John Wood, Jr. is a national leader for Braver Angels, a former nominee for Congress, former Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, musical artist and a noted writer and speaker on issues of political and racial reconciliation.
He addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The optimism that “we come to remember the higher-minded traditions of moral and social idealism that have inspired this country towards social progress in the past, such that we might rally towards some of these ways of engaging in politics and relating to one another in our own current time”
- The lessons that can be taken from the nonviolence tradition taught by Martin Luther King Jr
- The importance of seeking mutual understanding and goodwill, to leverage these into collaboration and shared work to improve our local communities and government
- The fostering of empathy and respectful recognition of others’ experiences towards “laying the foundation for more durable social progress”
- The many organizations such as Braver Angels that are incubating social innovation and stimulating change
- Braver Angels braverangels.org
Connect with John Wood, Jr.
Hi, Vicki Robin here, host of What Could Possibly Go Right? a project of the Post Carbon Institute, in which we interview people we call cultural scouts – people who see far and serve the common good – and ask them our one question: In all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right? And today’s guest is the incredibly articulate and interesting John Wood, Jr. who is a former nominee for Congress and former Vice-Chair of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County. He’s a noted writer and speaker on the subjects of political and racial reconciliation. John’s written work has been featured in publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Examiner, and the Collapse Magazine. He’s a national spokesperson for the bipartisan organization, Braver Angels, and lives in South Los Angeles with his wife and three children. So, the interview with John Wood, Jr.
Okay, John Wood, Jr. Thank you for joining me on What Could Possibly Go Right?, in which we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, asking them to peer into the near future for us and tell us what positive developments they see emerging that might blossom into things going right. Your work with Braver Angels, an organization that brings Americans together to bridge the partisan divide and strengthen our democratic republic, has really impressed me. You say you’re working to depolarize America, and I encourage people to look into Braver Angels and know more. You use beautiful words, words that inform my life as well: empathy, love, community, goodwill.
So what do you actually see changing in the landscape of polarization? For example, I aspire to reason, but I react to my gut. Communities I care about… Oh, my dear. My cat has joined us. She may or may not fully join us. People get used to my cat, and she cannot be barred from anything… Anyway, communities I care about seem to be losing ground in a stalemated political system. I do believe in our better angels, but honestly, I do wonder where the openings for something braver and more angelic are. I watched the turn of polarization growing, and I don’t want to retreat further into my tribe or design my activism in ways that will drive us further apart. I do want to stand up for justice and repair. And you know, it’s tough. So shine your light on the road ahead. Where do you see opportunities arising for depolarizing our nation? What true notes are you hearing? What movements or projects are strange bedfellows? (I’m sorry, I’m laughing because my cat is trying to get into the picture.) What tipping points, even with all the public animosity? Here you go: What could possibly go right?
John Wood, Jr.
Indeed, Vicki, first of all, thank you for having me here. As far as I’m concerned, your cat is very much welcome in the conversation. That’s one of the charms of the Zoom era, cats and kids tend to be regular guest stars in plenty of the conversations that I have. Honestly, it’s a great question. It’s perhaps the most important question a person could possibly ask, what could possibly go right in this situation. And yet, I have to admit, goodness, you might be just about the first person to have ever asked me that question so directly. People certainly ask what can we do. But what can go right? It causes us to reflect on the fact that there are, in fact, things that are going right and things that are happening that indicate the fact that for all the problems we face in terms of the fissures and ruptures in our social fabric and our democratic society, that there are nevertheless, seeds of hope that I think may yet blossom and grow into roses and trees of progress and of unity.
So what is the landscape of promise then, in our current context? I think that certainly to start with, there is an innovative and committed space of very competent, very passionate, very driven Americans, who are from across the political spectrum – and the relative proportions of that don’t necessarily map evenly on to the demographics of our broader politics – but even so, within the world of philanthropy, within the world of media, within the world of politics directly, and in the nonprofit space. Organizations like Braver Angels, and a wide slew of others; National Conversation Project, Listen First, Weave: The Social Fabric Project, The American Project from out of Pepperdine University, which is dedicated to inspiring a communitarian revival within the conservative movement. Institutions like the Fetzer Institute, the Einhorn Collaborative, and a number of others are incubating social innovations that are allowing us to develop methods whereby the American people can meet in a spirit of goodwill, come to understand one another better, and then leverage that mutual understanding into actual collaboration and shared work on the ground and within local governments, on college campuses, and beyond, for the purposes of advancing our society in a fraternal spirit. That space is currently growing. There’s greater interest coming to this sort of work from different corners of the world of philanthropy and increasingly from corporations that want to be a part of the solution when it comes to polarization; from folks who are, in some cases, active in politics, but particularly from folks who have been in government, whether in Congress or in presidential administrations, or just locally, who have the space to reflect on the system and its problems and who are trying to apply their experience, connections, and expertise to building up this culture of goodwill in American society.
