When substantial numbers of citizens on the extreme ends of our political spectrum dismiss any successes enjoyed by their adversaries as evidence of wrongdoing, our polarization moves from the realm of merely regrettable to physically calamitous, as we have seen through various events over the past year or so, but especially on Jan. 6 in Washington.
While everyone acknowledges our division and the social and cultural isolation at its core, doing something about it takes effort. Be of good cheer. There are those dedicated to doing just that, including organizations such as Business for America, Crossing Party Lines, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, FixUS, Listen First Project and Unify America, to name a few. They and others are joining forces for an innovative project the weekend of June 12-13 called America Talks, which should be interesting.
Kicking off a National Week of Conversation, the goal of America Talks is to engage at least 10,000 “conversation participants” through the magic of video conferencing in one-on-one, face-to-face dialogues based on political differences. “Each conversation will provide a repairing stitch to America’s frayed social fabric, as participants shift perspective from ‘us and them’ to ‘you and me,’ ” according to the program description. Signups are happening now.
Yes, it’s a lofty undertaking, and a ripe target for cynics and naysayers. It’s not designed for the denizens of most digital message boards, where snark and insolence flourish, abated by anonymity. It’s for people who yearn to expand their universe, better understand each other and perhaps even make new friends through productive and respectful conversation.
There are always groups affiliated with “bipartisan” outreach efforts that give pause to people considering participation. This group is too far left, or this one leans too far right. But allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good is how we remain stagnant.
Emerging from our comfortable bubbles isn’t easy. We’re encouraged by many of the most popular personalities on cable news to marginalize, demonize and even hate anyone who disagrees with us. We deliver that hate to the Internet, where social media welcomes us with open arms to share our vitriol with the world — and if we say something cleverly cutting enough, it might get amplified by our favorite cable host. Round and round we go.
With all the fun stuff to watch on Netflix and other services, I seldom watch cable news in the evenings. But if I do choose to focus on politics, I try to watch something other than Fox News to be presented with a point of view I don’t already share. I also enjoy occasional lunchtime conversations with people who disagree with me. But in a society dedicated to separation, finding verbal sparring partners for amicable debates over club sandwiches or salads is challenging.
Our stubborn devotion to political tribalism deters us from opening ourselves to different ideas — some of which might actually turn out to be good — or making new acquaintances — some of whom might turn out to be interesting and intellectually stimulating.
One of my favorite activities is visiting schools where both the faculty and the student population are overwhelmingly liberal. I’m usually there, ostensibly, to help them understand people and attitudes in Trump Country. At first, I usually feel like a specimen being studied prior to dissection. But after we dance around each other for a while, the mood lightens and constructive dialogues break out. Hopefully they learn something from me, but I always learn from them.
After I wrote a column recently on supporting reparations for descendants of enslaved people, a faculty member from a very liberal school that has hosted me several times emailed me, saying, “I smiled when I read your reparations piece. I thought maybe we had some influence.” There is no doubt.
Those who haven’t tried it should know that it can be fun to make friends with people who disagree with you politically. Not only can you expand your horizons, you can also discover the many nonpolitical things there are to like about each other once you start talking. Americans used to know that, and nourish it, before social media and cable news started driving us apart.