Sitting up in the Bob Uecker seats, looking at the political process from a distance, affords a reflective view of the daily games. Unfortunately, there is not much to cheer for lately.
The only thing that seems to be melting away faster than glaciers and polar icecaps is the middle ground of American politics. Daily we see demonstrations that people are digging in more deeply on their beliefs, reinforced by affirming news sources and echo chambers of social media. Research shows that introducing contrary facts and contradicting evidence is no longer moving people, or even causing them to pause and reconsider. Tribalism has become the popular shorthand for this affliction.
In these contentious times, a variety of efforts are underway by advocacy and community groups promoting civil discussion between opposing sides on incendiary issues. This is a different dynamic than focus groups, which have long been used to test the intensity of views and reactions. I remember reading about a focus group years ago that grew so heated one guy turned around, dropped drawers, and mooned a woman sitting across the table. That was well before the recent drop in civility struck.
Carrying out the “can we talk about this” approach to profound philosophic disagreements is obviously tough going. Some participants said that while it was nice to talk without descending into shouting matches, their core beliefs were not changing as a result of pleasant exchanges. Others said the exercise is too small a bridge for the gaping chasm of philosophical disagreement. Meanwhile, partisan critics on the outside tend to be dismissive of the sponsors as naïve and the participants as selling out on their principles.
These reports can seem discouraging, if taken in isolation. The epitaph writes itself: Nice try, but no dice. Before dissolving into a sense of hopelessness, it is good to remember this is a process. The breakdown in tolerance toward others took time. So will the recovery. Not everyone who participates in community conversations is going to have a road to Damascus conversion. Even so, we can read how his contemporaries were convinced Saul was just about the last person expected to morph from persecutor to evangelist.
The townhall used to be a place where the community could hash out differences and come together on neighborly direction, rather than a verbal WWF for trashing opposing views and dissenting judgments. Instead, partisans want to build figurative walls around their brains to block out intellectual border crossings.
My view on this grew more upbeat when I saw a revelatory movie titled The Best of Enemies, an incredibly pertinent parable for our times. This production is an excellent starter piece for extended conversation about the power of engaged and responsible citizenship. The title carries more than a little irony when the term “enemies” is so frequently used in disruptive and destructive ways by national figures. Now, I do not intend to play spoiler here. But since the movie deals with a piece of not-so-distant history, the story is easy enough to track down. Let us just say there is a standoff between African American rights activists and the Klan over segregated schools in Durham, North Carolina, circa 1971. Just released on DVD, this movie is widely accessible if people are willing to take a look.
The point is, when two sides are forced into a room and subjected to hearing differing viewpoints, rather than yelling through megaphones or staring across gunsights, the outcome can be unpredictable. In that era, hate was more likely expressed face-to-face, rather at the remote distance and under the anonymity that social media affords.
Today, vilifying the other side requires little thought or energy. Concocting a conspiracy theory to explain away uncomfortable outcomes takes little imagination. Yet, if we believe there are good people to be found on both sides of our public controversies, why not bring them together for constructive conversation? Who can say that every heart and mind is so locked down as to be unapproachable and unchangeable?
When negotiation, compromise, and consensus building come to be regarded as treason, it is easy enough for those who still believe in those tactics to conclude that political parties and leaders have become far too consumed by ideology and power.
Even our assurance of neutral tribunals seems in danger of having trust expunged. The opportunistic politicization and denigration of the Supreme Court erodes public confidence in another traditional forum for reasoned dispute resolution. Every vacancy now becomes a partisan death match. Justices and judges who render an opinion based on the facts of the case as presented, rather than in line with the expectation of their assumed philosophic leaning, are excoriated.
In our increasingly multi-cultural and diversely religious and non-religious society, the Bible is not for everyone as a source of theological enlightenment. This does not mean it lacks guidance for our civic lives. Consider this from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians: “By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things…” Galatians 5: 22-23. When was the last time we heard our national discourse, irrespective of the sources, characterized by any of those admirable terms? From president on down to letter writer, social poster, and street activist, can we recall people summoning the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln did, or delivering cascading appeals to freedom and justice, as Dr. King did?
This brings us back to the potential and power of community conversation. A return to the days when terms such as patriotism are not so weaponized must necessarily rise from our citizens (and non-citizens, some of whom have a better grasp of and respect for the foundational virtues of our system). It will take a lot of commitment and constructive engagement, day after day, community by community. The blueprints are available, if we are willing to loosen our death grip on partisan talking points, resurgent bias, and fictional facts. No matter where one believes America registers on an arbitrary greatness scale, it is indisputable our best days occur when the spirit of community and neighborliness is transcendent.
David A. Atkinson is a Research Associate for the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.