I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s election. About half the country is probably ecstatic about the results; the other is probably sunk deep in despair. All are anticipating a change in direction, a shift in policy on some subset of issues where dramatic differences in opinion seem to separate two chunks of Americans – Democrats and Republicans – by a vast, unbridgeable chasm.
I found myself wondering why America seems so divided, and how much of the fault lies with our two-party system, designed (it seems) for opposition, and echoed by our two-party media: Fox News vs. NPR. Once, riding in an airport shuttle in Orange County, CA, I was chatting pleasantly with another passenger over common travel gripes, the unblemished SoCali weather, anticipation of visits with friends and family. I don’t remember who brought it up, but some topical thread led us to realize that despite all we might have in common – two white Americans, clearly middle class, educated, pleased by sun and the lure of the nearby ocean – we were somehow opponents. “I can’t listen to NPR, they’re so biased,” he said. “I only watch Fox.”
Our conversation stuttered to a halt; just like that, the foundation of our cordiality eroded away. Easier to keep quiet for the rest of our journey than to risk a pointless argument with someone who I now suspected would disagree with me on nearly everything I care about the most: women’s rights, the environment, the future we’re leaving the next generations. A Fox-watcher seems to speak a different language, separated from NPR-listeners like me by a dialectical chasm that prevents understanding. Like two birds who sing different songs, slowly diverging into separate species. (Expect a novel from me on this concept soon.)
Ever since, I’ve wondered what I might have said to him – what I could say to others I meet – to rebuild that common ground. In my day job with Resource Media, I pride myself on helping people find and work from shared goals, connecting issue like reproductive rights and sustainability, bridging differences and dismantling barriers. Yet I still have that knee-jerk assumption in my own life: “You watch Fox News? I guess that’s all there is to say.”
It’s easy to blame politicians and the media for stirring up divisions, but when we buy into those divisions, we’re the ones who perpetuate them. And it’s not like this “divided America” is anything new; as a friend reminded me this week, America’s history is full of stark divisions. America’s Revolutionary War started as a disagreement on taxes – and we’re still fighting about taxes. The Civil War had roots in violent disagreements about the definitions of a human being, and of human rights. In many ways, this country still reeling from that war, and from all the fights that have followed, over women’s rights, LGBTQ rights. The definition of “personhood.” The right to die in dignity.
These are volatile issues that stir up violent emotions. And yes, I believe politicians and the media do contribute to our reactions. When polls show us that the gap between Democrats and Republicans is widening dramatically on a host of touchstone issues, you kinda can’t blame politicians for catering to their base, or for journalists to play up the differences that make headlines. “If it bleeds, it leads” in the news business, as I learned in journalism school.
Still, what would it look like to shove those differences out of our minds for a moment? Just long enough to remember that the people on the “other side” are just people, with their own hopes and dreams, fears and problems. To remember that the man sharing the airport shuttle can’t wait to see his family. Just like me.