America has entered an era of polarization. The two political parties have developed a sense of animosity, rancor, and mistrust. Washington and many statehouses have ground to a halt as bipartisanship has faded away. Politicians are unwilling or unable to build consensus for fear of being branded as traitors to their own parties.
Throughout the presidential election and intensifying since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, this polarization has taken an extreme form. Relationships between family members, friends and neighbors have been lost or strained and our political discourse has been reduced to stereotypes and name-calling. Finding common ground seems impossible. There is also a growing fear that this animosity and hatred could spill into violence.
I am a resident of southwest Ohio who has different political views than my friend Jean. One of us leans conservative in philosophy, typically voting for Republican over Democratic candidates and mostly supportive of President Trump and his administration. The other leans liberal, and is mostly critical of President Trump.
We have grown sick and tired of our current toxic political climate and believe this animosity among our fellow citizens is destructive to our republic. We recently attended a workshop, sponsored by the Better Angels organization, composed of eight Democrats and seven Republicans and moderated by two professionals with expertise in depolarization. The goals of the workshop were: 1) to better understand the experiences, feeling, and beliefs of those on the other side of the political divide; 2) to see if there are areas of commonality in addition to differences; and 3) to learn something that might be helpful to others in our community and nation. While bipartisanship has waned, stereotyping has increased.
We split into red and blue teams and then identified major stereotypes that exist within each side and techniques to move beyond them when dealing with people of opposite political ideology. Stereotypical terms such as “racist,” “homophobic,” “intolerant,” “takers,” “baby killers,” and “unpatriotic” inflame and separate rather than bring us together.
After each team was given a chance to explain their worldviews and personal stories, we found that we are less different and less hostile to one another than the pundits in the media typically describe. We realized unanimously that real people are more complicated and appealing than the stereotypes.
Then we explored why each team supports its side, and what are each team’s reservations about its own side. Both teams were also given a chance to seek more understanding of the other side in form of questions for the other group. During this exercise, we discovered each side was willing to admit some concerns about its own side’s shortcomings and weaknesses. We were surprised by this fact — and grateful for it.
The final exercise was a collaborative experience, trying to identify what we have learned together and how we can contribute to positive action. On some issues we agreed to disagree; on other issues, such as paid parental leave and gerrymandering, we found considerable common ground. Above all else, we committed to doing what we could, both as individuals and as a group, to bring civility and respect back into our political conversations.
Like many of our politicians, a number of individuals on both sides began our meeting thinking that the other side could not be dealt with on the basis of rational thought. We say unanimously that our experiences of talking with each other caused us to abandon that belief. We might disagree on solutions to meet the challenges facing our country, but our areas of commonality and respect for one another is the key ingredient that has always made America unique and prosperous.
As Americans who love our country, Jean and I believe that it is up to us, in our small way, to reach across the divide and reunite this great land of ours. It’s too important to our future and our children’s future to leave to the politicians. We hope you will join us on this journey.
Kouhyar Mostashfi is a local resident of Warren County, Ohio, who recently participated in a discussion led by Better Angels, a national, bipartisan movement to bridge our political divide (www.better-angels.org)