Hate the politics, not the people

There is no question that our nation is divided. The center ground has fallen out of our discourse. Many Americans have come to fear and hate those with differing political views.

Americans now often live in areas with people who have similar politics. They watch the same television shows or go to the same online sources for news or for entertainment, constantly reinforcing their own views.

The New York Times conducted an analysis after the 2016 presidential election that showed the proportion of voters living in counties that were won in a landslide — defined as a victory of at least 20 points — for the Democratic or Republican presidential candidates has steadily increased over the last seven elections, now making up 60 percent of the electorate.

With this divisiveness, fewer of us have friends from the other side of the political spectrum. Animosity has grown in both camps.

The Pew Research Center conducted a survey, asking Democrats about Republicans, and Republicans about Democrats. Fifty-two percent of Republicans said that Democrats are more close-minded than other Americans; 47 percent said they are more immoral; 46 percent said they are lazier; 45 percent said they are more dishonest; and 32 percent said they are less intelligent.

Democrats had similar views of Republicans: They said 70 percent were more close-minded than other Americans; 42 percent said Republicans were more dishonest; 35 percent said Republicans were more immoral; 33 percent said less intelligent; and 18 percent said lazier.

The tide of antipathy is rising. In 1994, sixteen percent of Democrats described their view of Republicans as “very unfavorable” and similarly 17 percent of Republicans described their view of Democrats as “very unfavorable.” That percentage more than doubled on both sides by 2014, and then skyrocketed with the 2016 election to 86 percent of Democrats having a “very unfavorable” view of Republicans and 91 percent of Republicans having a “very unfavorable” view of Democrats.

And parents now accept less political diversity in the marriage of their children. In 1960, almost no Democrats and almost no Republicans answered “yes” to this statement: “I would be displeased if my child married someone of the opposing political party.” Today, about half of the parents in both parties answer “yes” to that statement.

Such divisiveness, and the nastiness that comes with it, has paralyzed parts of our government. What can be done?

One solution — named Better Angels — walked into our newsroom for a podcast, posted today at altamontenterprise.com/podcasts. Roger Collen, trained as an engineer and now semi-retired as a salesman, describes himself as “red.” Riley Hart, who works in project management, describes herself as “blue.”

These labels emerged in the 2000 presidential election as television stations displayed maps in the contested election between Al Gore and George W. Bush. The northeastern and western coastal states were largely blue and the others largely red.

But the divide cuts other ways, too — with blacks and Hispanics in the 2016 presidential election being largely blue along with Jewish voters, LGBT voters, and urban voters. Rural, white areas were largely red. So, for example, the Helderberg Hilltowns in blue Albany County and blue New York State went for Donald Trump while Dallas County in the red state of Texas went for Hillary Clinton.

Collen and Riley are part of the grassroots group, Better Angels, with the motto “Let’s depolarize America.”

Hart and Collen got to know each other on their eight-hour drive from the Capital Region, where they live, to Harrisonburg, Virginia, where 136 delegates — half blue and half red — met to endorse what the group termed its declaration of independence. The plan was to vote the document up or down but the representatives had a lot of concerns and questions so a group — again half blue, half red — came up with “completely new and wonderful documents,” Hart said.

The pair termed the process “democracy in action.” That, in itself, sets a model of people working together from both sides of the political divide to create a mission they can agree on, and move forward with.

Now, throughout the country, pairs of red and blue members are conducting workshops to help Americans talk to each other. A skills workshop will be held in our midst on Saturday, Sept. 22, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Guilderland Public Library.

We urge our readers to attend. How better to reestablish the bonds of community than to talk to each other in a civilized setting?

Hart said the skills workshop is popular right before Thanksgiving in preparation for family gatherings. “You don’t want anyone to leave the table before the pies come out,” she said.

Collen said that is one of the reasons he joined Better Angels. “I’ve been through a lot of elections over the years and the rhetoric has been ratcheting up,” he said. “This last election was just beyond what I could bear … I felt this anger that was unjustified and I really felt like there had to be a change, even in some of my own personal friendships, even my own home.”

