This piece appeared in newspapers in my very red congressional district (VA-06) in early October, 2018.
When I published, a few weeks ago, a piece with the title “Why Class Reunions Are Worth Attending,” I was doing something that I used to do with my public radio conversations with conservatives throughout the 90s: in choosing a topic to discuss, I would alternate between issues on which we’re divided and the things that we share. I thought we should meet occasionally on the terrain of our common humanity.
I wanted a positive relationship with those people, despite our differences.
Moreover, it seemed to me important, if we were going to have worthwhile conversations on controversial matters, that they see me as the human being that I am—not just through the distorted, even demonized image of “librels” taught them by their political culture that would make it easy for them to dismiss whatever I might say.
Nowadays, given the urgency of our political crisis, I do less of that. But I published that piece, and then posted a link to it on my Facebook page.
Soon, a conservative gentleman posted a comment:
“I usually don’t read your editorials due to your political bias against conservatives, but thought this worthy of sharing with my classmates. If we focus on that which unites us instead of that which divides us, we’ll all be better off.”
Part of my reaction was to take issue with his characterization of my messages to conservatives these days as showing a “bias.” But I quickly let go of that: after all, what else is he going to think? To maintain his conservative political posture, he really has to dismiss my critique of the Trumpian power he’s supporting as somehow “biased,” as wrong.
My main reaction was a sense of pleasure at the piece having succeeded in its goal: to build some kind of bridge that connects us across our deep divisions.
And I began my reply by affirming his vision of how things should be:
“I very much agree with your statement, ‘If we focus on that which unites us instead of that which divides us, we’ll all be better off.’”
But – because these are not times when we can just ignore what divides us — I continued:
“It’s also true that our nation currently confronts a crisis, and it is imperative that we deal with it.
“Unfortunately, Americans are very much divided on how to perceive the crisis we’re in. So if we follow that imperative, we inescapably will have to put some focus on something that divides us.
“But your point remains more fundamental, for this reason: had the American people generally been putting our focus on “that which unites us” over the past however-many years, we would not now be in that crisis.”
All that could seem neutral enough. And I thought maybe I should stop there
Or perhaps, stopping there with such a neutral way of describing our situation would be copping out. After all, it seemed clear that this fellow — who clearly wants for us to be less divided as a people — does not perceive that the political force to which he’s giving his support has continually and deliberately fostered the very division he is decrying.
If only he could see how his Republicans have worked consistently to make it impossible for the American people to “focus on what unites us” — including working cooperatively in our political system to achieve the goals that we both share. If only he could see how “his” Party is operating on a “divide and conquer” plan, in which the Republican Party consistently fosters divisive feelings in its followers — from Limbaugh to Rove to Trump– to disable the people by having them cancel each other out so that the rich and powerful few can wield the power.
Should I take the next step, out of the neutral zone, into a more explicit depiction of how this crisis of division has arisen? Should I say that for us Americans to get what he says he wants, he and people like him need to switch their allegiance?
I could add:
“If we want to achieve our shared goal of bringing Americans together, it’s important to recognize that there’s a political force that works continually to divide us. And that this is the force against which you think me biased.
“Is it not clear that Trump is deliberately divisive?
“Never have we Americans seen a president deal so much in insults, be so focused on picking fights, and show so little interest in being the president also of those who did not vote for him.
“(His every gesture shows his instinct to create conflict — DACA, Iran Deal, Paris Accord, separating parents and children, wading into the NFL and race. Trump is the opposite of a seeker of common ground.)”
And I might add a bit of local illustration – from my own part of Virginia, at the Shenandoah County Fair – of the spirit of divisiveness that has gained such a prominent role in the Republican Party of our times:
“The Shenandoah County Republicans — reportedly at the behest of the Chairman of the Shenandoah County Republican Committee — bedecked their booth with a banner delivering the stunning message that people should reject the Democratic Party because it stands for ‘killing babies and raping children.’
Maybe he’d recognize that the display of that banner expresses something central to today’s Republican Party, and that there’s no way such a hate-mongering spirit is going to help people “focus on what unites us”?
But I didn’t. I thought it better to enjoy the rare moment of recognition of our common humanity.