We’re in the home straight of the most divisive presidential election most of us have known, and it’s time to start looking at what comes next, time to consider life after the election. Whoever wins, America will be deeply divided with fundamental and unaddressed problems, issues that cannot be solved unless we learn to work together.
While reflecting on this topic, I saw an article about newly crowned Miss America 2017, Miss Savvy Shields. When asked about election-year politics during a press conference, she replied, “I hope that at the end of my year, we’re starting to reward politicians for compromise. What I want both candidates to focus on is compromise. Our country was founded on compromise. We’re in a state now where both parties just seem to be yelling at one another.”
There is something lovely about Miss America spontaneously offering up the answer to our problems. It seems so simple, but we seem to be unable – or unwilling – to take this step. How did we get here… and perhaps more importantly, what can we do to get out of it?
A World of Problems
It seems we are surrounded by problems of massive magnitude on which we are deeply divided. Here are a few examples:
- Climate Change: one of the most divisive issues of our time, and a poster-child of our inability to engage in civil discourse. People come together to talk about the science of climate change and consider the consequences of global warming, ocean acidity, and extreme weather patterns on our way of life and species diversity on the planet. Petitions are created and articles written. But at the same time large and influential groups challenge both the historical and the predictive science that is used to support theories of climate change, and especially anthropogenic global warming. Between these two poles there is such enmity and discord that there seems no way to join intelligent conversation.
- Immigration: “American jobs for Real Americans” sounds like a contemporary political statement, but it was actually the banner for a formal US government program in the 1930’s which led to two million people being sent to Mexico, many taken in door-to-door searches. Over 60% of these “Mexicans” were US citizens. Only one generation later, from 1954 through 1964 another government program targeted at Mexicans consumed massive government resources and resulted in mass deportations. If we look at our history we learn that America is no stranger to the kind of divisiveness on immigration that has politicians talking of building a wall on the Mexican border and camps for Muslims. Which takes us to the next point:
- Islam: Islam is a religion of 1.7 billion people worldwide, and the world’s major oil supplying nations are Muslim. As a global force Islam can’t be ignored. But it isn’t a monolithic “thing”: the practice of the faith varies broadly not just around the globe, but within the USA; it is deeply affected by the individual culture of its adherents; and beliefs range widely from those common among the majority of mainstream Muslims to the eschatological, militant and grotesquely violent philosophies of ISIS. How we deal with the spillover of our fear of terrorism onto Muslims as a whole has profound importance.
And the list goes on: gun control; right-to-life; and healthcare reform. We have a very long list of issues which deeply polarize our nation. They have become black and white, right or wrong topics, with similar numbers of people taking both sides and unable to find sufficient common ground for a conversation. The presentation of the issues in the press and in political sound bites lends them a simplicity that belies not just their enormous complexity, but the artificiality of presenting them in a binary manner.
These are deep, deep problems, but I’d submit that the deeper problem is our inability to bring them into a room of different-minded people to discuss. And until we are able to do that, they will continue to thrive and fester. The real work is not to solve the problems, but to find a way to talk about them and work on them together.
While the representative democratic republic of the USA was designed to facilitate representation of all views and peoples and to enable compromise and inclusion, it has evolved in a manner in which strong forces now work against those principles:
- First past the post: A system of sides and races and first past the post winners encourages politicians to set up a game of opposites and extremes, a dynamic of picking teams. And once this approach takes hold (as it has), it is emotionally so strong that it seems self-reinforcing.
- Big money politics: The high financial stakes of our democracy means that to be successful as a politician, one needs to raise a lot of money. And the considerable concentration of political donations from a relatively small number of donors means that successful politicians are effectively beholden to a small number of donors. In a world in which compromise can easily be seen not just as weakness, but as conceding on principle, large sums of money can be won or lost variously by holding true to or by vacillating on a principle. Large sums of money can be lost even by allowing major donors to see a possibility that you are not holding firmly to their principles.
- Can’t have serious conversation. The political system makes it not just hard, but perhaps even almost impossible, to have a serious conversation about the things that really matter. Healthcare is an obvious example, and the divisiveness that crystallized around first Hillary Clinton’s proposed reforms, and then the campaign that resulted in legislation known as Obamacare, cut off conversation and constructive reform. Today’s system is divided against itself: the individual cost of well-intended affordable insurance is steadily rising and becoming unaffordable; setting this against the penalties for non-insurance creates a Catch 22 for the very people the system is designed to help. And all the while the absolute cost of the system to the country grows, raising the ire of those opposed to it in the first place. Another topic requiring real conversation and real reform is social security, but when John Ryan committed to work on this, he was rewarded as Mitt Romney’s potential running mate by pictures of him pushing grandma in a wheelchair off the cliff. The divisiveness of our political system cuts off almost every attempt at serious dialog on difficult issues between the parties
- The tyranny of the majority: this is a really nasty and little discussed problem of democracy under which a voting majority can outlaw something very important to a minority, essentially a complete infringement of what we would regard as basic rights. My favorite example of this is smoking. I certainly don’t encourage imposing smoking on others, but I find the ferocity of anti-smoking legislation and opinion to be extraordinary. I’ve seen people horribly insulted and verbally abused in a grocery store line when the person in line behind them thought they smelled of cigarette smoke. And the major divisive issues we’ve discussed – immigration, Islam, right to life, etc. – are positioned as win-lose, with the winners, being the electoral majority, getting everything. It is a time when it’s terrifying to be a visible minority.