You have actual work that’s taking place. I think it’s fair for me to say that Braver Angels is a leading light in that constellation of organizations and enterprises that seeks to establish the structure of social repair in American society, and which seeks to tell a story about who we are as Americans that makes room for us to come back together in goodwill. But we’re not the only ones. It seems to me that what could go right at bottom is that we could be in the midst of witnessing, as awareness of the problem of polarization and its true significance grows, a coming together of forces from across American society, who are willing to buck the trends within the parties, within the dominant polarizing narratives that come to us by way of cable news and talk radio and social media, etc, in order to band together in a suite of activities and in the amplification of a narrative of shared American community that could allow us to stimulate a change in our institutional cultures and our politics, from the demand level up, from the grassroots on up, with key participation from influential leaders and organizations from across society.
I think that that is what can go right. I think that ultimately, that is what will go right. And I have to admit, I’m a bit of an optimist by disposition. I’m not entirely certain I could be as effective as I hope I am in this work, if I didn’t have a tendency towards optimism. But, even in identifying all of those currents, I do think that the other thing that can go right, which is really an essential part of the realization of this hopeful vision that I’m spelling out for you, is that as a country, we come to remember the higher minded traditions of moral and social idealism that have inspired this country towards social progress in the past, such that we might rally towards some of these ways of engaging in politics and relating to one another in our own current time. For myself, a great example of what I hope we will come to remembrance of as a country, and something that I talk a fair amount about, is the philosophy of nonviolence and the tradition of nonviolence as it was taught and pioneered by Martin Luther King Jr, among others; Bayard Rustin, etc. The philosophy of nonviolence teaches, that Dr. King taught, that love is a social value that can be applied to social and political questions. It essentially was a spiritual movement of social change. While King, of course, was a Baptist minister, one did not have to be religious or have any particular religious faith in order to embrace the power of that mode of teaching. I think that in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, there has been a tendency across the political spectrum to seek to pick up on some aspects of Dr. King’s political leanings. Folks on the left will frequently make note of the fact that Dr. King was a sort of democratic socialist in his economic views and push for radical political change in some senses and claim him, therefore, as a man of the left. Folks on the right today will say, yes, but he was a religious Christian, he was a person who spoke eloquently of the American founding and therefore seek to claim him as, in some respects, a man of religious conservatism, perhaps.
But ultimately, what we have all forgotten, I think, even as we idolize Dr. King as a figure in history in the forms of holidays and statues, is what the actual applied substance of his teachings were, beyond phrases that we remember, such as: We wish to see a day where our children are judged not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character. That is true. But that sort of America has to itself be a consequence of the ethos of love, animating our interactions with one another, on every level of society, but certainly in the context of our democratic and political life. And so Dr. King used the term “love” and by love, he was referring to something specifically that he would have identified as “agape love”, which is not necessarily a romantic or an affectionate love of friends, but rather love that is itself an overarching goodwill for all people, including your opponents, including your political enemies, including people who may be racist and may be judgmental towards you, including people who may hate you on the basis of merely the color of your skin or some other superficial aspect of your identity. I frequently use the term goodwill in my own speech, because sometimes that’s more accessible for some folks, but it’s pointing to the same virtue of agape love in social action. I suspect that the memory of that movement in some of our greater moral and religious traditions and teachings in American life…
While I think the technological and commercial complexity of modern American life causes us to think in short term sound bites and we all have a desire for quick social and political victories. We think about what it’s going to take to win the next election, to raise $100 million for a certain cause, to get a million followers on Twitter or subscribers on YouTube and whatnot, and we think in quick periods of time about quantifiable ways to measure social impact. But I think that a commitment towards goodwill, as a way of being in democratic society, one that calls upon each of us to adopt an internal attitude of empathy and understanding, even towards those we disagree with, will succeed not only in laying the foundation for more durable social progress for America collectively, but will also allow us to commit to that hard work in a way that is most inwardly liberating for people who not only want to see social progress for humanity and for the United States of America, but who also would like to do so in a way that allows us to be the best versions of ourselves.
