How can we get beyond the toxic standoff in our politics?

How can we get beyond the toxic standoff in our politics?

Pointing fingers at the ‘other’ and calling names is only causing a wider chasm where a second civil war starts to seem like a real possibility. We need to start seeing each other as human beings again.

BRATTLEBORO — Are we ever going to be able to talk to each other again?

This is something I've been asking myself for a while now. And, along with the threat to our democracy, I find that question to be one of the real tragedies of our polarized society.

Oh, and let me be clear: I'm not only talking about our inability to talk to those with opposing views; I'm also referring to the increasing difficulty in talking to those on our side of the political spectrum.

Being left-leaning as I am, I've come to the realization that in our camp there is a polarization between those who are extremely vocal and those who feel silenced - for various reasons.

* * *

Let me back up a little.

When I was in high school back in the '70s, my best friend came from a family of conservative Republicans, while I was raised by dyed-in-the-wool Democrats whose politics were their religion. (I swear a portrait of John F. Kennedy hung just above eye level in every household.)

My friend Donna and I would occasionally drift into political discussions or topics where our differing political backgrounds found us with opposing views. We would get into debates that were sometimes heated; she would stand her ground, and I would stand mine.

Yet there was a line we would not cross, because we liked and cared about each other. Afterwards, the subject changed and we continued on with the adventure of our lives and our friendship.

* * *

I know it's naïve and simplistic to reference this example with all of the complexities of this moment in our nation's history. So much has occurred in the decades since then; decades of divisiveness and vilification that we on the left can blame on Newt Gingrich and his introduction of take-no-prisoners political strategies that the Clintons repeatedly called the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

But I'm sure the Republicans could point to other factors initiated by the Democrats that have led to the politics of hate.

I do distinctly remember that Richard Nixon was always considered evil in my grandmother's household, and that was before Watergate. And then there were “the Birchers,” the members of the John Birch Society.

So, the potential for extreme polarization has always existed in politics as far as I can see. Perhaps it just needed people clever enough to exploit it.

* * *

Ben Sasse, a Republican senator from Nebraska, wrote a book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other - and How to Heal. When I first heard of it, I was in the kitchen making dinner and could hear an interview with him on the TV in the next room that piqued my interest.

I was especially interested in his view that our internet devices were having an alienating effect on our culture. I've thought this for a long time, so I shot out of the kitchen, pen and paper in hand, all ready to get information so I could order it.

But when I learned the author was a Republican senator from Nebraska, I promptly turned on my heel in disgust and thought, “I can't read that, he's a Republican.”

Then I stopped in my tracks and chuckled as I thought of the irony that I was doing exactly what he was talking about.

I got the book from the library weeks later and, though there are some things that he says that I can't agree with, I found that he had some good points.

Sasse also talks about how our increasingly mobile lifestyles have changed our sense of community. When we have an experience of connectedness over time in our communities that is face to face, we know each other - and that makes it harder to make the other the villain, or “Them.”

In the few times that I tried to talk about this book with people who, like me, are left-leaning, I could barely get out a few sentences before they would shoot knee-jerk responses like, “Well, did he also talk about things that the Republicans do?” at me.

They would respond with such ferocity that clearly there was no way that they could hear, let alone absorb, the points I found interesting in the book. Their reaction was like mine when I first heard that the author is a Republican: completely dismissive.

* * *

I don't know how we're going to get beyond the impasse - the toxic standoff. I don't know how we get beyond seeing one another as symbols instead of people.

I do know that it doesn't help to consistently refer to a huge sector of our society as simply “the uneducated” or to use terms like “Christian Fascists.”

A few weeks ago, I heard an interview with Will Bunch, the author of another recently published book: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics - And How to Fix It. I haven't read it yet, but I intend to.

In the interview, Bunch was giving the demographics of voters and education. It was interesting. But afterward I found myself thinking about it and realized that some of the smartest people I have known are the so-called “uneducated.” People have intelligence that is not necessarily academic.

And that kind of intelligence, whether it be common sense, cultural, family, self-taught, or street smarts, is of value.

* * *

Part of where I think we went wrong in this country is that we stopped valuing regular people: the mothers and housewives, the grunt laborers, the people who do all of those menial jobs that seem to disappear in the furniture. That's right - the working class, who, by the way, used to make up the majority of the Democratic Party.

This change in attitude seems to have coincided with the loss of many manufacturing jobs due to trade agreements and transfer of production to offshore locations in the 1990s and early 2000s.