Hart stressed, and Collen agreed, about the organization’s purpose, “You’re not trying to get someone to agree with your viewpoint. You’re trying to get people to understand each other, see each other as humans, be able to have relationships — family relationships, work relationships.”

Both said the point isn’t to make everyone a centrist, that vigorous debate is healthy. “We used to have community centers,” said Collen. “You were face-to-face and everybody had their own ideas — that might be at the general store. We’ve lost that. We’ve now retreated to the internet,” and grouping with like-minded individuals.

We heartily support the movement to engage respectfully with others who may be different than ourselves and we commend Hart and Collen for their commitment as citizens. We believe our newspaper’s coverage, too, is part of the solution as it engages citizens in the political process.

A 2015 Brookings Institution report showed citizens voted less in poorly-covered congressional races, which created more landslide elections and gave those elected to Congress less motivation to compromise. At the same time, thorough coverage of local elections led to greater voter turnout and more civic engagement, making it less likely for activists to dominate political parties, increasing polarization.

We believe our newspaper pages not only inform the public but serve as a common meeting ground where citizens can express their varied views. We’ve long told our letter-writers that they are entitled to their own opinions but not their own facts. Recently, some have insisted on their facts, so we’ve added editor’s notes to set the record straight.

This is one area where we disagree with the Better Angels approach. “We have people deemphasize the facts,” said Hart. “Human minds are very good at rationalizing whatever we believe. So facts aren’t what’s going to change someone’s mind anyway.”

The Better Angels’ goal, she explained, is to understand another person’s viewpoint, and facts don’t help a lot with that, she said. A revelation can occur, Hart said, “Oh, I see the other person believes a totally different set of facts to be true ... now the conclusion they come to makes sense to me.”

But if each side is guided by its own set of facts, how can our nation find common ground? Certainly, we must listen to each other’s points of view but we must also realize what is true and what is false. If it’s true, for example, that sea waters are rising because of climate change, it doesn’t matter if someone believes climate change doesn’t exist — his coastal home will be washed away just the same.

Our Guilderland reporter last week wrote of the local YMCA deciding not to play CNN anymore on one of the four television sets in its exercise room. Those making the decision believed it would be offensive to supporters of Donald Trump. The president has called the press an enemy of the people and singled out some mainstream media, including CNN, as biased — but that doesn’t make it so.

What was most troubling is that many of the YMCA patrons who spoke to Floyd Mair didn’t want to have their names printed with their views. One man said that the larger issue at stake is “the death of civil discourse” but he said that the political climate today is so contentious that he would be afraid for his safety if he gave his name.

The Better Angels organization uses part of a quote from Abraham Lincoln in its publicity; the words are from his first inaugural address on March 4, 1861 as the country was on the brink of Civil War. His words gave the Better Angels their name.

“We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies,” Lincoln concluded his speech. “Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Lincoln appealed to the shared battles of three-quarters of a century before (the same distance we are now from World War II), which forged a new nation. In trying to strike a compromise, Lincoln disappointed the abolitionists, pledging not to interfere with southern slavery, but also said he would not allow the Union to be peacefully dissolved. A month later, the Confederate Army’s attack on Fort Sumter started the Civil War.

The better angels of our nature now have equally difficult and important work to do. We need, each of us, regardless of our political differences, to see what we have in common as Americans. While we are not on the brink of a civil war, we are seeing individual states going their separate ways as the nation fractures.

We will close with some of the words Senator John McCain left to be spoken after his death because they speak to us about the values we share:

“‘Fellow Americans’ — that association has meant more to me than any other. I lived and died a proud American. We are citizens of the world’s greatest republic, a nation of ideas, not blood and soil. We are blessed and are a blessing to humanity when we uphold and advance those ideals at home and in the world. We have helped liberate more people from tyranny and poverty than ever before in history. We have acquired great wealth and power in the process.

“We weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe. We weaken it when we hide behind walls, rather than tear them down, when we doubt the power of our ideas, rather than trust them to be the great force for change they have always been.”

Let us reestablish our bonds of affection and see our fellow Americans — those with whom we agree and those with whom we don’t — not as our enemies but as our friends.

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