I first became involved in politics in 1998 when my husband and I shared a one-sentence petition with less than 100 of our friends and family asking Congress to “censure the president and move on to pressing issues facing the country.”
Love Bill Clinton or hate him, a huge number of Americans agreed that the impeachment was polarizing and not good for our country. The petition went viral. Since that time I have seen polarization escalate to a point where we seem incapable of effective governance.
Many of us are appalled that addressing the COVID-19 pandemic became polarized. Important conversations are necessary about schools, business, faith community gatherings, mental health and health. We need to be able to weigh the costs and the benefits of our actions.
But in our current state of distrust, anger and fear we appear to be incapable of productive engagement. As a result we have lose-lose outcomes. How did wearing a mask in public spaces become a political statement? The data is clear that mask wearing protects us, especially the most vulnerable.
Media, leaders and we ourselves have made it possible to live in parallel narratives where we don’t share agreement about even fundamental facts. It has become normal to disrespect and even dismiss the humanity of people we don’t agree with. This is dangerous and at odds with our ideals.
Seek out different perspectives
It is time for us to step up to the challenge of restoring a shared narrative. We can be more intentional about choosing our news media. We have to stop consuming media tuned to catch our attention through focusing on our fears, anxiety and anger.
We can choose leaders who call us to work together and model respectful engagement across differences. Most important, we can choose to have caring relationships with people who hold differing views from us.
The result of this election puts our stunningly different understanding of our country in stark relief. Millions of people are wondering “How can those voters see things so differently?” It is time for us to answer that question. We must commit to curiosity and listening.
We can own our part of this downward spiral and commit to turning things around. It will at times be uncomfortable and confusing. It also will be enriching and fun. Treasured friendships and nuanced understanding are natural outcomes of this kind of investment.
And it will take patience. It took time for us to become this dysfunctional.
We must commit to working together
Restoring the capacity to collaborate is essential to producing long-term change. Our polarized swings from left to right and back again have the impact of a wrecking ball. What is created by one group is demolished by the other. Agreements that are embraced by a strong majority are immensely more robust.
I do not ever want to have another election season like we just endured. I want our communities and government to do the hard work of looking for solutions to complex problems so that we have everyone’s best ideas in the room and the agility to adapt and learn from our efforts. This requires shared vision and some trust.
The good news is most people want a fair society, a robust economy and a healthy environment. There are many theories about how we achieve this, but once we understand this core vision is shared, perhaps we can treat each other with more grace and forgiveness.
We are experiencing a pandemic, climate disruption and a reckoning with our history of racial oppression. There are no easy answers. But we can do this. We must.
Joan Blades is a co-founder of MoveOn and Living Room Conversations.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: America’s future depends on bringing back respect and working together