Why Can’t We Be Friends?

A tall, bearded man approached the podium to address the crowd on a chilly November afternoon. His friends noted that he looked quite pale, haggard, and fatigued. In his very concise remarks, the speaker mourned the dead interred around him. He lamented the bitterly warring factions within our country, noting that a fractured nation could not long endure. He likened the place in which he spoke to a ‘battlefield’. And he asked our country to honor the dead in his midst not just with words, but with action as well– more specifically, a commitment to reunification, not further combativeness. He called for nothing less than the rebirth of our shared, sacred principles as an indivisible nation. 

It was a brief, but timeless, speech. And you’d be readily forgiven for thinking it was a recent one. Because it’s pertinent to our present experience. The United States is severing before our very eyes along divisive, combative, and tightly drawn battle lines. Our situation is worsened by the unprecedented pandemic-based suffering and death around us. The speaker in my introduction could have been any present day, pragmatic leader (albeit a rarity in these times), calling for unity and compromise in passing much needed legislation for our beleaguered, suffering nation. But, in fact, the actual orator was President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln addressed his audience in an 1863 speech, now famously known as the Gettysburg Address. He dedicated the Soldiers’ National Cemetery just months following the bloody and pivotal Civil War Battle of Gettysburg. Ironically enough, many historians believe that Lincoln gave this speech in the early throes of his own Smallpox infection, the nineteenth century’s most dangerous global pandemic. And Lincoln’s profound words were eerily prescient for us today.

Fast forward to the very near future. Shortly after 12:00 noon Eastern Time on January 20th, 2021, Joseph R. Biden will take the oath of office in our nation’s Capital. And, in that moment, he will assume the duties of the 46th President of the United States of America. Like Abraham Lincoln, Biden will inherit a divided nation. One in the grip of unspeakable Covid-19 death, economic distress, social and cultural divisions, and even violence against our fellow citizens. In ways both figurative and literal, he enters office amidst a country at war with itself. A clear majority of Republican voters believe that Biden’s electoral victory was illegitimate. And they feel that the Democrats stole the election through massive voter fraud. In turn, many Democrats fervently call for the federal government’s Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches to investigate, indict, and convict Trump for offenses he committed while in office. In other words, they believe Biden’s top priorities should include punishing his presidential predecessor.

What’s Going On?

Needless to say, reaching common ground is hard to come by these days. To be fair, spirited and partisan disagreement is nothing new in politics. Nor are our ongoing, constructive differences of opinion about issues, policies, values, and election outcomes. The political power pendulum has always swung back and forth between conservative and liberal ideologies—between Red and Blue. But things have devolved terribly of late. Normal political competition has, too often, degraded into acts of demonizing and dehumanizing our opponents. We’re witnessing a real-time, rapidly widening Red-Blue fracture in our country. And it’s not just my opinion here. According to the Pew Research Center, nearly 90% of 2020 pre-election Trump voters believed that Biden’s victory would do ‘lasting harm’ to our country. And the same is true for Democrats as it regarded a possible Trump electoral win. What’s worse, Pew’s surveys indicated that our partisan differences extend well beyond different policy positions. Instead, they’re grounded in much deeper divisions surrounding our country’s most cherished values. Nearly 80% of those recently surveyed within each political party state that the other party’s values are vastly different than their own. There’s confirmation of this phenomena in another, pre-election survey by the Public Religion Research Institute. Over 80% of Republicans surveyed said that the Democratic Party is led by Socialists. Conversely, almost 80% Democrats felt that the Republican Party is run by Racists. 

And how have respective Red or Blue factions responded to our increasing polarization? Instead of talking-it-out with each other to narrow our gaps, we’ve built even more impermeable barriers between ourselves. We’ve cut off communications with our opponents. We’ve cloistered ourselves within the echo chambers of our own partisan bases. According to recent research by the American Enterprise Institute, approximately half of both Democrats and Republicans surveyed state that they have little interaction with people who express significantly opposing political views to themselves. Our ‘tribal’ circles of affiliation are becoming smaller, more restricted, and homogenous. Instead of trying to understand our opponents, we’re purposefully choosing to quarantine ourselves only with others who already think exactly like we do. And it’s tattering the very fabric of our Republic. Abraham Lincoln’s prophetic words from 1858 still ring true today:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

So what can we do about it? How can we create more civil, respectful, and interconnected communities? Many thoughtful and well-meaning professionals have pondered these pressing questions. And, at times, it feels as if our reach exceeds our grasp in this regard. But we have to start somewhere. In this spirit, I’ll offer below a possible, five-point blueprint for your consideration. 