So the victory that we ultimately must seek in America today, I believe, is twofold in that fashion. And because it is in our history, because it is in our heritage, it is also in us, our capacity to pursue that sort of change in that sort of way. I’m confident that that nonviolent spirit can be and will be reawakened in the American people in such a manner so that it will allow us to engage the problems of the present moment, in a way that reflects the very best of who we are and what we could be as Americans, as neighbors, as children of God – if that language may resonate with some, as it does with many – and as people who ultimately seek to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. If we can commit to that principle, then our tactics and our methods and our arguments and the stories we tell will flow from that, and we’ll observe a pathway for social healing and reconciliation and progress that can set the stage for the next generation to take the idea of the Beloved Community a step further in time. I believe that all of those things can be what goes right.
Yeah. So the tableau of looking at you is so amazing, because you’re sitting between two headphones. You’re actually articulating the space in between, and the two headphones seem to be the left and right. Let me stand in the left, because, oh boy, I am. And I say: “Yeah, I agree with you. Goodwill is very important. Agape love is very, very important. However, I do that, but they don’t.” I think part of what you’re talking about is social trust, that if I engage in this process that John is talking about, I’m not going to get my head handed to me, I’m not going to be sliced and diced by somebody who’s far smarter than me and figures out how to trick me, I’m not going to be insulted. And the fear is intense about engaging. I wonder if you could do a little simulation for us. Now, you just put on the left headphones, and then put on the right headphones, and speak the truths of the people who are louder in our society, whose voices are so loud, it makes us lose trust in ourselves that we could have a trusting society. What could be said that would actually soften the characters of the different sides so that they’d be willing to engage? Do you know what I mean? I’m pretty sure you understand the experiment I’m asking you for because you’re so good at articulating the opinions and the fears and the stances of the two different sides with a great deal of respect. So see what you can do with that.
John Wood, Jr.
I think so. Let me give it a shot. Now, of course, there is a spectrum of personalities, groups and experiences on each of the broad hemispheres of our political divide, and obviously, left/right, red/blue are binaries that don’t capture that complexity, but I think that I might be able to do justice to a representative pairing of perspectives here. I can imagine and certainly know many folks, let’s say folks of color, on the left. I’m most deeply familiar with the African American experience, being black, half black myself. To speak to that, one can imagine a person who has lived their whole life or have grown up in an area where their reality is poverty. Their reality is living in a closely confined urban center, where the buildings have been built with no regard for aesthetic. Where police sirens sound, but law enforcement are folks in whom you have very little trust, because they oftentimes disrespect you and treat you harshly and seem to look down upon you. Where such a person goes to public schools where the teachers don’t seem at all times to be committed to their progress, because teachers themselves are overworked and under-resourced. Or they find themselves having to wait in long lines for public assistance only to be met with bureaucrats who are disinterested sometimes in helping them navigate a complex system of public benefits because they too are overworked, they too are exhausted, which becomes very little space for human empathy. And then you go home and you turn on the TV, and I’ll date myself a little bit because I grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, and then you look at 90210, you look at Melrose Place and so forth, and you see a televised representation – although this could have just as easily referred to various TV shows in the 1950s and whatnot that black folks would have been watching – you see this idyllic representation of America, and it’s white America, and everybody drives a nice car and has a home with multiple bedrooms and they’re not towering, ugly buildings blocking out the sky, and you’re not smelling smog in the air, and you don’t worry about violence when you step out into your streets. The America that is beamed into the lived experience of folks in this circumstance. In that context, it’s very easy for a person to think that this white supremacist, racist nation was not built with me in mind, the very people who are held up to me as the paragons of American virtue, the founding fathers of our society were people who largely speaking, held my ancestors in chains. Therefore, why should I give a damn about you and your complaints about the welfare state or immigration or you republicans, you conservatives, and so forth. But as far as I can tell, you’re the type of person who would have had me in chains, and probably still wants me in chains today, right? Why shouldn’t I look at you as racist? And I think that for individuals who are engaged in conversation with somebody who may be coming from some version of that experience – and it’s millions of Americans, certainly millions of Americans of color I think in this country, historically and contemporaneously – one has to start with a recognition of the depth of the experience from which somebody is speaking. The humility to say you have an experience that I can’t know, you have endured things or had sufferings or struggles that are different from mine indeed. But I respect that, and I understand the earnestness of what it is you say.
