So how do we do it? How do Republicans and Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives, Right, Left, and Middle work and live together when they—when we—can’t agree on much of anything. Abortion, Border Security, the Budget, Climate Change, Gun Control, Homosexuality, ISIS, Oil drilling, Welfare—the list goes on and on of issues that not only cause the two sides to disagree, but to do so vehemently. Historically speaking, America is divided. When Barack Obama’s term ends in January of 2017 (unless you’re one of the right-wingers who fears he’ll declare martial law and never leave office) it will bring to an end 40 years of American history in which 20 have seen a Republican in the Oval Office and 20 have seen a Democrat in the Oval Office. Congress routinely leans left, then right, then back left, then back right again. America is divided. It’s pretty close to 50-50. Has been for a while. Maybe it’s drifting and will sway 60-40. But if it does, there’s a good chance it will swing back. I don’t see Democrats going on a decade-long run of controlling both the presidency and both houses of Congress. I don’t see Republicans doing it either. America is divided, but we are still one nation under God (and if you’re an atheist, now you’re fuming about that statement). So how does this great nation move forward while being divided? After all, Conservatives aren’t likely to abandon traditional definitions of marriage or stop defending the unborn baby’s right to life anytime soon. Nor are Liberals likely to join the NRA or stick an auger into Alaska. What is the answer?
We the people have a great responsibility, one we should cherish, and one we can exercise this Tuesday. Our vote. Millions worldwide wish they had the privilege. Thousands have bled and died to protect that right. And yet, our vote is somewhat limited. You have one vote out of millions. Even in a local mayoral race, it is likely one out of thousands. It doesn’t carry that much weight. Take the presidential election. In Wisconsin, where I live, my one vote is virtually useless. Wisconsin votes Democrat, and my one vote either way isn’t going to change that. In Nebraska, where I was born, the same is true, only that state votes Republican. My one vote won’t make a splash there either. If ever Wisconsin goes red or Nebraska goes blue, it will be in a landslide. In reality, your one vote only matters if you live in a swing state, like Florida or Ohio. Even there, certain counties always vote Democrat and certain counties always vote Republican. In 2012, the presidency of the United States of America was primarily decided by a handful of counties in a few states. They largely voted for Barack Obama. Had they voted for Mitt Romney, states would have flipped, electoral math would have calculated differently, and the guy with the voice my sister loves would be in office today. If you live in one of those counties, your one vote matters—and then only marginally, given the thousands and tens of thousands of other voters in that one county. If not, it is largely irrelevant.
I’m not saying don’t go and vote. I’m not discounting this sacred, American right. But I am saying, you—just you, one individual—don’t have a lot of power or sway. You can’t go out and change America with your vote—not unless a lot of your friends and family and neighbors agree with you. But that is the problem. Many of them don’t. And so, America is divided. Your community is divided. Your workplace is divided. Your Thanksgiving table is likely divided. By all means, go and vote this Tuesday. But you’ve voted in the past and your candidate has lost, leaving you discouraged and devalued. You’ve voted and your candidate has won, but it hasn’t made the difference you hoped it would. So what else can we do? Obviously, we can call on our elected officials to do the job for which we’ve elected them. We can demand responsibility, conscientiousness, integrity, and courage. But if they don’t oblige, our only course of action is at the voting booth—two, four, or six years down the road. So what else can we do? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Talk it Out. For some reason, politics and religion are taboo topics in polite company. But shouldn’t they be things we discuss all the time? Shouldn’t we debate and ask questions, listen and contemplate? These issues will shape our future. How can we not discuss them? No, we’re not likely to change each other’s minds—not all the time. But maybe you’ll point something out to me that I’d never considered; maybe I’ll help you see things in a different light; maybe we’ll realize we have more common ground than we thought; maybe we’ll see we have none. But let’s talk about the issues. Let’s talk about the things that matter most.
