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A Nation Deeply Divided

By Ed Parsons - Editor | Jan 20, 2021

With memories of 1968-1968 spinning around in my head, I watched along with THE WHOLE WORLD as thousands of angry demontrators converged on Washington, D.C. in a violent attempt to pursuade lawmakers, (in particular Vice President Mike Pence) to overturn the election results.

Unwilling to accept what has been called the most secure and fairest election in History, chants from thousands of angry protesters on the streets of D.C. (polarized by speeches from President Trump, Rudy Guliani, Donald Trump Jr. and others), stormed the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, sending images and sounds of caous and mayhem around the globe.

Now two weeks later the Capitol city looks like a third world country and a war zone, with fences, barricades, and a heavy presence of National Guard and other security personnel prepared to combact what the FBI has called a threat to the Captiol and all 50 states.

The two week events leading up to the innaugeration of the newly elected President and Vice President of the United States, left us with a clear understanding of the dysfunction and rancor in the American political system. It virually parallels the Vietnam War Demonstrations outside the Democratic National Convention in 1968. Pictures of the riots at Kent State where national guardsmen opened fire killing four unsuspecting students should have taught a lesson in civility, yet the impact is still being felt today.

Millions of viewers were shocked that politicians let their emotions, frustrations and animosities get the best of them, to the point of causing an uprising and coup attempt, which fortunately was unsuccessful. Many today are wondering if the political system is changed forever, are we a more deeply divided nation than anytime in our history? I believe in certain aspects of geography we are. It is certainly no longer just about race and war, but we are a nation more at odds with itself than at any other time since the Civil War. And in a more dangerous way. Today it’s not North vs South, instead it’s community vs community, neighbor against neighbor. Unfortunately many of the same issues are the root of the problem.

There are many lessons for today, notably that despite a political system that is resistant to change, there is one heartening fact, the American public still could have a decisive and direct impact in shaping policy and controlling government. Everyday people can change the nation’s course if they persevere and put pressure on their leaders, in peaceful protest, demonstrations and every means within the confines of the law.

The truth of the matter remains that in order to have a measure of consensus and healing, compromise must happen in our government which is deeply divided today between conservatives and liberals, making compromise hard to find between the House, and the Senate.

In todays Washington, effort, empathy, perseverance and courage have not been enough to break the barrier. America is dangerously divided. Instead of a national dialogue, a vicious partisanship tears our social fabric and impedes government’s ability to get things done.

How have we gotten to this frighteningly divisive point in our history? Major shifts in our political process, social media, the press, and the economy have encouraged division. As a result, we have reached a stalemate in politics and government. Each side must recognize that they cannot move beyond stalemate and reach their own goals without the other side’s consent. We need a new approach to the political process, one that values problem solving over partisan combat.

Riots like we have experienced for much of 2020 have no place in our society and should be condemmed on and by all levels of Government. Violators should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, regardless of your political affiliation or standard within your community. It was amazing to see and hear voices of those entrusted to protect us, storming the Capitol of the United States, with complete disregard for the safety and security of others. The insurrection will take it’s place in history beside the turmoil of the late sixties, and the battles fought beyond our borders. It was a sad day to be an American!

It is time for elected officials and leaders to quit the old divide-and-rule tactic and reward efforts to meet fundamental needs through problem-solving politics. We must confront and address the conditions that have led to crippling partisan division and create a more productive government and style of politics and communication that sets an example for the world.

First, people need to be heard, and they need to feel heard. A recent MIT study showed positive attitude changes on the part of a group holding one view of an issue toward a group holding an opposing view after members of the first group were given the opportunity to explain their cause to someone in the second. The opportunity to share one’s story with those on the other side of an issue is critical, and posting online is not enough. Creating the opportunity for people to explain their stories and concerns — through town hall meetings, deliberate conversations and in personal interactions — is essential.

Second, we need to reach out to the other side of an issue. It’s not easy: Part of the problem is that the changes of the last 30 years have created identity groups and intensified loyalty to existing ones. That can lead to dynamics such as boosted confidence in positions, dehumanizing of others, simplistic evaluations of complicated issues and more. But to truly get what your group needs and to produce results that will last, you need engagement that meets the underlying needs of all sides. Power — defined as getting others to work with you for your needs — grows from relating to each other and understanding the other side’s underlying objectives. But you need to engage for that to happen.

Third, the goal should be to solve problems, not to win debates. When differences emerge, start by creating a process to identify the underlying needs and objectives of those on all sides of an issue. This means not automatically attacking the position of the other side without trying to understand their experience. The full range of local and national issues could benefit from this approach, from local projects to overcoming racism.

Skeptics may label this approach to problem-solving politics as giving in, but it’s much more likely to get you what you need in the long run. Problem-solving politics won’t satisfy those who make a living — or a political career — out of insulting opponents. But for the rest of us, it will get to solutions that work by focusing on underlying needs.

It is time to demand that elected officials and thought leaders not play into the old divide-and-rule tactic. We have to remove social support for that approach and reward efforts to meet fundamental needs through problem-solving politics. This is how we can confront and address the conditions that have led to crippling partisan division and create a more productive government. We can create a style of politics and communication that sets an example for the world.