Let me say something about my experience and why I believe that this country is, or can be, a land of opportunity for all of us. Let me explain why I have the beliefs I do about the constitution and limited government and how I think that can lead to a freer, more just society for everybody, for you and for me, and for folks of all colors, right? I’m throwing out language that could be used, but whatever language comes from the heart, if you start with the place of love and goodwill and empathy for the other person, that empowers you to be able to search out the language that is most sincere within you to be able to hear their experience, to speak it back to them so that they know that they’ve been heard. And having established the trust that comes with identifying yourself as one who honestly will listen, and who cares about understanding the viewpoint of the person to whom you’re speaking, to set yourself in the position to be able to speak your truth, in a way where your truth may be heard as well; suddenly, we are in dialog together and we can reason together.
I can also think of somebody who may have grown up in the Appalachian south, I can think of someone who might be from Tennessee, might be from Alabama. I can imagine a person who has himself grown up in poverty, who has himself turned on the television or gone to school, and has listened to folks who may be celebrities, people who may be sophisticated intellectuals and politicians, people who have resources and privileges and maybe the same skin color, but who come from a different universe, talking about the sins and flaws of America in a way that puts the full blame for America’s problems and inequities and oppressions on the shoulders of people who if I’m such an individual watching such talk, share my faith; people who are fellow Christians, people who are rural people who find themselves without college educations, without college degrees. People who are white, and have thought of themselves as white and have been told that they are white, but who are then told that whiteness is the source of all of America’s evils. For a person who has grown up with this identity, for a person who has grown up thinking of themselves as a religious Christian, a person who happens to be a white Southerner who has in the cultural memory of their family, in the inherited memory of their family, the recollection of the North having marched through the South and laid waste to the land of their heritage, and that generations later, though their own ancestors were probably not slave owners because even during the Civil War, very few, as a percentage of folks, white Southerners actually owned slaves. Nevertheless, though you are a person who would think to him or herself that you don’t judge another person by the color of their skin, you would help a black person or person of any color on the side of the road if they found themselves stranded perhaps, out of Christian courtesy, you nevertheless feel yourself as being labeled the stepchild or the enemy, in a country where the culture of Hollywood, the culture of the university, celebrates diversity, celebrates inclusion, but only extends that inclusion to people of multiple colors, but of broadly progressive social sentiments, people have transcended the backwardness of religious belief and conviction. A person like that is willing oftentimes, to thumb their nose to the world, to the mainstream at least, and to retreat to the embracing arms of those who would amplify their grievances and their anger, as folks on all sides are willing to do, and refuse to look at anybody who comes from perhaps certain quarters of society or certain parts of the country or certain parts of their politics, as a genuinely fellow American and someone we can regard as a friend.
But if you were to engage such an individual in conversation, if you were to find yourself in that context, and if similarly, you were to say to them that: You have a certain experience, and I hear you talking about your religious and your moral convictions, and I understand the depth of that. Or, I understand that you’re telling me a deep truth right now and that these are the things that give you an anchor for understanding the world and I think that that’s powerful, because it’s clearly powerful in your experience. Let me tell you a little bit about why I believe what I believe, about why it is the government should have an active role in lifting all people up and how it is that secular reasoning or logic is an important way of pursuing truth, even as I want to honor the foundations of your faith and how it is you see the world. Let me share with you my experience and how I come to my perspective. So long as you are able to demonstrate true empathy and true goodwill for that individual and his or her origins and concerns, it’s far more likely that such an individual will be open to hearing what you have to say. If you could acknowledge them as your fellow American, as your neighbor, someone you share a country with, for whom you hope the best, and for whose children you hope the best, then such a person just might become convinced that you mean well towards them, whether they start off agreeing with you or not.