Figure Out the Actual Problem First 

We should start this process by acknowledging the inherent complexity of the problem itself. Simplistic explanations aren’t helpful. For example, ‘slice and dice’ dualistic categorizations of our population (such as urban/suburban versus rural/exurb, college educated versus non-college educated, old versus young, male versus female, conservative versus liberal, minority versus white, and religious versus secular) don’t go far enough in building a robust understanding of why we’re at odds with each other. In truth, many varied and complicated external environmental factors contribute to our national divisions. Megatrends such as globalization, consolidation of our businesses and industries, heightened societal and technological complexity, widening socio-economic equity gaps, population migration, and higher levels of social isolation are all at work. Our current Covid-19 pandemic didn’t create these trends, but Coronavirus is accelerating ones that were already underway. And whatever our respective demographics, we’re all impacted by these factors in our daily lives as Americans. To different extents and in different ways, of course. But we all feel them. As such, we need to study this more systematically (and with a commitment to collaborative truth-seeking) in order to ensure that the solutions we craft are actually solving appropriate and clearly defined problems.

We must also ‘call out’ the many institutional players who have vested, narrow interests in leveraging the divisiveness created by the aforementioned external environmental factors. Outside governmental lobbyists, PACs, some cable news outlets, culture warriors, ideologues, and foreign governments play varying roles in our political landscape. I’m not arguing that any of these entities are intrinsically harmful in and of themselves. Or that their overt intent is to harm our Republic. But these entities have too much unchecked power. And they often act only in their own self-interest, not on behalf of the greater common good. As such, they can divide us unnecessarily. They do so through their access to power, their wealth, their influence, their social media expertise, and sometimes their purposeful misinformation campaigns. 

But here’s the thing. A famous ancient proverb goes something like this: 

“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”

This means that, at times, long-standing opponents can have a common foe out there somewhere. By aligning with our natural opponents as compatriots and allies (instead of adversaries), we can stand together against the ‘players’ who victimize and divide both Red and Blue for their own selfish gains. Maybe we have more in common than we think. If so, aligning around election and governance reform should be a priority for us together. 

Focus on Opportunity, Not Resistance

Second, let’s be honest. And admit up-front that we’ll never bring everyone into more constructive civil dialogue in our country. At least initially. A segment of our population expresses no interest whatsoever in finding common ground on much of anything. A portion of our citizenry may never choose to constructively engage with others with whom they disagree politically. For these folks, firmly staking out their ideological ground is more important than having friendly dialogue. There’s no judgment in this characterization. Rather, it simply acknowledges the breadth of the challenge before us. Some surveys estimate this difficult-to-engage segment to be as high as 35% of our fellow citizens. That’s a significant percentage of resistance (and it may actually be greater than that). But it also means that we can reach up to 65% (optimistically) of our nation’s population. Two-thirds isn’t 100% for sure, but it is a Critical Mass that can lead to ever wider change in the future. If we can bring even two-thirds of our nation together in more civil dialogue, we can build some real, positive momentum. 

So, let’s initially focus on our 65% potential. And spend our energies on creating opportunities for this segment of our citizenry to sit down in respectful, structured dialogue. These conversations shouldn’t be about forcing compromise on specific political issues. Rather, they should emphasize:

  • Learning to listen more actively and empathetically to each other.
  • Practicing our civil discourse skills in safe, respectful environments.
  • Seeing our ‘opponents’ in far more human ways.
  • And allowing us to be changed in the process. 

It’s entirely possible that focusing on this population segment is akin to preaching to the choir. Because they’re already amenable to more open, respectful dialogue in the first place. But we have to start somewhere. And building from strength (rather than division) is an excellent strategy. In this regard, one ‘industry leader’ is breaking new ground: Braver Angels. Braver Angels is a rapidly growing, national grassroots non-profit organization that sponsors Red-Blue workshops, debates, alliances, skill building, forums, and 1:1 Red/Blue partnerships. This organization is an innovative and courageous role model in finding common ground. And it deserves our unified support. I’ve gotten involved with its work on a volunteer basis and I like what I see.

Seek ‘Centering’ Structural Principles, Not Values

Third, we should pursue alignment on broader, more transcendent ideas that can actually unite us. It’s often said that Americans will disagree on almost everything except for our shared core national values. I’m not so sure this is true any longer. For it is increasingly difficult for us to agree even on oft-cited, fundamental values like freedom, liberty, individual rights, justice, and opportunity. In today’s society, we hold these things dear while, at the same time, emotively arguing that our political opponents understand them incorrectly. We attest to their sacredness as foundational to our nation. Yet we fight over polarized interpretations of each value’s meaning.

Given this state of affairs, we should focus first on aligning around more pragmatic, structural ideals and principles, not values. Even this approach won’t be easy. But it’s worth our effort. Let’s start with coming together around the crucial importance of things like:

  • The indivisibility of our nation. Holding our republic together cohesively is paramount. Because we cannot succeed as a republic if we irreparably fracture it. And our nation is an idea and an ideal worth saving from our own worst instincts.
  • The rule of law matters for a safe and orderly society.
  • The United States needs more integrity and effectiveness in all of our governing institutions.
  • We must conduct our elections in ways which every voice/vote is heard and counted—governed by reasonable laws and procedures that don’t unfairly suppress turnout. 
  • The peaceful, orderly transition of power after elections is crucial to our democracy.
  • We have a shared interest in constructively balancing individual rights and liberties against the broader common good. We may not agree on the exact balance in specific situations, but we can agree that we need to discuss this civilly.
  • We should exhibit compassion for our fellow Americans as neighbors, not enemies.
  • We stand for fairness. We must treat everyone equitably, with human respect, and with dignity.
  • We are a Diverse Nation— and our richness in this diversity is a source of vitality and strength, not a weakness.

