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Op-Ed: America, What Has Become of Us?

Across the nation, we are at each other’s throats. Caustic exchanges between politicians, spats among public figures, anonymous sparring online, and tart remarks or appalled silences inside our own homes and families are constant reminders that we are in trouble. America, I have to say—this may be who we are now, but it’s not who we were.

I grew up in a household that held two amicable adults from different political parties. My mother won a county council seat, running on the Republican ticket, and my dad would have described himself mostly as a Democrat. Nevertheless he was very proud of my mother. I remember when they left to celebrate on the night she won, he said with a grin, “We’re gonna go check out the White House.” They often crossed party lines when they voted. Of course, they did. What—do you think one party has a lock on all qualified candidates? That idea would have been considered peculiar. How things have changed.

They discussed politics and didn’t always agree (I remember one heated debate when my dad felt my mother was underestimating the seriousness of the Watergate burglary), but political differences were assumed to be based on different priorities or wrongheaded thinking or heritage, not because of a profound character flaw. Good grief, losing sleep over someone’s political views would have been a colossal waste of time. How things have changed.

Because my mother was in politics, I spent many hours at the Southern Sporting Goods soda fountain which was a preferred site for informal wheeling and dealing. Democrats, Republicans, rednecks, developers, professors, farmers, and union leaders all passed through that locale to woo, argue, and kid around with my mother. She gave as good as she got, and joshing about other people’s political views was par for the course. I kicked my feet against the bar and drank up milkshakes as well as the vibe. Although some people were jerks, my mother knew how to listen, find common ground, horse trade, and cut deals. When things got heated, she’d wave her hand at somebody in exasperation, laugh, and pull them back from the abyss of anger. And here’s the thing: she wasn’t extremely unusual. A lot of people knew how to keep those they disagreed with from walking away. Because if they walk away, it’s game over. How things have changed.

I try to channel the guys down at the Farm Bureau to remember how we used to talk about politics. “Oh, you just think that because you’re a Republican, and you’re not even a good Republican!” “He’s only a Democrat because his father told him he should be.” “She voted for Goldwater because she thinks pilots are sexy.” “You guys need to quit voting your conscience and vote your wallet for once, or at least vote my damn wallet.” If you transport those conversations to today, the contrast is startling. “His family is all [horrified whisper] Trump supporters.” “She turned into a libtard once she left home.” “They’re a bunch of Bernie Bros in that office.” I’m not saying there wasn’t name calling in the past, but it seems to me that we didn’t condemn people with an overarching label as we do now. We knew people were multi-dimensional and weren’t defined by their politics.

I recently asked a talented and experienced mediator how she would mediate the entire nation right now. “…besides telling them to get off Twitter,” I joked. Her answer was immediate. “We need to listen. Ask questions. Be curious.” We speculated about how many mediators it would take to bandage the wounds we have opened in the past decade. There aren’t enough of them to go around, but each of us is capable of playing a role. Trump supporters aren’t Trump. Not all Democrats love Nancy Pelosi. Not everything is the fault of one person who voted for Jill Stein. Hate on the politicians if you want, but don’t get fooled into hating on each other.

We’ve lost something as a nation if we can’t treat each other as human beings. Our American character has suffered as a result of this polarization and manipulation. Who stands to win when we sling mud at each other? Certainly not the American people. I’ve always been proud of the US, not the government—at least not all the time—but the people. Those who offer a ride to an injured hiker, watch over a lost child in the grocery, assist a confused senior citizen, give a homeless person a blanket, push a car stuck in the snow, help a stranger carry their luggage, hold each other’s hands when planes are falling from the sky—those are my people. I know you’re out there, just as sensible, brave, tough, thoughtful, and funny, as you ever were. It’s time for us to show the world, and each other, who we still are. Today would be a fine day to start.

 

© 2018 Jennifer K. Crittenden

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