2. Use a Small Brush. The reason we don’t talk politics more is because tempers start to flare. And that is largely because we demonize our opponent. It’s easy to do, and I’m guilty of it. Lampooning those with whom you disagree is a great strategy if you want to look good in an argument and score some points with a partisan audience. It’s a lousy strategy if you’re trying to have a reasonable debate. To be fair, there are some ideas and some people who should be demonized. And we likely disagree about what and who fits into that category. But let’s not make personal attacks our first course of action. I seriously doubt that all Democrats want to take away guns so that they can usher in a totalitarian government that will beat us into submission. Some might, but I suggest that most are more concerned about how guns can be used for evil. And I doubt that all Republicans want to take food off the table of starving children with their welfare reforms. While some might go a little far in their views, I would suggest that most just want to stop corruption and keep lazy people from jobbing the system. Yes, there are evil people with incredibly dangerous ideas. I tend to think most of them are in the other party (and those in the other party likely think the inverse) but they occupy both sides of the aisle. In the end, your opponent might be worthy of a harsh critique. Their views might be horrendous and heinous. But give them the benefit of the doubt before you paint them with a broad brush.
3. Think Critically. This ties in to the previous point. Before you attack your opponent, understand where they’re coming from. Are they inhumane and do they hate children, or do they simply have legitimate fears about the terrorists and diseases that could flow through an open border? Do they want to abolish all personal freedoms, or are they seeking regulations that will keep people from doing harm to themselves and others? I’m not saying all ideas are right or even that they have merit. But we need to understand where people are coming from. They aren’t all evil. Many of them have good intentions, even if they have bad or faulty ideas. But critical thinking flows both ways. Before we look outward, we need to look inward. Democrats, Independents, Republicans, far-left and far-right, we all need to look at our views and beliefs. What is the essence of what we stand for? What are the ramifications, not only if we don’t get our way, but if we do? There are two sides to most coins, pros and cons with almost all options. Again, that’s not to say all ideas or views are equal. But we need to understand complex issues, and we need to be able to explain our views, so they know we don’t hate gay people, but support traditional, Biblical definitions of marriage. So they know we don’t want Sharia Law, but do want to make sure everyone has a right to practice their religion.
4. We need to not be offended so easily. Yes, we need to curb excessive demonizing speech. Call a spade a spade, but don’t call everything a spade. But we also need to not be offended simply because someone disagrees with us. Or because they find our opinion to be erroneous. Even if they take a few pokes at it, or us. Yes, there’s a line. But make the other guy cross it. Have a little thicker skin. These are tough, complex issues. Open discussion is going to ruffle a few feathers. Pat them back down and move on. And also, extend the same tolerance to the other guy as you demand he extends to you. It needs to be a two-way street.
These above measures aren’t by any means exhaustive, nor will they suddenly heal all wounds. We’re not going to suddenly hold hands and sing “God Bless America,” because there will always be someone who just wants to sing “Bless America.” Pro-lifers are never going to condone abortion; Environmentalists will never go pro-coal. Some of us want to bomb ISIS; some of us want to leave the Middle East alone. Shut down all flights from Western Africa; Give us your tired, your poor, and your deathly ill. We’re going to disagree. America is going to be divided because people are going to be divided. But that doesn’t mean we can’t do just a little bit to try to smooth the edges. If we can cut back on the rhetoric, be willing to listen to the other guy, seriously consider her point, reflect inwardly on our views and opinions, and engage in open, honest, and friendly discussion, perhaps we can learn to work together a little better. Perhaps we’ll be able to find our common ground and better accommodate our differences. Maybe some minds will be changed. Many more won’t. It won’t be perfect. It won’t be close too perfect. But maybe it will be a little bit better. Maybe the next time we get together to vote—and the time after that, and the time after that—we’ll be better informed, firmer in our convictions, and maybe the results on Election Night will reflect that. Maybe after a few more elections, Washington will start to reflect that.
At least, a guy can hope. Because while I do see a lot of warts and flaws, and while I do disagree with much of what my government does, I still believe that the United States of America is the greatest nation in the world. I believe it has an incredible, indomitable spirit. I believe its people are capable of great things, and that America can still be a beacon in this world, accomplishing great good. But it is not a guarantee. We had to fight for our freedom two and a quarter centuries ago. We’ve had men and women fighting for it ever since. And we, while not on the battlefield necessarily, still have to fight for it. We have to fight (metaphorically) in our communities, in our workplace, in our families, and in our own hearts. If we do that—if we all do that—then I join with our 16th president when I say that this “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”