Bridging Divides

A look at the relationship between populism and polarization. Could reaching out and hearing each other be the key to our survival?

I wanted to tell a story but I’m going to condense it into something more succinct instead:

  1. I had a lifelong friend whose views became very contrary to my own over the last several years (as they relate to politics, religion, and social issues). We stayed friends despite these differences and our geographic divide (about 3000 miles) but mostly kept in contact through texts and FB.
  2. A couple years ago she unfriended me on FB because of an argument we were having about a meme she posted. She told me we could continue to be friends but not on FB and only if we agreed to never talk about politics, religion, or other socially important topics. I reluctantly went along with this.
  3. We continued our (in my opinion) extremely shallow friendship for another couple years. There was little depth to it and our conversations were very superficial.
  4. 2016 came in like a hurricane and the election was fast approaching. I was distraught over the possibility of a Trump win. I was having a crisis because more and more I felt I couldn’t be friends with someone who supported Trump. The differences in people who could or couldn’t back him seemed a complete roadblock to real connection.
  5. I finally just had to know if my friend was a Trump supporter. I decided to confront her about it and wrote up a text basically asking if she was supporting Trump and laying out a few reasons why that wouldn’t be something I’d be able to accept in a friend. It was pointed and probably sounded pretty adversarial, even though my intention was to express my deep dismay about it all. I resolved myself to this despite the pain it was causing me. I sent it.
  6. Our friendship ended in a fiery disaster. I mailed her a letter about a week later to apologize for the way I handled it, letting her know that I stood by my decision, but not the tone of my text. She returned it unopened.
  7. My uncle died in December and she and my mother are still in contact so she reached out to me so that we might support my mom together. I agreed, I told her about the letter I sent, and we had a few days of civility while we got my uncle’s stuff straightened out. We didn’t continue any contact after that.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I think it sets up the issue at hand pretty well. How do we talk to people we disagree with? How can we ever expect to find middle ground, shared views, or compromises if we literally will not speak or listen to those whose views differ from ours? And is it even important or necessary to do so?

These are questions that have come up for me a lot lately. The divisiveness and discord in our country today are disturbing and I’ve been thinking about how that has affected election outcomes, friendships, and the general tone of life in the US (and elsewhere as it is not an exclusively American problem).

There’s been a lot of talk after the election about identity politics and the democrats apparent disregard for middle white America. I’ve done some soul searching of my own around this issue and have had to admit to myself that I may have been part of the problem. I’ve done little to bridge divides, but have instead clung to my own righteousness about my views, not allowing for differences of opinions. I won’t say I haven’t tried at some points to talk to people about their different views or their concerns but in most instances I probably didn’t help things with the tone I’ve taken or the words I’ve chosen. And more importantly, if I’m being completely honest, I haven’t wanted to reach out to “those people”. I’ve clung to my very negative views of them and concluded that they had nothing important, intelligent, or worthwhile to say.

How much has divisiveness and polarization contributed to our current situation? Based on a lot of the reading I’ve been doing and my own synthesis of circumstances: yugely. Trump can be accurately categorized as a populist, at least by my understanding. What exactly makes for a populist you might ask (as did I – since I didn’t know exactly what the term meant)? Well, this quote from  Andrés Miguel Rondón who has lived through a destructive populist regime in Venezuela put it plainly:

The recipe is universal. Find a wound common to many, someone to blame for it and a good story to tell. Mix it all together. Tell the wounded you know how they feel. That you found the bad guys. Label them: the minorities, the politicians, the businessmen. Cartoon them. As vermin, evil masterminds, flavourless hipsters, you name it. Then paint yourself as the saviour. Capture their imagination. Forget about policies and plans, just enrapture them with a good story. One that starts in anger and ends in vengeance. A vengeance they can participate in.

In essence be the common man who will fight for the little guy against elites. It matters not that Trump himself is an elite billionaire because he was able to galvanize those who felt left behind and identify with them on some base level. They were angry, he was angry, he told them he could fix it. His almost childish communication style and branding worked wonders as well.

