discovered a small yet determined minority that’s reimagining the prisoner’s dilemma and cultivating an approach that one religious leader recently called the “Politics of Peace.”

These policymakers are cooperating with former ideological adversaries to find solutions.

It’s underreported, but on some of our thorniest challenges — criminal justice, immigration and the clash between LGBTQ rights and religious freedom — risky and unlikely friendships are leading to innovative policy ideas and outcomes. 

And the process of working together to find these outcomes has created outposts of social peace.

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Relationships often start because of frustrating impasses. The renaissance in criminal justice reform over the last decade began when conservative intellectuals and many faith groups began asking questions about whether some aspects of our legal system were effective and consistent with their first principles. This led to fruitful partnerships with progressives with similar long-held concerns, but who were incapable of pressing reforms federally or in red states.

For the last six years, I’ve worked alongside leaders from a diverse array of religious and LGBTQ groups seeking to duplicate the “Utah Compromise” nationally, in order to broadly protect LGBTQ rights and religious freedom.

Many entered the conversations as their “Plan C.”

Social conservatives realized that attempting to pass religious freedom protections like the First Amendment Defense Act failed even in red states. And they were skeptical that LGBTQ rights advocates would ever care about religious freedom, which some progressives had slandered as a “license to discriminate.”

Those willing to set aside suspicions on both sides found unexpected common ground. Even when the process didn’t produce a clear legislative win, the process itself changed lives. Fighting for the rights of once-feared adversaries causes people to see the wisdom of C.S. Lewis’ observation that “When you are behaving as if you love someone, you will presently come to love him.”

The results in Utah are remarkable. A decade ago, there was probably not another red state in which LGBTQ issues were more complicated. Today polls show that Utahns remain conservative on the definition of marriage, but 77% support LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. In 2018, that was the second-highest rate in the nation. (At the time, only New Hampshire was higher.)

The common denominator in all “Politics of Peace” success stories is years of building relationships of trust. There is also a kind of mindset among those who make the first move toward vulnerability and cooperation. Some scholars have suggested that life is less like a prisoner’s dilemma and more like a “snowdrift dilemma.”

If a road is blocked by snow, you can hope someone else shovels it out of the way so you can sit in your warm car or house. But if you go outside with a shovel, that act will benefit you, and everyone else around you, regardless of whether others do the same. But more likely than not other shovels will soon arrive.

We can take that first vulnerable step.

We can refuse to argue with acquaintances about politics online; we can lean into friendships and conversations with people with asymmetrical views. As Eboo Patel, the president of the Interfaith Youth Core, observed, “We are much more cooperative with each other in real life than on cable news.”

“Blessed are the peacemakers” is true about politics, too. And the more people try it and model it, the more our politics will change for the better. 

Tim Schultz is the president of 1st Amendment Partnership, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom for Americans of all faiths.

This story appears in the February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.