Bridging the Divide

Repairing a Nation Torn Asunder.

Regular readers know that I’ve long been troubled by the political divide in our country. We’ve sorted ourselves into two Americas that do not hear, understand, or empathize with each other. And the last four years have only made it worse.

I’ve spent (some say wasted) a lot of time thinking about the causes of this divide. I’ve alternately blamed Hillary Clinton, right-wing media, social media, and, of course, the great orange instigator (name to be forgotten) who formerly occupied the highest office in the land.

It is, to be sure, the fault of all those things, egged on by politicians seeking partisan advantage amid the resulting conflict.

The question now confronting us, though, is more urgent: what to do about it?

Two weeks ago, I hinted at one idea, embodied in a riddle. What, I asked, is the significance of this sentence?

The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.

Although the original piece mistyped “jumps” as “jumped,” the answer was clear to anyone who has ever taken a touch-typing class, and familiar to many who hadn’t. For those who don’t recognize it, the sentence stands out for using all 26 letters of the alphabet in a grammatically correct manner.

The point was that the sentence encapsulates the answer: those 26 letters form the basis of our communication, and real communication is the only way to rebuild the bonds that once united us as a nation.

Not long after, I asked readers to consider both the causes of the divide and ways to overcome it. I was, in short, bowled over by the thoughtful, insightful responses I received. An overseas friend noted that, in many ways, the U.S. Civil War never ended, and our unfinished business has stained the body politic ever since. Several were hopeful that the saner among the legions devoted to the lying man would come to realize that he never actually shared their hopes and fears (except, perhaps, about black people) – that it was always about the man, not the movement.

A former U.S. Senator outlined six types of Trump supporters, arguing that each requires a unique approach and that several of the groups are simply beyond reach or redemption. The list bears itemizing:

  • Party loyalists motivated by policy (the “Establishment” to some, “RINOs” to others);
  • Evangelicals whose recognition of leftist contempt for their religious beliefs made a deal with the devil seem like the lesser evil;
  • “Left-Behinds” – the blue-collar workers and rural residents left out of the tech revolution and global trade who concluded that Democrats favor Wall Street over Main Street (and have since the giant bailouts of giant corporations in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse;
  • Racists. ‘nuff said;
  • “Pox on both their houses” types who believe all politicians and institutions are universally and hopelessly corrupt; and
  • “Anti-Elitists” (really a subset found in each of the other five groups) who recoil at “cancel culture” and “trigger warnings”, and at a new President who emphasizes college over blue-collar jobs.

My friend’s take is that the “left-behinds” and those who disdain all politicians can be brought back into the mainstream fold with sound trade and economic policies, coupled with serious democratic reforms. A hopeful thought.

Several readers call out the media. One urged an update to the Fairness Doctrine, which once ensured that broadcast networks (including Fox) gave both sides equal time and imposed other requirements designed to preserve an independent media. She also noted that politics has shifted from a policy framework to one centered on identities – who we are, as individuals, rather than how we feel about taxes, welfare or even abortion. Another, bemoaning the lies repeated on right-wing media of all sorts, noted that Hitler was elected to office on a platform that could be fairly characterized as “Make Germany Great Again.” They urged efforts to increase media literacy, regulate social media, and adopt a new federalism to push power down from the central authority (the federal government) to state and local governments and non-profits.

Lastly a couple of people suggested efforts to promote “intergroup” contacts – reaching out beyond our closed-circle feedback loop to make real connections to people we seemingly have nothing in common with.

That idea has also been on my mind for a while, and something I’ve written about before. Unbeknownst to readers, I had embarked on just such an effort shortly before the piece went to press.

Eager to test my theory that we have more that ties us together than separates us, I sent a personal email message to people across the country. The full text appears as a postscript to this piece. In essence, the letter notes that I am troubled that we’ve allowed our differences to define us and determined to reach out to old friends and total strangers simply to wish them well in hopes of helping to bridge the divide.

Working with a reputable data firm, my letter was sent to nearly 50,000 strangers, all likely to be supporters of the man suddenly without a Twitter account. I invited people to write back (using a Gmail address I set up for this project to keep trolls from finding me), and promptly placed wagers with a couple of friends on how big the response would be.

One week after the letter was sent, I’ve yet to receive a single response – not even an “eff you” from a Proud Boy fascist.

It’s hard to know what to make of that TOTAL lack of response. Roughly 10% of recipients opened the message (5,000). Some, perhaps, had the same qualms I did about random contacts on the Internet – we’ve all been conditioned by experience and by the people who manage our email networks to be suspicious of messages from people we don’t know, and to NEVER click a link in such a message.

It’s also possible that my letter was simply too gentle. Facebook’s algorithms notoriously prefer controversial, provocative content precisely because it is most likely to increase user engagement – with Facebook making money off the result.   

I’ve asked the vendor who coordinated my experiment to come up with a different approach that might be tested. I haven’t given up hope that such “intergroup” contacts offer a way to reverse (if not eliminate) the separateness driving modern politics, but I allow that a pre-existing relationship may be a necessary component to undertaking such work.

After four long years, answers remain elusive, and democracy itself remains at risk. Perhaps the departure of the most-impeached-man-ever will offer respite, a cooling off period of sorts that might allow us to recalibrate – to seek each other out and, free of incendiary rhetoric, rediscover the bonds that draw us together instead of the lies that drive us apart.

Time will tell. Until then, I’ll keep trying.  

* * * * * *

A Letter to Strangers

January 14, 2021

Subject: Worried About Democracy? Me, too.

Hello,

Believe it or not this letter is simply an effort to introduce myself and wish you well. I have nothing to sell or ask of you. I hope you are someone who agrees our democracy is worth thinking – and talking – about.

I am deeply troubled that, as a nation, we have allowed our differences to become so important that they push us into conflict, which is not the way to solve problems.

So, I decided to reach across the country to say hello to old friends and total strangers, to wish them well and hope that we can simply agree that we are all lucky to be Americans.

As our country has grown increasingly divided, I have been scratching my head about how to reverse that process. It is my hope that messages like this can help other people see that despite the political labels and conflicts that drive “clicks” and “views” on social media, we still share basic common goals and values — faith, family and freedom among them – even if we disagree on other things.

Conflict may be good for TV ratings, and extremism may be good for politicians interested in getting reelected, but neither is good for the country or for us as individuals.

So, it is up to ordinary people like us (I hope) to extend our hands and minds to others to help reunite us as a whole country for the next 200 years.

If you have a moment and care to email me in return, perhaps we can together become partners in restoring some unity to the country.

In the meanwhile, and whether you choose to respond or not, please accept my best wishes for the new year.

Yes, I have political views. For now, they do not matter, as I am just writing to say “Hi!”

I am 90 years old and actively planning my 100th birthday in 2031!

Wanna come?

Sincerely,

Frank W.

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