As we approach what has to be one of the most contentious elections in memory, we are bombarded by warning signs from both sides of the political chasm. It is the nature of our politics that we are divided — the political duopoly that our two parties represent is not at all interested in the republic, nor are they driven to preserve the union. Indeed, the polarization that we see is not a flaw in our institutions, it is an exploited (and amplified) feature of the political landscape when that landscape is dominated by just two parties. Whether we read from the left or from the right — our opinions are more shaped by our respective political affiliation (our “hearts”) than by our minds — and our politicians do not win elections by reasoning with us — they win by sowing fear, uncertainty and doubt (what we in the military called “F.U.D.”).
It is easy to decry such tactics, but ever since Madison Avenue discovered that they could swing our vote the same way they could manipulate our choice of Ford over Chevy or Coke over Pepsi, the nature of political debate has changed. The precursors to Facebook and Russian troll farms were analytic firms who help politicians tailor their political speeches to appeal to the specific audiences they were speaking to — even if that tailoring made the candidate seem inconsistent when their own speeches were compared to each other (remember “flip-flopping?”).
But while television and radio amplified the power of those analytics, the rise of social media and the speed of the internet has completely re-written that tactic. The result is the most divided electorate in our history. Where religion used to be one of the defining characteristics that one worried about when bringing a prospective spouse to meet the family, by 2016, politics had become the litmus test that our prospective new family member had to pass.
Little wonder that, with the amplified echo chambers that our online dialogs represent, we have divided the nation.
Ever since the 2016 election, when some experienced shock, gloom and doom while others expressed surprise, hope and change, some have been trying to figure out how to get us to talk across the divide. I was a delegate to the second national Convention of Braver Angels, an organization that formed in 2016 to help apply family counseling techniques to political division. Now, as we approach the 2020 election, Braver Angels is offering two programs, one more directed at churches, colleges and service organization (the With Malice Toward None Initiative) and the other, the Hold America Together initiative, which is directed more toward families and other small groups (think of your coffee club — many of which are Zooming to keep their connections open).
Of these, Hold America Together is designed to start depolarizing at the individual level. A simple letter that you can sign online, the Hold America Together letter, is an appeal for calm. The letter reads: “At a moment of danger in this era of divisiveness, We the American people come together to speak for the union. Some of us will vote for President Trump and others for Vice President Biden. But in this season of intense and legitimate partisanship, we the undersigned commit ourselves also to a higher partisanship — for the maintenance of our union; for the importance of our shared civic life; and for those feelings of goodwill that Lincoln called the better angels of our nature.
“For ourselves and for all Americans, we appeal for the complete disavowal of election-related violence, calls for such violence, or excuse-making for anyone on either side who would commit or tolerate violence as a means of influencing an election.
“In a time of growing separation, we pledge ourselves to words and deeds intended to help us find each other as citizens. We start with this commitment: We will not demonize or question the decency of Americans who vote differently from us. When we oppose their political views we will say so with vigor, but we won’t castigate them as persons.
“If in the near future we face a constitutional crisis in which our institutions cannot produce consensus on who is the legitimately elected president, we resolve to work together across this chasm for solutions grounded in the Constitution and guided by our democratic and non-violent traditions and our sense of shared destiny.
“At stake in this contest is democracy’s North Star — peaceful political transition. It’s a time for opponents, but not for enemies. We the undersigned will work separately for what each of us believes is right, but we will also work together to protect the land we all love — to lift up American citizenship and the American promise in a time of peril and to find in ourselves the understanding that our differences don’t simply divide us, but also can strengthen and complete us.”
(see braverangels.org/hat to sign the pledge)
We should all look within and without … then pledge to sustain our noble experiment in self-governance against all its enemies, both foreign and domestic.