POLITICAL polarization, bitterness, and rancor are dividing Americans in ways that threaten our nation. Overlay the gulf between “reds” and “blues” with the stresses of COVID-19, racial discord, and a general decline in basic manners, and we have a toxic dynamic that could destroy our country from within.
The most dangerous part is the belief that the problem is all on the other side with an unwillingness to consider the limitations of our group and ourselves. Sentences that start with “those people” and the tendency to see things in stark contrasts are especially problematic.
Sadly, respect for differences of opinion and compromise have declined since I was a member of the New Hampshire Legislature between 1988 and 2002. At some point, politicians decided they could benefit by labeling those who disagreed with their policies as evil or unworthy, and the rest of us have been swept into this ill-fated maelstrom.
Remember Mr. Rogers telling children to be kind to one another? He must be rolling over in his grave. Character, including how we treat each other, still matters, but many think it is perfectly OK to demean someone who doesn’t agree with them. Where is the positive outcome in this us vs. them, lose-lose scenario?
As conservative economist Arthur Brooks wrote in Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt, this is a losing proposition for all of us, wrecking relationships and harming our health. He proposes an alternative approach: “Love and warm heartedness might not change every heart and mind, but they are always worth trying, and they will always make you better off.”
In the same spirit, the recently deceased Congressman John Lewis argued that politics should be done in a loving way, embracing the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Hate is too heavy a burden to bear.”
Disagreeing with the politics of Donald Trump, Barrack Obama, Mitch McConnell, or Nancy Pelosi is, of course, totally appropriate in a democracy. But expressing hatred toward politicians or their supporters is another matter.
Authors of a 2018 study “The Hidden Tribes of America” found that while only a third of Americans embrace the most extreme politics of the left and right, their perspectives dominate the national conversation.
“Polarization has become a business model,” they observe. “Media executives have realized that they can drive clicks, likes, and views, and make money for themselves and their shareholders, by providing people with the most strident opinions.”
The good news, these same authors say, is that an “exhausted majority” is fed up with polarization and want to return to mutual good faith and a collaborative spirit that characterize a healthy democracy. Three out of four Americans believe our differences are not so great that we cannot find common ground.
Concerned about these issues, I volunteered to serve as Northern New England coordinator for Braver Angels (formerly Better Angels). This national nonprofit organizes workshops that teach skills on how to listen to and better understand those with whom we disagree politically, including family members. The goal is not to change people’s views of issues, but to change their views of each other.
What can you do? Here are a few suggestions:
Reflect. Are you doing anything that adds to the problem? What about your use of social media?
Encourage discussion. Share these ideas with your friends.
Reach out. Engage in a personal and curious way with people on the other side. Increasingly, many of us are self-limited to a bubble of people with the same political views.
Learn more. Read books and listen to podcasts that explore these issues.
Develop new skills. Seek out resources and join groups such as Braver Angels. (You can become a member for only $12 at braverangels.org.)
You have a special opportunity to help save our country — don’t underestimate your impact! One person at a time, we can build a movement to make a difference and demand change.