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The political divide in our nation is the worst I can recall—the most mean and destructive. It has been vividly present in any number of public issues, but most dramatically lately in the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing, the bombs sent to Trump opponents and the murders in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It’s as if a great crater has opened in our government; all our civility, compassion, and common sense have been sucked into it.
In the days following these losses, another loss is more evident. Unlike all preceding chief executives, Donald Trump hasn’t stepped step forward and offered hope and comfort to the people. The only condemnation he has made was about the synagogue massacre. He hasn’t tried to start a real movement of Americans to fight hate and vicious language.
And the crater remains, wide and deep.
In the absence of leadership, the people have no choice but to take the lead and bridge the divide. When we feared for our democracy in World War II, we stepped forward and, while troops suffered and died abroad, fought the battle fiercely on the home front. Sure, we had a great leader, but we did the backbreaking hard work. We fought not only because we had a leader, but also because most of us had, etched into our brains, a powerful love for American values.
Today, we have every reason to fear once again for our democracy. Trump and his administration are waging a strong battle against it. He rails against the media for telling the truth. Trump’s ruling principle is simple: He is right, and anyone who disagrees with him is wrong. Dissenters deserve retribution because, in his view, government cannot run smoothly with public opposition. He stretches his Presidential powers to the breaking point. The instances cited here are but a few of many anti-democratic actions he has taken. A full catalog of them isn’t needed or possible here.
The division manifests itself chiefly in our two main political parties, and that division was developing well before Trump came along. He has simply used the gap and made it bigger. But as bad as the rift is, I find evidence that many folk still hold onto the principle of people with differing views working together through give-and-take, talking, negotiating, and compromising.
Of course, our efforts will not cure mentally-ill killers nor prevent massacres. They can help, however; they can change the overall mean and corrosive language and behavior that’s out of control in our society.
We the people can begin work to bridge the gap by using the democratic principle of working together. In our everyday relationships—in our workplaces, churches, social groups, schools and colleges, we can practice the principle deliberately.
For example, in Durant we could begin a social group—a club if you will—that would bring together Republicans and Democrats who believe in democratic principles. The group would methodically discuss issues which they usually differ on: abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and, just now, President Trump.
Within the group, everyone would have to commit to talking calmly and civilly and to listening quietly and attentively to what others say. We would need to ask questions and seriously try to understand why others hold the opinions they have.
Other rules of engagement could include agreeing to not monopolize the discussion or to interrupt (except for clarification when we don’t understand something that’s said). But the basic goal would be simply to talk, listen, and discuss. At some point, it could be helpful to explore the possibility of middle ground on some controversial issue, such as businesses withholding services on religious grounds from people they object to, such as a Christian baker refusing to sell a wedding cake to a gay couple.
Admittedly, a great many people would never think about joining such a discussion group. Similarly, many would not be changed if they did participate.
And, of course, the success of such a discussion group as sketched above would depend upon how serious and dedicated the participants would be. But in this polarized climate, isn’t it worth a try?
Joe Littlejohn is Co-Director of the Bryan County Coalition Against Hunger. He writes and circulates two newsletters monthly, one for people who depend on the County’s free food sources and the other for the Bryan County Democratic Party. He is retired from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he worked for 27 years, serving as Professor, Chair of the Department of English, Humanities, and Languages, and Dean of the School of Arts and Letters.