What po­lar­ized times we live in

Kent County News - - OPINION - LEE HAMIL­TON

We live in a di­vided coun­try. And I don’t just mean po­lit­i­cally.

Our econ­omy is cre­at­ing win­ners and losers, with no clear way up the lad­der for mil­lions of Amer­i­cans. The last few decades have pro­duced great in­equal­ity of wealth and with it, un­equal ac­cess to the levers of power. We’re split along re­gional lines. We’re di­vided along ru­ral and ur­ban lines. We in­creas­ingly strug­gle with dif­fer­ences of race, re­li­gion and class.

We’re also di­vided po­lit­i­cally and ide­o­log­i­cally. Abor­tion, gun rights, same-sex mar­riage, the use and abuse of po­lice power, curbs on cor­po­rate power, en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion: Th­ese is­sues elicit strong feel­ings and cut deeply through the elec­torate.

They’re also re­flected in the overt par­ti­san di­vi­sions that show up in elec­tions, and thus in leg­is­la­tures and Congress. The par­ties in many ways play a more im­por­tant role in how peo­ple vote and how they think about po­lit­i­cal is­sues than we usu­ally imag­ine. Although there are plenty of Amer­i­cans who dis­dain party al­le­giance, many of us lean to­ward one party or the other — and whether we ac­knowl­edge it or not, more of­ten than not fol­low its lead and vote for its can­di­dates.

Th­ese di­vides are per­me­at­ing our pol­i­tics in ways that, a gen­er­a­tion ago, would have been un­think­able. It’s not just that pub­lic de­bate has be­come coarser, less civil and more mean-spir­ited. It’s that par­ti­san­ship is be­ing wo­ven into places we once be­lieved were safe from it, such as the courts — wit­ness the de­bate over the nom­i­na­tion of Brett Ka­vanaugh to the Supreme Court.

So what do we do about this? The an­swer, ac­tu­ally, is not com­pli­cated.

We have to boost pub­lic un­der­stand­ing about how to par­tic­i­pate in the process. We have to be more mind­ful about the qual­ity of pub­lic di­a­logue. We have to ap­pre­ci­ate the roles of co­op­er­a­tion, col­lab­o­ra­tion and com­pro­mise in a rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­racy.

We have to vote for and value lead­ers who deal with op­po­nents not as en­e­mies, but with re­spect, ci­vil­ity and a recog­ni­tion that they share more in com­mon than di­vides them.

This means lis­ten­ing care­fully and try­ing to un­der­stand the other’s point of view. It means fig­ur­ing out how to ac­com­mo­date dif­fer­ences, so that rather than ev­ery fight pro­duc­ing win­ners and losers, ev­ery­one can walk away with some­thing gained.

It means striv­ing not to de­stroy your op­po­nent, but in­stead per­suad­ing her or him to reach a re­sult that helps ev­ery­one claim some mea­sure of suc­cess. It means rec­og­niz­ing we’re all in this to­gether — that we’re all search­ing for the com­mon good.

Be­cause in the end, the po­lit­i­cal process de­pends on per­sonal re­la­tion­ships — the bonds be­tween key ac­tors, in­clud­ing elected politi­cians, their staff, their sup­port­ers and oth­ers. And not just in pol­i­tics at the fed­eral level. It’s ev­ery­one from mem­bers of Congress to state leg­is­la­tors to town­ship trustees.

We must not let the po­lit­i­cal ex­tremes dom­i­nate dis­course — they don’t re­flect the views of most Amer­i­cans, who tend to value mod­er­a­tion.

The great­ness of our coun­try rests on shared ideals that go be­yond party la­bels. Most Amer­i­cans want to be­lieve that bet­ter days are ahead, that progress is pos­si­ble and that ma­jor pol­icy dis­agree­ments may not be easily re­solved, but do yield to dis­cus­sion that is car­ried on ra­tio­nally and with ci­vil­ity and re­spect.

This is not just wish­ful think­ing. There are re­al­world ex­am­ples. For in­stance, the di­vi­sions we’ve faced in for­eign pol­icy have of­ten been mit­i­gated when po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents shared the view that U.S. lead­er­ship is good for the world. Or, on the do­mes­tic side, di­ver­gent views on how to pro­vide af­ford­able health­care to all have been brought to­gether by ad­dress­ing in­cre­men­tal steps.

One pe­cu­liar­ity of this time of great un­ease, when lack of con­fi­dence in the coun­try and its in­sti­tu­tions is ram­pant and our dif­fer­ences are ac­cen­tu­ated, is that it comes at a mo­ment of eco­nomic growth. In the past, it’s usu­ally been a sour econ­omy that ex­ac­er­bated di­vi­sions.

That’s a puz­zle, but it’s also an op­por­tu­nity. It means that we have a pros­per­ous eco­nomic back­drop that should al­low us more easily to find com­mon ground with one an­other, as I’ve seen hap­pen in the past. It’s time to step up our game, move past our dif­fer­ences, and pro­pel the coun­try for­ward.

Lee Hamil­ton is a se­nior ad­vi­sor for the In­di­ana Univer­sity Cen­ter on Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Govern­ment; a Dis­tin­guished Scholar, IU School of Global and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies; and a Pro­fes­sor of Prac­tice, IU School of Pub­lic and En­vi­ron­men­tal Af­fairs. He was a mem­ber of the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for 34 years.

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