This was the headline at NPR.org, 4 days before the election: “Polarization And A Lack Of Productivity Are Likely To Reign After Election Day”. The article stated that, “with no clear mandate likely coming out of 2016, there is little reason to be overly optimistic that the next Congress can escape the cycle of unproductivity and polarization that has gripped Washington in recent years.”
I can’t say for sure exactly how we got here, but I have noticed that as the Baby Boom generation assumed more and more control of the direction of our country, we have become increasingly polarized as a nation. Maybe that shouldn’t be a surprise. The Boomers emerged on the scene in the 60s and 70s and from the get-go, part of their generational personality has been to divide the world into “us and them”. You’re either Democrat or Republican. Liberal or Conservative. Pro-life or Pro-choice. You’re expected to choose a side and then dig in and fight, believing that if you shout loud enough and long enough and carry lots of big signs, eventually the folks on the other side will magically change over to your way of thinking. Because after all, we’re “right” and they’re “wrong”. Compromise? That’s seen as a weakness.
Full disclosure: I’m a Baby Boomer myself. I hate to say it, but I’ve actually become embarrassed by my own generation. As a group, we’re really not very good at trying to understand people who see and experience things differently than we do. The Trump & Hillary campaign made that even more painfully obvious. It’s no wonder that, together, we have elected a completely dysfunctional congress—and the result has been gridlock. There are signs that members of the younger generations, particularly the Millennials, haven’t learned to think in such a polarized way. My hope is that as more Millennials and Xers gain influence, a more collaborative approach will emerge. Until that plays out, there is little evidence to suggest that things will improve.
But now that the campaign circus has finally left town, we all have a choice to make: we can go even deeper into our corners and fight even harder with each other, or we can go out of our way to really listen to the people who appear to think so differently than we do, to try to understand why they have come to feel that way, and to seek constructive, inclusive solutions. Doubling down and fighting even harder won’t accomplish anything more than hardening the us vs. them paradigm even more than it already is. We should have learned that by now.
Over the course of the campaign, I was struck with how many times I heard people on both sides of the political spectrum say, “How could anyone possibly vote for her/him?” It wasn’t just that people disagreed; it was that they literally couldn’t imagine where the other side was coming from. There is something very important here: the power to change hearts and minds doesn’t start by insisting that you have all the right answers. Instead, it starts with seeking to understand the hopes and fears of the people who, on the surface anyway, are on the opposite side. No, you may not ever agree on the best methods to get results, but my guess is that if you ask honest questions and really listen to the answers, you’ll find that we aren’t really that far apart after all. In the months and years ahead, I’ll be looking for opportunities to do just that. I hope you will, too.