...But is that partisan hatred the only story? No.
It is harder to see, but a nationwide grass-roots movement has been quietly growing, and it seeks not to eliminate difference but to remove its bitter edge. The first signs I saw of this came as email messages from my readers. One woman wrote, “I’m part of an Episcopalian congregation here in western Massachusetts. Can you put me in touch with a congregation in Lake Charles?” Another woman said, “I live on a dairy farm in Kansas, in a conservative state, and I’d liked to get some high school kids from California to see how we live out here.” When a Trump supporter I profiled in Strangerscame with her children to visit my family in Berkeley, we conducted an 8-person right-meets-left “Living-room Conversation” — part of a project that’s the brainchild of a local mediation lawyer, Joan Blades — to see if we could find common ground on how to clean up the environment. We began by going around the room, each person, left and right sharing his or her personal goals for America, and for its environment and found them fairly similar — though as the conversation we wandered between points of agreement (clean energy) and disagreement (the government subsidizing clean energy). Usually in Livingroom Conversations, the group meets eight times, though we could only meet once. And while we experienced no aha-breakthrough moment, all of us felt glad we’d tried.
Even among the most ardent and extreme people I met over five years of research in Louisiana, I found specific issues on which there was potential for coalition — for example, safeguarding children on the Internet, reducing prison populations for non-violent offenders, protecting against commercialization of the human genome, pushing for good jobs and re-building our rail system, roads, bridges – America’s infrastructure. In fact, most of my Louisiana Trump supporters wanted to mend its socialinfrastructure too.
Signs of a desire to reach out extend far beyond my inbox and living room. Listed on the website of the Bridge Alliance, a non-profit non-partisan umbrella group, are over seventy cross-partisan groups based in towns scattered across the country with such names as Common Good, Better Angels, American Public Square, AllSides. Virtually all of these small groups rose from local efforts to restore a culture of respect while exploring potential points of agreement. Common ground is there to be explored. By some estimates, over one in ten people who voted for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary ended up voting for Trump in the presidential election. Experts also estimate that between 6.7 and 9.2 million people who voted for Trump in 2016 had also voted for Obama in 2012.
As of October 2017, the Bridge Alliance had three million supporters. As we head into the next three years with a divided media and a speak-to-one-base president, more of us need to reach out to people we disagree with. We may not be as polarized as we think. And even — or really, especially — if we are, we need to restore the spirit of the public square.
In the past, we had ways of bringing together Americans who differed: the compulsory draft, labor unions, public schools and libraries and nightly TV news programs everyone watched, like The Huntley-Brinkley Report. Increasingly today we lack these ways of sharing each other’s worlds. So we need to strengthen the old ways or reinvent new ones — perhaps more Living Room Conversations among some of those Bernie-Obama-Trump crossovers. By itself, the simple act of crossing the partisan divide will not resolve our crisis. But it could help us slowly rebuild a nation in which we feel as if we know each other again.