So how can polarization give rise to or aide populist leaders? Jan-Werner Mueller may have said it best in this interview : “The most important factor explaining the outcome of the election is partisanship — around 90 percent of self-identified Republicans voted for Trump. As a third-party populist candidate, Trump may have at most received 20 percent to 25 percent of the vote.” So essentially because the republicans are so loyal to the GOP they will vote for any candidate on the ticket that belongs to their party, even if it means voting for someone who they are repulsed by. In today’s vote-party-lines culture (which is apparently more pronounced on the right than the left) someone like Trump can swoop in with their populist message and make it to the top so long as they run on a major party ticket. If he wasn’t able to get on the party ticket, he would not have had enough support to win the general election.

Ok, you may say, but what now?? Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. And I’ve found some helpful answers, but more than anything only vague suggestions or warnings. And worse yet, some of what I’ve read is scary because it sounds as if much of the Resistance movement has been playing into the populists’ hands. Let’s think about what the rallying cries have generally been. Resist, persist, picket, protest, march, write, call, show-up. Sounds great right? Seems effective, influential, and energizing! And maybe it is or can be those things. But they could also have a damaging effect in the long run. And where are the cries of “vote!”, “learn about the political process”, “get informed about topics”, “recruit voters”, or “reach out and connect with those who felt left behind by you?” There may be a few quiet voices calling for those things, but the loudest voices seem much more bent on catchy slogans and calls for immediate, physical, and group responses.

“It is possible to worry so much about Trump’s America that you forget about Trump’s Americans.”

But what is wrong with those strategies? How could protests and marches backfire? Again from someone who has personally lived through the shitshow: “we failed. Because we lost sight that a hissy-fit is not a strategy. The people on the other side, and crucially Independents, will rebel against you if you look like you’re losing your mind.” He also says “Your organizing principle is simple: don’t feed polarization, disarm it.” We have essentially been having our own hissy-fit, all the while bolstering disparity. There is some validity to these tactics for the problems of the moment or very immediate future but they could be somewhat detrimental if they encourage continued polarization. In the long run this has to be about Americans from all areas coming together, not just the big cities or coastal states. There is danger in turning inward, staying in our bubbles, and only reaching out to those who already feel like we do. There is talk of coming together, joining causes and forces, but they only include progressive or liberal causes. There’s little talk about Trump voters and how to reach them. “It is possible to worry so much about Trump’s America that you forget about Trump’s Americans,” so says Carlos Lozada writing for The Washington Post. To put it more crudely (which is my natural inclination) – it becomes one big circle jerk.

By mal3k, CC2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I’m now thinking of the immortal words of the great Ice Cube “You better check yo self before you wreck yo self.” I think we all need to take stock of our own prejudices, reluctance to speak to the opposition, and motivations. And really look at what will and won’t be effective and compassionate in the long run. If we are all gathering together, making common cause and showing force, will that lead us down a better road than we’ve been on in this country lately? In some ways, it may and has already had some positive effects. But if we continue to ignore those that have been feeling left behind, will they ever want to join our causes or even care about our views? I highlight the word feeling because we may believe, and it may even be factually true, that those people have not been left behind by us or by the democratic party as a whole, but if they feel that is true then we must first acknowledge and validate the feelings before trying to influence them in any way. And we may find that if we were in their shoes we may have some of the same beliefs.

Right now, we are the enemy to them. Our continued discounting of their feelings just drives more of a wedge between us and them. They will not be able to hear us because of the delivery of our message. We need them to feel that we are the same as they are or at least have the same fears, dreams, hopes, and needs. And that for most of us the accomplishments we’ve had (or that they perceive we’ve had) were not just handed to us (in most cases). They need to understand that we have a common enemy, and it’s not us. Policies that keep them down, also hold us back. Businesses that take advantage of them also take advantage of us. A shitty educational system is something we all want to fix. Just because we care about and fight for people who are less fortunate because of their skin color, gender, or nationality, does not mean we don’t fight for them too. Yes, they have white privilege even if they don’t realize it, but that doesn’t make their very real struggles somehow fictional.

