“This is what Democracy looks like”

Reflections on South Salem


I’ll start with the ending — we came to see that we were, in the words of David Blankenhorn, a “passionate and precise group” who met for 2 ½ hours on a steamy July night in South Salem, NY. Expectations were high, with participants introducing themselves by saying that they wanted to dialogue with the ‘other side,’ and that they were intrigued by the opportunity provided by Better Angels to have a safe space in which to listen and learn. The room was infused with honesty, respect, thoughtfulness, curiosity, and interest.

The reds and blues of South Salem, NY come together

The four questions asked of each group in the Fish Bowl exercise began with the same one — “What life experiences have shaped your political views?” And for both the reds and the blues, people spoke of having worked hard to become successful, having started with nothing and had been able to carve out a good life for themselves and their families. They spoke of having principled values — the importance of giving service to others; of being engaged in politics, of their love for America. Those who were immigrants — some on each side — spoke of how glad they are to have become American citizens, their chosen home. Those whose parents or grandparents came here — legally or illegally — spoke of their gratitude for their ancestors, who had taken such risks and, along with lots of luck, had been able to resettle and become successful in the US. The other questions included: How’s Trump doing; is there voter fraud; is health care a right, thoughts on Trump’s treatment of women; is the media biased; let’s talk about the second amendment; should there be restriction on reproductive rights; and how to solve the illegal immigrant issue. These pointed questions, which were generated by the group, demanded honesty and truth-telling — and our group was up for the challenge.

The task for both reds and blues was to find something new in what they heard others answer, and to seek commonality between different perspectives. While for some, it was difficult to listen and to be open to differing viewpoints, the group also seemed excited — well, maybe sharpened — by the honesty and willingness to have so many opposing views held in one space, together. Their reactions ranged from realizing the depth of their own intolerance, to identifying with the overwhelming view that everyone loves America and wants inclusion. By integrating people’s personal histories and their politics, it became clear that everyone wants less suffering and more solutions. The largest distinction between the reds and the blues was the role of government. And, based on the narratives people shared about their past and their ancestors’ lives, one theme seemed to emerge — those whose families had benefitted from government help, such as welfare to a woman whose widowed mother was overwhelmed with poverty and many children; or a man who, as a child, watched government-funded construction rebuild his war-torn city — were much more positive in feeling that government can help solve our country’s social problems. Those who, instead, had experienced their own self-initiative as pulling them out of poverty or the good will of a small town helping his family through a death and a home fire, were much more inclined to want a smaller government role.

Perhaps the commonalities were best expressed with these statements:

“It’s not whether to achieve a goal, but HOW TO achieve the SAME GOAL.”
“This is what democracy looks like — a conversation together and a chance to express it with others.
“What I learned is that a difference between sides is the emphasis on the individual vs the group.”

As the evening came to a close, people had a range of reactions, from those whose expectations had been dampened to those who found the entire exercise uplifting, even though there would no doubt be a long road ahead. One participant returned to her comment from earlier in the evening, when she had offered the Native American perspective that,“there is a medicine in seeing the differing sides of a problem. “ As she reiterated, “having at least two sides is important in bringing forward the best solution possible.” As we ended the night, we were reminded of the 12th century Persian poet Rumi, who said, “the wound is the place where the light comes in.” We believe we may have brought a little medicine, a little light, into the wounded divisions that cut so deeply in America at the present. We left having gained a deeper understanding of ourselves, and of our neighbors — and with the possibility of future events yet to be occur.

Karen Walant helped organize the Better Angels gathering in South Salem, NY

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