It’s only in that sort of conversational context, enflamed by a deep spirit of empathy, of goodwill, of love really, agape love, that we can discover the space for trust to blossom. As you mentioned, of course, we can certainly have the experience of: Well, I showed up in this way, but the other person did not respond or reciprocate in kind. The truth is that that’s going to frequently be the case. Dr. King did not believe in nonviolence principally as a tactic, although certainly nonviolence informed the tactics of the nonviolent movement, and there are all sorts of sophisticated conversations to be had about the tactics of nonviolence. I would like to think that even Braver Angels in a very different time and different context, we are innovating tactics of nonviolence, but true nonviolence arises as a way of life that we inevitably will fail to perfectly live up to, but that nevertheless, is an internal moral aspiration. I think that what we find is that in certain cases, you can change a person in a single conversation. That does happen more frequently than you might think. But even if all one succeeds in doing is opening up a small space for reflection on the part of somebody you may be engaged with, to plant a small seed of doubt in them with respect to what may have been their pre-existing assumption, that you are something less of an American, less of a human and more of some demonized caricature who they could write off as being authentically well-intentioned or thoughtful or grounded in reality, then you’ve opened up a pathway for their entire way of looking at the world to change and to become more hopeful and more understanding of others, because you will have demonstrated that hopefulness and that understanding towards them.
This has consequences. There are dominoes that are set in place, wherein changing one heart or even planting the seeds of change, winds up having a ripple effect that spreads through families, that spreads through communities, that spreads through institutions, and its patience-demanding work to be certain, because the changes that nonviolent engagement leads to… Well, in the civil rights movement, of course, the Montgomery Bus Boycott started in 1956. By 1965, major legislative changes had swept across the country in ways that would remake our society for all time. So I wouldn’t downplay the possibility that in the right spirit, you can make observable changes within a relatively short period of time. But the ultimate victory of the civil rights movement and the nonviolent movement in particular was that it also led to, I think, a genuine shift in the conscience of America, even if we have so much further to go in terms of realizing the society of perfect equity and of genuine equality of opportunity. But hearts did change on a large scale. I honestly believe that I would not exist if that were not the case, because I’m the product of an interracial marriage between a black woman from inner city LA and a white Southern father. Even within my own family story, I can testify to the changing of hearts, the changing of minds relating to the issue of race, in ways that have everything to do with the changes that sprung from the nonviolent movement, not just in terms of the law, but in terms of the culture of our society. And so, these changes have a tendency of sticking, even if they take a while. When they take, they take, I believe and sets the stage for progress to endure.
Wow. We’re gonna have to close soon just for time constraints, but I do want to reflect some things back from a hothead progressive. Number one, patience. Number two, we’re doing the work of decades and possibly generations and possibly centuries, so impatience at not achieving the goal of the current outreach. It’s really important to, as I was just imagining the so many demonstrations that happened with Martin Luther King. So many were brutalized, pushed back, disrespected, but it was the dignity of keeping going, in that spirit of agape. But it took a while to soften. It took a long time, because the attitudes were really congealed.
Then the other thing is you cannot speak at someone without acknowledging their reality and really get very far at all. So I think that the first move that you’re talking about not as a strategy, but as a sincere outreach; like, I really get it, I’m really learning something about your point of view. And then this other thing that you said, which is so important, is that let me tell you how I came to my point of view. People are not reflective about how we arrived at our point of view. If you talk about it not as a certainty, but as a process, suddenly even that, you’re sort of in a unity of people who have been thoughtful about their point of view. I’ve come to this after reflection. And so you have a base of reflection. I just think this brief demonstration that you’ve done has profound implications for hotheads like me. I think there’s a lot of hotheads, maybe some of them that are calmer than I am. And I think actually, the original purpose of what could possibly go right, this kind of inquiry as invisible as it is in the hothead media environment, is happening. I have more of a thirst for it now, having listened to you. I just want to thank you so much. If you have any final words, great, but if you just want to sign off, that’s fine, too.
John Wood, Jr.
Sure. I just want to thank you, Vicki, and your cat for being such gracious hosts for me in this conversation. For folks who are interested in the work of political depolarization, but really advancing our way towards the Beloved Community and for folks who are interested in learning more about that work and some of the things I’ve talked about here today, I welcome people to visit braverangels.org and join us as a member and volunteer if so moved, and to remain hopeful and optimistic in that part of the human soul that genuinely does aspire towards love and towards truth and towards genuine, peace, positive peace between us that that is a real force in human events, and we are all available to it if we choose to be.
Thank you so much.
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