It’s possible that we’ll never be able to agree on what constitutes a truly American ‘value’. But we can start with more practical structural considerations and build from there. 

Get in Touch with Emotional ‘Triggers’ 

Fourth, finding common ground is located in better understanding our specific responses to people and opinions that diverge from our own in life. As human beings, we’re subject to lots of emotional triggers (often unconscious) that cause us to react to oppositional situations that we encounter. A helpful framework in this regard is the Thinking/Feeling/Acting Model of human behavior. The starting point of this model is always an Event. Something happens. And we see, hear, or read about it. Then we Think about it. This mental processing attempts to make sense of the event. It also entails the internal narrative that we tell ourselves about the event itself. 

But therein lies the problem. This thinking-based narrative (about what we’ve seen, heard, or read) is often nothing more than an unconscious repetitive replay of what we’ve told ourselves about similar things in the past. It serves to self-reinforce, not to open ourselves to further discernment, logic, and reasoning. Further, our thinking narratives also inform our Feelings, which are also often repetitive, automatic, and unhelpful to us. The cycle is completed when our thinking and feeling create an Acting response— we do something, behave somehow, or communicate outwardly as a result. Often, our response is a negative one that lashes out at our perceived opponents. And we’ll continue doing so in the future as self-made victims unless we understand what’s actually going on. Then change things up.

But it’s deeper than even this. We also have to explore why we’re so susceptible to these situational, unconscious, and divisive Thinking/Feeling/Acting processes in the first place. For none of us were born with an innate desire to dislike, disagree with, or act out against anyone in response to events. These things have been learned from our families of origin in our early human development; from our ongoing social interactions; from our formal (and informal) education; and from our current living/work environments. Much more study is required to understand how these acquired and assimilated behaviors impact our ability to collaborate with people and ideas different than us. Finally, we must look closely at how individual personality traits like our internal flexibility, resilience, capacity for nuance and complexity, need for certainty, perceived vulnerability or threat, level of trust in external expertise and institutions, degree of hopefulness and optimism, underlying biases and assumptions, and the quality of our human connections all impact our willingness to engage in constructive dialogue with people who don’t look, think, or believe exactly as we do. 

In sum, we must all learn to be more purposefully self-aware. To become more honest and courageous self-observers. And, in the process, to explore why we think, feel, and do certain things with regularity when we’re confronted with opposing worldviews. What’s behind this and how is it getting in the way of our finding healthier common ground with others? How can we address the issues? Each of us has to do this on our own to some extent. But we should also be teaching these ideas and skills far more purposefully in our schools, healthcare settings, places of worship, social circles, and communities too. 

Make Friends, Not Debate Partners

Fifth and lastly, finding common ground demands that we seek friendship far more than political kinship. Much too often, we choose our friends based on their pre-existing compatibility with us. In other words, these people think, believe, and act in similar ways to us. We’re attracted to them because we already have a lot in common. But I propose that we do it in a different way. We should seek friendships with others because people are inherently friend-worthy— not because we agree with them around politics or other related things. We should seek friendships because God created us all as personal and social beings, not political ones. God’s organizing principles are relational and communal, not structural, in nature. They’re about trusting and loving others, not about making adversaries.

Put simply, we’re ‘hardwired’ at birth to seek out good, decent, and caring people to surround us with in life. As such, we should commit to viewing friends as whole human beings first and foremost. We can get around to political party affiliations, preferred candidates, or partisan policy positions on a subsequent, secondary basis. At that point, we can set healthy boundaries around how we’ll discuss our political differences– grounded in the intrinsic goodness of our relationship itself. True friends can deal with reasonable differences in their beliefs and values. True friends can teach and learn from each other. True friends can help each other to become their better angels, not the sum total of their worst possible instincts. In the end, whatever our political differences may be, true friends have these two profoundly powerful things in common: 

  • They’re both trying to navigate our ever-more challenging world in the best ways they know how. 
  • They each do their best to help the other along the way, no matter what.

It’s often said that, in life, we’re stuck with the families we’re born into. We can’t choose our families. But we can choose our friends. In this very spirit, let’s choose wisely. Let’s choose mindfully. Let’s choose compassionately. Let’s choose inclusively. Let’s choose ‘together’ every time. For, if as Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, we have our work cut out for us right now. So, let’s get started. And change things up. Because our nation’s dialogue should never center on the question, ‘Why Can’t We Be Friends?’. Instead, it should always be grounded in a committed affirmation of what can and should be: ‘We Shall Be Friends’. 

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