Reaching Across the Political Divide
Jessica, I applaud your effort to open a non-confrontational dialog with “the other side”, and I certainly hope that more people on both sides of the political divide will follow suit. I am dismayed that so many people posted such angry responses. I admire your bravery and your determination to respond to each attack in a non-confrontational manner.
All of this illustrates just how difficult it will be to heal the bitter split in our country’s politics. It may be helpful to analyze, in a thoughtful way, why your appeal was perceived as inappropriate or inadequate by so many people on the other side. If we truly want to bridge the gap, then we need to understand the gap.
First, we on the left side of the divide must see beyond the angry rhetoric that is being thrown at us. After all, there is plenty of angry rhetoric flying in both directions. We have to examine what lies behind this anger — and it is not just hate. In fact, it is usually not hate at all, but a mix of other emotions — fear, a sense of loss, a perception of unfairness, and the overwhelming weight of crushed dreams. These same emotions drive many of the angry voices on both sides of the divide. When we try to speak diplomatically, then we know better than to belittle these emotions in our opponents. However, if we simply ignore these emotions, then we will not bridge the gap.
People on both sides of the gap want their emotions — especially their fears — to be acknowledged as an important and valid part of the conversation. Your article eloquently itemizes some of the fears from the left side of the divide. And you repeatedly emphasize your belief that most of the people on the other side of the divide are not actually bad. But that is not enough. At most you have erected half of a bridge — and the angry people on the other side are quite aware that half of a bridge is not really a bridge at all. A complete bridge would offer some tangible reciprocity. Such a bridge would say: “On the one hand, I hope that you will try to understand my fears, and to work with me to address those fears. On the other hand, I will work just as hard to understand your fears, and to work with you to address those fears.” Yes, that is a quid pro quo, but it is a reasonable and necessary quid pro quo.
Of course, this is easier said than done. In an ideal political situation, for each issue that needs to be addressed, we would quickly come to agreement on the relevant facts, and then we would simply debate the most appropriate policies to deal with those facts. But today, people on the left and the right often have completely different perceptions of what the underlying facts actually are. This can make any dialog extremely frustrating. The upshot is that we cannot rely on a calm debate about the facts as our only tactic. “Perception is reality”, and we must acknowledge that the perceptions of our opponents are an important part of the dialog, regardless of the facts. We must engage, quite patiently, on parallel tracks — facts and fears — before we can hope to sit down together to rationally discuss policy options.
In recent times, so many people on both sides of the political divide have come to see the national interest in purely political terms. In effect, many people on both sides have been saying “For the good of the nation, we must completely crush the other side, along with their hopes, beliefs, and efforts.” A more rational line of thought would be “For the good of the nation, we must seek to understand why the other side is so afraid of us, and after gaining that understanding, we can work collaboratively to build a better nation.” Again, this is much easier said than done. But the effort is surely worth it.