The most fulfilling and reassuring conversation I had in the days following the 2012 election was with someone whom I deeply disagree with. As a liberal Jew from the Northeast, my beliefs about American were dramatically reinforced by a phone call with a conservative evangelical friend in the South. Our country is extremely and increasingly polarized, across axes of religion and politics. As Americans of different political beliefs struggle for a future they can believe in, we must all learn to articulate our goals in ways that build mutual trust, appreciation, and – where possible – willingness to collaborate across difference. If we desire any change in our country, we must learn how to hear one another’s needs. If we do not, we will either: 1) be unable to achieve any of our goals, or 2) achieve those goals at the cost of deeper conflict with those whose goals are different.
There is a wide swath of central ground where liberals and conservatives can stand together. The trick is learning to think through one another’s needs, identify the areas where we share goals, and use moderate yet unapologetic language where opinions diverge.
I spent the 2012 campaign season living fully in two worlds, in one country. I live and work half of the time in rural Appalachia, in southeastern Kentucky. I spend the other half of my time living and working in Boston, Massachusetts. One month here, another month there, I work to be a human bridge. In southeastern Kentucky, coal is a central pillar of the culture and economy. In Boston, I can barely count the number of hybrid cars I see during my morning commute, and energy conservation is a social norm. In Kentucky, the majority voted for Romney. In Boston, the majority voted for Obama. Majority opinions differ across a wide range of issues, including gun control, gay marriage, and tax code. There is diversity in each place, but these splits represent a widening gulf in America.
Two days after the election, from my family’s home outside of Boston, I called a friend and colleague in Kentucky. Our conversation ranged a multitude of issues, especially including coal jobs. In his area, many are concerned that Obama’s second term will diminish their economic opportunity. The day after the election, stock charts recorded double-digit percentage losses for major coal companies. One of my closest friends in the area is supporting a family of four; his company’s stock dropped 13%. Stock numbers move for many reasons, yet it is key to remember that an oft-stated environmental goal is to end coal production. Environmental advocates must find a way to express their goals in way that is true to their purpose, while honoring the economic need and culture of coal-producing communities.
We liberals could explain that we desire sustainable employment opportunities for every American. We could say that we want stable, safe, growing industry for all Americans. When we say that we want to see coal production stopped, we win few friends in the neighborhood where I live half of my life. In Boston, my family owns a Toyota Prius. These conversations matter to me. They are my friends’ jobs, their children’s dinners, my children’s future. Careless, callous rhetoric burns opportunities. That is why I am building myself as a human bridge.
American liberals must speak with deeper empathy, if we are going to contribute to a healthier country. Certainly it is a two-way street. I agree with many other liberals, that Republicans in congress have been obstructionist. But we are also part of the problem of polarization and we must be part of the solution. The interfaith movement is a fantastic effort to build understanding and collaboration amongst America’s diverse people, and the interfaith movement must grow its political diversity.
We Americans must engage across the cosmic questions of our time: religion, politics, the economy, natural resources, and climate. Yet, we must not focus too closely on these differences. It is almost a paradox. We must come together across these differences, and find common goals through which we can develop friendships. Our relationships are so fragile, and often already broken, that we must start by building them – then we can talk about the differences.
It is about bridges–modest ones. We must start by building bridges just wide enough for a few people to walk together, and to see through the rickety floor planks. We must walk these bridges steadfast, yet with caution. We must focus on crossing together, aware, but not focused on the dangers rushing beneath. We must build bridge after bridge after bridge, friendship after friendship.
Photo by Dan Robinson Photography, Hiram, Kentucky. Used with permission.