On Christmas 1914, thousands of Allied soldiers laid down their guns and spent the evening celebrating with German enemies along the Western Front. They shared cigars and sausage and family photos.
They buried their dead. And for 24 hours, they buried the hatchet. It’s known as the “Christmas truce.”
In the hyperpartisan atmosphere that infuses today’s politics, the trust that might precipitate a truce seems elusive. But Curt Stedron, director of NCSL’s Legislative Training Institute, told a ballroom full of Legislative Summit attendees on Tuesday that working together with a shared goal and a common purpose can make the impossible, possible.
Shared misery—“Things are bad”—can lead to shared purpose—“Let’s make things better”—and shared vulnerability.
Stedron says that’s crucial: A willingness to be vulnerable with those you perceive as adversaries might well be seen as an act of courage, one worthy of reciprocation.
“An enemy—even if they don’t respect a single thing about the other side—they do respect courage,” he says. “It may seem counterintuitive, but we really are at our most powerful capacity to interact positively with an adversary when we make ourselves vulnerable.
“How miserable are you with the process that’s going on in your state? How important, how crucial, how vital is that shared purpose? I’m not saying an act of vulnerability will work. What I’m saying is, it has to happen in order for it to work.”
Ultimately, the process that leads to shared vulnerability can result in a sense of shared humanity—feeling the same thing, in the same way, at the same time, Stedron says.
“Trust can be created even between the most bitter of enemies. We need to be reminded of that truth,” he says. “None of us want to live in a world where that truth has been forgotten.”
Willingness to Trust, Compromise
In a panel discussion after Stedron’s presentation, legislators and staff shared stories and insights about their own “Christmas truces.”
“To operate with trust is not easy,” Colorado Sen. Rhonda Fields says. “It takes a lot of confidence, it takes a lot of courage. We all have a sense of what trust looks like. But trust can be lost. And once trust is lost, it’s really hard to reestablish.”
Fields, who served three terms in the Colorado House before winning her Senate seat in 2016, knows what it’s like to be in the minority—and how that impacts the ability to establish trust and a shared sense of purpose. “It’s easy to drive purpose when you’re in the majority and have commonality,” she says. “To establish trust in relationships when you’re not in charge, you look for people you can align with to move your agenda forward. When you’re in the majority, it’s just as important not to leave people behind.”
Maryland Delegate Kris Valderrama stresses the importance of compromise in building trust. “If it’s always just one way or the highway, it’s not going to happen,” she says.
It’s clear from watching the news or social media that tribalism is on the rise, Nebraska Sen. Ben Hansen says. “We all go to our corners like a boxer and we’re ready to go punch each other in the face.”
Instead, you could do something really challenging together—like summit Mount Kilimanjaro, which Hansen did with four of his Senate colleagues, two of whom were Dems. Or maybe just grab dinner or a drink.
“When you get outside the Capitol, you learn about people in a different context that can make things happen and move things forward,” he says. “I think we need to do more of that. I think sometimes we need to get over our ego and our pride and be a little bit more vulnerable.”
Lisa Ryckman is an associate director in NCSL’s Communications Division.