I had conversation with my neighbor last week that I can’t stop thinking about. We were exchanging brief pleasantries from one driveway to another when we arrived at the topic of COVID-19. Being fairly liberal and in rural Idaho, I’m always cautious with politically charged topics and keep my opinions to myself. In discussing leadership at state and federal levels, my neighbor quickly became frustrated. She explained that the severity of the virus was the fault of “those liberals.” She went on to say, “you know, I’m proud to say I don’t know a single Democrat, thank God.” I quickly wrapped up the conversation and went about my day, but my mind kept going back to that conversation. I was blown away by her sentiment. It was bothersome to know that an otherwise cheerful, neighborly friendship was seemingly contingent on my perceived affiliations. This animosity came from the same woman who so lovingly welcomed us to the neighborhood with baked goods and kind words a few years ago. I have looked after her house; she has looked after mine. I keep wondering what her reaction would be if I explained my views to her. Would she really just write me off entirely?
This division and the heated conversations that follow are not unique to my small neighborhood. I conducted a survey recently sent out to coworkers, family, friends and peers. The 22 who replied resided in 4 different states, were a variety of ages, and had very different life experiences. Of these 22, all of them stated that they felt the level of polarization in the U.S. is a problem. 91% felt that this is the worst it has been in recent years. Furthermore, only 32% of these people felt that this division is likely to improve over the next 15 years. More and more it feels that we are discouraged from even wasting our time with anyone who doesn’t agree with us. I had a friend post online this week stating, “if you voted for Trump in 2016 or plan to vote for him in 2020, delete me as your friend. I want nothing to do with you.” Whether or not his frustrations were justified is irrelevant. He went ahead and alienated people who might use those words as a justification to alienate others. I sat down with a student from the University of Denver to get their opinion on the state of affairs. Reid, a student in his 3rd year at DU’s Sturm College of Law, stated, ““I think we are fast approaching an almost permanent divide. It’s like we’re much less likely to compromise. Both in the government and out of it.” When asked what solutions he though existed, he simply stated, “You know, I thought having a major catastrophe would bring us together, but with COVID I feel that we are even more divided.” So then where do we stand? What causes this division. In my survey, 50% blamed the media for this division and another 32% blamed our current leadership. What about us? What about each individual person? When a conversation begins with such a high level of animosity, we are quick to entrench ourselves further in our beliefs and defend them. Further worsening this dynamic, we may be basing our accusations on heavily biased information. If I only read The New York Times or strictly watch Fox News, the information I have to base my opinions on is extremely tailored with a specific goal in mind. I believe we are doing ourselves a disservice by buying in to this division instead of working to mend it. We should stop blaming things outside of our control and focus on grassroots changes.
We are divided because we choose to listen to one side, we choose to isolate from the people that contradict us, and we refuse to even flirt with the idea of compromise. There is no excuse for this. We have ample resources to fact-check the news and educate ourselves on issues we deem important. As of late, most of us have ample time as well. This allows us the means to dig deeper into these concerns and better understand them. We are quick to blame leadership for their polarizing rhetoric as if we are blameless in the resultant division. I believe the buck stops at the bottom. The buck stops with each and every one of us because each and every one of us possesses the means to accept that our neighbors want our country to prosper albeit sometimes through different means. We all can enter into political discussion in a respectful fashion. This means we should all be willing to swallow our pride at least a little and try to see our fellow Americans as the complex, well-intending people they almost always are.