This election cycle has been a cruel one. The presidential candidates share one thing, at least: the instinct to attack their opponent in the most cutting way possible. Our electorate is largely following suit. Many Trump supporters genuinely believe Hillary Clinton is evil. An equal number of Clinton supporters cannot imagine why anyone would vote for Trump, a man they despise.
The bruising will be deep.
Yet on Nov. 9 we will emerge as one people again. Someone will win, someone will lose. A concession speech will be given and inaugural balls will be planned. Maybe, too, in the wake of the ugliness of this campaign we will be inspired to become better advocates for the things we believe.
I have spent my career as an advocate and have taught advocacy at two law schools (including 10 years at Baylor Law School). I’ve had some success and some failures. Hopefully I have learned from both.
One truth I have learned is this: Loathing the other side is ineffective advocacy. If you start out by vilifying the very people you need to convince, you give yourself little chance to change their mind. The better route is to find a point of agreement, a common principle, and start from there.
As a prosecutor, I once lost a trial to a defense attorney I underestimated. He didn’t know federal law or procedure very well and the rules of evidence confounded him. But he did a great job of telling his client’s story and used a technique I will never forget. In his closing argument he walked across the well of the court till he was next to the jury, then turned around, looking at the witness box. He began to talk about his client’s testimony and something fascinating happened: They all turned to look at the empty chair and stopped looking at him. They were all facing the same way and all caring about the same person, and it started with that lawyer walking over to see things from their perspective.
I did the opposite. I stood and faced them and argued — and I lost.
That metaphor shaped a project I pursued through four years. Wanting to challenge the death penalty, I went to churches and religious schools in death penalty states (including Texas, twice) and performed the sentencing phase of the trial of Jesus under state law. My collaborators included a public defender; I served as the prosecutor. Once the trial concluded, we divided the audience into groups of 12 and had them come to a verdict as a jury.
At the heart of this project was the idea of starting with a principle shared by that church or school and myself: that the life and death of Christ has meaning for us, and that a troubling capital proceeding lies at the heart of our faith.
I hope that the project did some good. Some people rethought their position, others did not, and many others left troubled. I do know that it was more productive than death penalty abolitionists calling proponents “murderers” or death penalty supporters calling us names.
When it works, there can be transcendent moments. One of my other projects has been promoting clemency for long-term non-violent narcotics defendants, and I have been supported both by the left (the Open Society Foundations) and the right (the Koch Foundation). We started with a common principle: that tax money should not be spent on mass incarceration when it solves no problem. It has worked, too. President Obama has commuted hundreds of sentences. On one day in August, I got to call three men serving life sentences — each of whom had stellar prison records and a commitment to reformation — and tell them that they would be going home. It is a moment I won’t forget.
Serious challenges face our nation. Islamic and domestic terrorism, a longstanding national debt, expensive and too often ineffective health care and educational failings all warrant attention and debate. If any of them are to be addressed in a worthwhile way, our political culture of acrimony and name-calling has to change. We are, in the end, one people, with a fate tied together by history, place and pride.
Mark Osler is author of “Prosecuting Jesus.” He will speak about the book at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Seventh and James Baptist Church. A former federal prosecutor who argued successfully before the U.S. Supreme Court, he is a professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law at the University of St. Thomas Law School.