One theory of Trump's victory in 2016 attributes his support to a huge swath of Americans who felt left behind and even betrayed when those manufacturing jobs disappeared. An article in The Atlantic pointed out that when faced with this situation, the Obama administration's solution was to offer to retrain them in the tech industry.

But for the most part, these folks weren't interested in entering the tech industry. These are people who made things, like their parents before them. And they took pride in that. They found dignity in that. The article suggested that it was a miscalculation on the administration's part and that many went to work in the service sector (McDonald's, Walmart, etc.).

* * *

In watching the new Ken Burns documentary The U.S. and the Holocaust, I was reminded of just how down and out the German people were after the First World War. In the aftermath of that war and the consequences that followed, including loss of land, loss of power, and massive inflation, the people experienced what has been described as a “collective inferiority complex.”

I've learned through my years working in the mental health field that when the ego structure becomes compromised to such a degree that one feels markedly inferior, one seeks to feel superior. It makes sense; the mind, like the body, seeks balance.

This could be true as well of a group of people, or even a nation. When Hitler then came along preaching his ideology of a superior race, it didn't take long before the majority of the country's people were captivated.

I'm not suggesting that our country is experiencing what Germany did post World War I, nor am I saying that Donald Trump is like Hitler, but there is a huge swath of our population who have felt forgotten, left behind, and undervalued.

Is it any wonder, then, that when Trump arrived on scene embracing these folks, he hit a chord and connected with them in a big way, despite their having nothing in common with him? Here is a guy who, for all intents and purposes, looks like the poster boy for success, and he used the word “we.”

I think it filled a gap - a gap that was left in wake of all those disappearing jobs. Perhaps it made people feel important again, maybe even a little superior. More importantly, they felt like they belonged.

* * *

We need to start seeing each other as human beings again. We need to connect with each other face to face, not using electronic devices as an intermediary.

If we did so, we might look into a person's face and for a moment put ourselves in their shoes. We need to get out of our Priuses and put down our phones and actually take in the environment that is our world.

Granted, we might have to forego hearing ourselves talk for a while or we might have to take a break from our own reflections, but I guarantee it will be a relief and we might learn something.

Because pointing fingers at the “other” and calling names is only causing a wider chasm where a second civil war starts to seem like a real possibility.

I am not excluding myself from the schoolyard, name-calling behavior - I have referred to those on the other side as “those who have drunk the Kool-Aid,” and worse.

But when I look around while trying to clear my mind of the rhetoric, fueled by fear and defensiveness, I see people. I see people who are humans like me, struggling both externally and internally. I see people who are trying to maintain some sense of dignity and normalcy, to retain a little cheerfulness and the last vestiges of what they grew up to know as the American Dream.

I know that when I am in a negative dynamic with someone, one thing that always works to end it is to imagine putting down my end of the tug-of-war rope. I think the reason that it is effective is because when I put down my end, the other person has nothing to pull on; there's no resistance - game over. It changes the dynamic.

I wonder what would happen if, just as an experiment, we all tried to put down our end of the rope. Even if we tried it in our minds while listening to the pundits on TV or podcasts talk about those on the other side.

Just a thought, albeit an idealistic one. Amazing things can happen when you start with the mind.

* * *

I realize that most of what I've written here will be dismissed as simplistic, naïve, or just plain silly. And believe me, I understand just what's at stake in these times when our democracy is in peril, along with so many basic rights that we've achieved over the decades.

I understand that right now is when we have to rise to the occasion and preserve this great experiment of democracy.

My aunt, whose name was actually Molly Pitcher, taught me many things by example. I grew up understanding that activism in politics is crucial and it is not a gentleman's croquet game; it is blood sport.

But she is also a person who engaged with anybody and everybody, who I witnessed going toe-to-toe with the toughest opponents on the issues. These are the same people she would converse with in the grocery store, a restaurant, or even her place of business.

And she would laugh with them. I heard her on more than one occasion say to people, “I may not agree with your views, but I'll fight to the death for your right to express them.”

Another thing I learned from my aunt and my grandmother - who worked tirelessly for the party - was that everybody needs to be invited into the tent. We cannot afford to exclude anyone, and that includes white men and people who believe in God.

These important, imminent political races are not going to be won with only the votes of Black women and the LBGTQ community. And those who say that it is a fallacy that we need the white working-class votes are living in a fantasy world.

Because if we have become an exclusive club that only admits certain members, then that guy over there who is using the word “we” is going to get everyone else.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates