Nation building

Getting there from here

The fourth in a four-part series of essays on the forces driving social division and political polarization in America.

The more I talk with people on the “other side,” the more I’m convinced we’re not nearly as divided and polarized as we’re told. What could bind us together is far more substantial than what drives us apart. Yet we have a political establishment that’s working overtime to put us at each other’s throats, more so than at any time in my life. We are constantly invited to fear one another, to hate, to see each other as enemies.

The invitations are not going to stop, but we can decline them.

The major parties are addicted to money, and they’ve discovered fear and hate of the “other side” move more people to open their wallets than understanding and compassion.

The solicitations will continue, but we can stop responding to their appeals to our darkest impulses by mailing in checks.

We’ve been taught to think and talk about politics horizontally, from right to left, which makes it easy for people with a great deal in common to nevertheless see each other as polar opposites.

There are other ways to look at politics and define ourselves politically.

So many of us have succumbed to double standards. When “our side” does it, it’s right. When the “other side” does the same darn thing, it’s wrong. We can call that what it is — hypocrisy — and hold ourselves to a higher standard.

America’s major political parties used to be big tents, broad-based coalitions with a mix of worldviews. Both have engaged in worldview cleansing, purging themselves of those who don’t fit the preferred personality type. But many if not most Americans have mixed worldviews themselves, and feel like square pegs being pounded into round holes. That’s why both parties are so darned unpopular right now.

We can clamor for a return to political parties that are broad-based coalitions instead of single-worldview social clubs. And we can challenge party leaders to change their ways and open up their organizations instead of purging them of disparate personality types.

But the change that can make the biggest difference has to start from outside our political institutions. It has to start between us. Humans are complicated. No two of us are exactly alike. Our political beliefs come from our different upbringings and our different life experiences. But emerging brain science also suggests that 30% to 40% of political attitudes come from genetics. We’re hard-wired to feel the way we do about politics.

This means we’re often going to disagree. Not only won’t we see eye to eye, we’re not even going to be looking at the same things or seeing what we look at in the same ways. That’s OK, so long as we have solid relationships with those who look and see and think and talk and act differently.

Our salvation is in relationships. My late brother and I were polar opposites. We fought like cats and dogs, as brothers do. He was short and stocky. I was tall and skinny. He loved to hunt. I liked playing baseball. He went to work in a factory. I went off to college. But there was a brotherly bond that kept us close throughout life. We always looked out for each other. We needed each other.

Republicans and Democrats were like that once. And need to become like that again. A few years ago I knew we were really in trouble when I ran into an old friend who’d worked for a number of Republican legislators. She told me she knew it was time to leave the Capitol when she was called into the Assembly Speaker’s office and scolded for having been seen taking a walk with a Democratic staffer. They hadn’t been talking politics. They were just getting some fresh air and engaging in small talk. That got her formally reprimanded.

Such relationships can’t be punished. They need to be nurtured. They are our salvation.