But how do we go about that and is everybody even reachable? I’m not sure I have an answer to those questions. I have some feelings about them though. I personally believe some people are definitely not reachable. There are some people living on this planet that I will NEVER be able to, nor want to, make common cause with. There are some people who due to upbringing, education, or some other circumstance are never going to be able or willing to dig deep and find common ground. They are never going to want to hear what you have to say, trust you,  or share any of their own feelings or thoughts with you. Those people exist and we will probably never enlighten them. But I think those are a minority. In the right conditions, under the right circumstances I think people generally want to connect with one another, not create enemies. But sometimes that’s buried deep. Even for me it’s been hard to get to this place. I’m fairly oppositional and argumentative in nature and that can make connection difficult. And this election certainly brought out a fair amount of my own tribalism and disgust for people. It’s been a struggle to acknowledge the part I play in this and try to shift tactics. But that’s what I’m trying to do.

As for the “how”, I’m a bit more stymied. Not much of what I’ve read has been very helpful in the real nuts and bolts of such an idea. Reach out and connect sounds great and so simple, yet what does it really mean in practicality? How do you become a member of someones tribe if you have nowhere to start?

This now brings me all the way back to the beginning of my post. Remember my old friend who is no longer a friend? I got an idea in my head a bit ago about reaching out to her to try and bridge the divide. The purpose wasn’t to become friends again (I have no desire for that and it’s not strictly due to politics) but to try and understand each others positions and views. My hope was to grasp how she has formed her ideas and why, while providing the same to her. I was nervous about approaching her but wanted to try anyway. I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the process and typing up a detailed email, trying to be careful about my wording and the system I was developing. I was hoping for it to be an ongoing exchange with a few simple rules and structures in place to keep it civil and informational.

Oh, how I wish I could tell you it has been a smashing success! But it was no success at all. She did at least send a reply and we had another exchange after that but she declined my invitation. I consider it a failure even though I did learn a few things. I learned that she really doesn’t trust me, my motivations, or even my ability to write (since she accused me of plagiarizing my email from “some website”, which of course I did not do at all). I also learned that she is completely closed to the idea of ever changing her mind, apparently about everything since she just made a grand declaration that she would “never change her mind.” I don’t know if there could have been a way this would have worked or if it was simply doomed no matter what. Maybe it was that I didn’t make it personal enough, instead deciding to use a more professional and aloof tone. Maybe she simply feels like her side won so why would she want to spend any time connecting with someone like me. Maybe she simply does not have the capacity for such dialogue, intellectually, emotionally, or otherwise. I don’t know the answers to these questions. If anyone cares to read the full text of the email exchanges, here is a link to them (with all identifying information erased of course).

So that was my first try at this whole tactic and unfortunately it didn’t turn out great. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthwhile pursuit. I’m sure there are plenty of ways to reach out and try to hear the other side and maybe someday I’ll be able to write a post that talks about some of those more specifically. But for now at least I’m going to simply concentrate my efforts on being willing to listen and trying to clear the preconceived notions from my head and open my heart a bit wider. As for my efforts in the resistance, I’m going to continue being a “reluctant revolutionary” but a toned down version. I’m focusing my time and energy into learning how to influence government policy, increase voter turn-out, and talk about issues effectively. I’m going to become more involved at the party level and hope I can affect change in future elections. I hope everyone will find their own way to contribute and I encourage you to think about more than just protests and outrage. They are worthy endevours in their own right, but if we want to make long-term sweeping changes it may take a more nuanced approach.

If you have any stories you’d like to share about how you’ve been able to, or been unsuccessful at, bridging divides I’d love to hear them 🙂

I’ll leave you with a quote I heard on NPR the other day that really resonated with me. It comes from the Rev. Adam Hamilton talking on All Things Considered:

It’s easy to irritate people. It’s harder to influence people.