Be a rebel and find common ground
America is more divided than we’ve seen in decades. Polls show that the overlap between the two major political parties is shrinking fast—a widening canyon between looming masses—where just fifteen years ago they appeared as twin peaks of one noble mountain.
Yet you don’t need statistics to see how polarized our country is today; you can feel it. American institutions have been forced out of neutrality due to our growing partisan divide, yanked to one side or the other like metal marbles between two approaching magnets. Our elected officials seem more interested in firing insults across the aisle than in offering authentic solutions to our nation’s problems. All the while, political violence on American streets has become commonplace, and there are even whispers of an approaching civil war.
Is this our destiny to stand silently by as the chasm between left and right—between our fellow citizens and ourselves—grows wider? After all, what can we as individuals do against such a colossal problem?
One crucial thing each of us can do is to personally engage with that neighbor who votes differently—let’s call him Alex.
Picture your average Venn diagram. Two circles—you and Alex—with some overlap. How close are the circles exactly? In other words, how much common ground do the two of you share? Judging from his bumper stickers, it may appear very little. You’ve steered your conversations well away from elections and culture wars, since it seems he’s your political opposite. You might say to yourself: if Alex is pushing this country in the wrong direction, what’s the point in trying to engage with him? He doesn’t seem like the kind of person who wants to change his opinions to match yours, and you are definitely not about to move his way.
We could stop there and accept this irreparable division. However, this would play into the hands of the dividers, who want you to go no further—See? Look at those edges where you’re the most different. Those are deal-breakers, right? No need to look beyond them. Alex probably hates you.
But don’t listen to dividers, because there are benefits you’ll never gain if you do. Instead, we need to start in the middle; because it's difficult to get there when we begin where our differences are most pronounced, where the dividers want to keep us.
Who are the dividers? There are many, but two of them are standout masters at it: the news media and politicians. In the election year of 2016, Pearl Jam singer Eddie Vedder hit on this between songs at a concert: “And the news companies, they know that they're getting ratings by planting fear...and they want it to go game seven. It's more ratings...they keep it close.”
Politicians and news media have much to gain by keeping us apart and suspicious of each other at a distance. After all, money, ratings, and reelections (i.e. power) are on the table. So dividers keep us hyper-focused on our differences. They divide us any way they can—even by our skin color—and they cut to commercial just as we’re about to dig into the meat of an issue where real understanding and progress might form.
This doesn’t mean that Congress and the press are inherently evil, or that they’re always lying. But just as you are justifiably skeptical of the vacuum salesman on your porch, we should keep in mind the dividers’ incentives and motivations. And when they put up barriers between you and your perceived political opponents, be a rebel. Treat those as the holograms they are, and simply walk through them.
So, next time you and Alex get chatting at the mailbox, go ahead and “go there”—have a political discussion. But skip the points where you and Alex clearly disagree and go straight for the middle.
Start where you are already like-minded. If you have no idea where that might be, bounce around a little until you find it. For example, you both might value safety, or for things to be fair. Build from there. Like a game of Minesweeper, explore all the safe areas you can. Get a feel for where the mines are, and flag them. Avoid getting into an argument about them initially, and hold back from pointing out what looks like obvious inconsistency or hypocrisy.
Alex might be confused at first, expecting this political chat to be like the others he’s used to—either a comfortable visit to an echo chamber, or a hardened battle. If Alex asks what you’re doing, go ahead and be upfront: for the moment, you’re more interested in your similarities than your differences, and you’re genuinely interested in understanding his point of view. Every person is different, but after adjusting to the idea, there’s a good chance Alex will open up, play along, and learn just as much as you in the process.
When you find large areas of disagreement, try to break them up into smaller parts. The issue of immigration, for example, is a collection of many political policies and perspectives all wrapped together. It’s easy to oversimplify (and many do), claiming that you must hate America if you support amnesty, or that you must hate Mexicans if you like the idea of a border wall. However, it’s likely that you agree more than you realize.
Also keep in mind that two sides might use different language to describe similar (or the same) things. Plus, people often hold many of the same values, but just weight them differently.
Some level of political disagreement is good; essential, in fact. But so much of it is unnecessary and counterproductive when we talk past each other and make false assumptions. That’s where things get toxic. I’m sure you’ve heard someone ignorantly complain about what people like you supposedly believe. You just shake your head at your TV screen—they’ve got you all wrong. But you’re fixing this now. You and Alex.
While engaging Alex with genuine curiosity and good faith efforts to understand each other, the circles of the Venn diagram will draw closer, and the area of overlap will grow. But neither of you are actually moving, since your positions haven’t changed. What’s happening is that you’re both beginning to see things as they truly are, and as they have been for a while.
By starting from the mutual center you have uncovered the common ground that has been sitting there all along, hidden from you by the dividers.
You won’t finish in one conversation, and perhaps never. But if you keep exploring and refining when you can, there will be further revelations. You may find a key experience or concept that caused Alex to diverge from you on an issue. Follow the logical conclusions to the edge of his circle, and it manifests as a stance that seemed extreme or illogical before. You may not change your mind about the issue, but now you at least understand how Alex got there. He’s suddenly not as crazy or hateful as you thought.
One benefit of this approach is that you’ll both develop a new and deepening respect for each other as you begin to understand that your political opponent has honest intentions just like you, but simply sees the world differently. Alex might even defend you if his friends get talking about the “crazy nuts” who believe as you do. He may tell them that while he doesn’t agree with you, you’re actually quite reasonable. This helps reduce political tensions.
Another benefit is that you will understand the thought process of the other side—and your own—better than ever, which will make you more effective when you do decide to tackle those edges. You’ll use the right language, understand the nuance, and have a more productive, respectful, and persuasive conversation with Alex and others.
What’s more, you and Alex may find something you can both work on together, perhaps even something political. Maybe there’s a problem in your community that gets politicized, so nothing lasting ever gets done about it. You could find a way to synthesize multiple viewpoints and take a new approach.
Politically diverse coalitions can often resolve issues in a way that won’t get undone after the next election. Indeed, you’ll find that common ground is the best and most stable foundation on which to build policy. You might discover solutions that have been left off the table, or low-hanging fruit that has been invisible to us because we haven’t taken the effort to see deeper than the surface of our political opponents. By digging into the nuance of our differences, rather than ignoring them or treating them as unbridgeable, both sides could likely get most of what they want without changing their stance on a single strongly held opinion or belief.
Why would I want to help them get what they want, you ask? Well, look at it this way. What is happening is not you joining Alex’s team, like Luke accepting Darth Vader’s invitation to the Dark Side. It’s more like Thor and Loki, very different individuals who team up now and then when there’s a common cause.
In today’s political climate, it’s easy to lament our differences, and long for the days where everyone will finally see that you’ve been right all along. But until that day comes, we’d do well to ignore the dividers, start seeing the strength in America’s viewpoint diversity, and build from there. This can have a healing effect on our society and our personal relationships. And the more of us who do this, the more the canyon of our political divide will narrow. We’ll be a stronger nation, and more unified where it counts.
Or, we can continue our habit of beginning at the poles and trapping ourselves there, where nobody learns and everyone leaves angry.
Are you up for the challenge? The next time you’re in a conversation that turns political, pause for a moment. Then flip it around and leave the stark differences for another time.
Start in the middle.
In keeping with our mission to promote a common culture of fairness, understanding, and humanity, we are committed to including voices with diverse perspectives. The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism or its employees.
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