Several months ago National Public Radio did a story on how divided our country has become socially and politically. The story described the way Americans lived in centuries past: more towns where rich and poor attended the same church, more daily interaction between the wealthier members of a community and the poorer members. Businesses, schools, markets and places of worship gave people of all socioeconomic backgrounds a chance to build relationships, however pragmatic and limited. We knew the people who were different from us and they weren't monsters.
The NPR reporter went on to describe the ways we now go out of our way to avoid anyone who isn't like us. Entire neighborhoods vote the same way, worship the same way and recycle (or not) the same way. Left-leaning people only make friends with other left-leaning people and and right-leaning people only make friends with other right-leaning people. This means we don't personally know each other and our ability to vilify each other has become boundless.
Americans turn everything into a moral issue. We might be correct that smoking is dangerous and obesity indicates health problems, but we don't just take action against those things. We start thinking of them as morally corrupt lifestyle decisions and we decide that those who don't agree with us are morally bad people.
At this point in American history, we are the most divided we have ever been. I haven't forgotten the Civil War, but over generations now we have effectively insulated ourselves, --socially, politically and physically -- from anyone who doesn't agree with us on things like abortion, gay rights, health care and if dogs should be allowed in businesses. Entire cities and states antagonize those who aren't like-minded. We have moralized every issue that exists, believing the other side is not only wrong, but bad or even evil. This way of viewing each other makes all of us assholes.
If you have left-leaning beliefs, go out and make some right-leaning friends. If you have right-leaning beliefs, go out and make some left-leaning friends. That's how we heal. I commit to making more friends who vote Republican and who believe there's a god. I value personal relationships more than politics, so I commit to opening my social circle to those who vote "against me" (we Americans take this stuff so personally).
If someone thinks all undocumented workers should be shipped back to where they came from, yeah, that would make me mad. But it wouldn't mean that person was a demon sent to make my life miserable and who should be stopped at all costs. Yes, such a person could ultimately affect people I care about through their voting patterns, but that just makes it all the more important that I stay active politically to block such legislation from passing.
We've replaced active political involvement with focusing on what the people think who are around us. We've stopped believing in collective action and replaced it with personally bullying individuals. I can only feel threatened by a person with anti-immigrant thinking if I feel he or she really has the power to enact their intentions. But let's say I'm involved with immigrant rights and I'm part of a bigger movement and I'm certain to the core that this country will eventually (eventually) accept its immigrant population. If I avoid a leftist knee-jerk reaction, I can listen to that person spew about anchor babies and peacefully walk away, secure in his or her inability to harm my world. Or I can change the subject, but either way, I don't dismiss that person as a heartless, ignorant agent of doom. This makes it easier for me to work with or live next to or employ those who didn't vote for Barack Obama. It actually makes my life better.
I told a friend of mine about my plan to make friends with those of different political beliefs. She wrote:
I have a hard time understanding why you feel you need to reach out to people who have gone completely off the deep end. They need to reassess and stop consuming Fox news, etc. You are being reasonable, but it is incumbent upon you to reach out?
Later in the same email:
I know that we are one United States of America, and I really do wish that we could come together. But both sides do not bear equal blame for this, and I feel like we are caving to 4 year olds when we let them think that both sides do bear equal blame.
This is exactly the kind of thinking I identify as the problem. Both Democrats and Republicans are rock solid certain that it's the other side that's being obtuse, selfish, histrionic and destructive. Both Democrats and Republicans believe they've done nothing wrong, that both sides do not bear equal blame.
This reminds me of my marriage. Recently I believed my husband owed me a BIG apology. I hadn't done anything wrong, but how could be behave that way to me? He was a jerk and I was furious.
After about a week of silence and resentment, I decided I didn't want to live this way. My husband wasn't doing what I thought he should, but I hated living in such tension. I couldn't make him act the way I wanted, so I looked again at my behavior. I had control over that. And guess what? After I stepped back, looked at the whole situation, got input from others and tried to see it from my husband's point of view, I saw that I'd been a jerk too, possibly even the primary one.
This taught me that no matter how certain you are that the other person is the one who's behaving badly, there is always something you can do differently, too. In any dynamic between equals (and I still think red people and blue people are equal) the power and blame never rest primarily on one side.
Let's stop talking politics. Let's get to know each other in total, not just in parts. We use politics as the lens through which we see even the dry cleaner. Stop it. Build relationships with people because of who they are when they're not in the voting booth, that's who they really are. And remember: most of those people -- from both sides -- are really very nice.