The problem gets worse….
Tensions and temperatures during the election season have been high, and they are likely to continue to climb between now and November. It’s not realistic to expect this situation to change for the positive between now and then. But if we are unable to move beyond the winner-take-all divisive approach to society’s challenges, we have a very difficult road ahead.
We need to build the ability to have the difficult conversations. Right now no one is listening, and no one is interested in even preparing to open up the conversation. But after the election, when the dust settles, we will start to move on with our lives. After the election is the time to start to move into the conversation.
But if we are to do that, we need to be ready. Now is the time to sow the seeds and prepare.
And the longer we leave it, the harder the work will be. Once trust is broken it can take a long time to heal. We have seen this recently after the civil wars in many parts of the globe, such as Yugoslavia, Burundi and Rwanda. We saw it in post Second World War Europe, where for example my mother, to her dying day, would not eat in a Japanese restaurant. And we are seeing it emerge in the divisiveness of the Erdogan government in Turkey.
We have seen the bravery with which governments, such as Mandela’s in post-Apartheid South Africa, have worked on reconciliation. We’ve seen how hard this work is. Picking a fight and losing a friend is easy, but rebuilding trust is hard and can take years. Or, as we are discovering in post-segregationist US, generations. We’ve allowed our divisions in the US to become large and hostile, and we can’t afford to let this get worse.
What we need to do
As I said early, the real work is not around solving the problems, but working together to solve them. Before we can do that we must both: (1) recognize that these are our shared problems, and that unless we find a way to work together, we will both be harmed; and (2) see each other first as human beings, so we can actually have a conversation. Some specific ideas on how we might move forward:
- Practice listening: Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Rev Dr. Martin Luther King, practiced the following reconciliation process after the Vietnam War. It took three days. On the first day one side had to sit silently and listen to the other side. On the second day the roles were reversed. And on the third day the parties were allowed to talk to each other. Listening must precede conversation. Only by listening can we start to let go of our preconceived notions and judgments, can we start to unpack the meaning of labels that we applied but had not examined.
- See the humanity in others: If we start a conversation by identifying a person with beliefs that differ from our own, it will likely be a challenge, but if we start instead by having a meal together, talking about our families and childhoods, our fears, our dreams, we’ll likely have a completely different outcome. A lighthearted but powerful take on this is in the NY Times article which lists “36 Questions That Lead To Love“
- Vulnerability and intimacy: Brene Brown’s TED talks are the poster child on this, but her lesson is still one we all need to practice. Vulnerability and intimacy are things you can do unilaterally requiring nothing from the other person. If they are reciprocated, beautiful and deep relationships can occur, but even if they are not, your own fear will be diffused, and your life will become richer and more meaningful. It is only in making ourselves vulnerable that we are able to understand, to connect, to build real relationships.
- Humility: If you approach a conversation from the standpoint of being willing to listen to another to find your common ground and persuade them of your views in the areas you don’t agree, or worse to find their weaknesses so you can change their mind, that is not really listening. We must learn to challenge our own assumptions and judgments, which requires being open to the possibility that we might learn something new, that we might change. This is scary, because it can put our hard-held views on the table, but it is important, since if we are not willing to examine our views, they might be wrong. On the other side, the views we hold after this kind of honest examination will be stronger and more robust and more meaningful.
- Build Intentional Community: “building community” has come to mean sharing space with “people like me”, whether that be an upper middle class white suburb, an inner city black neighborhood, or an online birther chat group. But that kind of community is isolationist and divisive. If each of us builds community solely with people like us, there is not room for people not like us, and we can never truly be sympathetic or empathetic with people not like us. So I challenge you to intentionally work on a community based on a different kind of shared experience, that of basic humanity. A community of people who love one another regardless, and who all want a happy, prosperous future for their children has a lot more room for diversity. In this sense community is inclusive, based on one’s ability and desire to help, to love, to participate regardless of difference, and not exclusive based on attributes or beliefs. This kind of community – and life within this kind of community – is richer and a lot more fun. And safer!
- Personal Responsibility: Above all recognize that the current divisiveness is unstable and will likely head either in the direction of reconciliation, community and dialog, or in the opposite direction; recognize that the cost of that other direction is too horrible to imagine; and recognize that the only way forward to reconciliation and resolution is to take personal action. Someone must go first, and you can’t rely on it being someone else. We must each take personal responsibility for changing our national culture. This will be hard work, but you’ll find that if you take those first steps, while you may encounter failures, they will be rewarding and enlivening, and you will want to continue.