One may argue that the greatest challenge to ever face American democracy is upon us. As Victor Hanson wrote in an article for the National Review, “America is no more immune from collapse than were some of history’s most stable and impressive consensual governments” (National Review, “Can a Divided America Survive?” 06.15.2017).
Some would say that the system is failing—or has failed us already—while others would say that the country is going through a natural pendulum swing, which will inevitably swing back. Both of these two arguments are, in at least some respect, correct. The system is failing, but it is not beyond repair—it is in a pendulum swing for a reason. For too long, the far Right has felt as if they do not have a figure to voice their needs. For too long, the Left has ridiculed the far Right. They have not had a stage on which to stand, and they have not had willing ears turned their way. The great failure of the American system is the inability to create conversation across every aisle of opinion.
The United States has become more divided than it has been since the Civil War fractured the country into two political parties divided by their views on slavery (Salon, “America may be more divided now than at any time since the Civil War,” 10.14.2017). Americans have forgotten how to have productive, civilized political discussions with one another.
For our country to progress, we must relearn how to have these conversations. The late Julia Wu Trethaway, my former teacher at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, CT, left behind a motto with her passing. The Dean of the Class of 2012, Jay-Wu—as students called her—always told students to live with an OMAH, an Open Mind and Heart.
This piece of wisdom is one of the premier guiding principles that can help drag our country out of the rut in which it currently lies. OMAH is the one great skill that so many Americans lack. We, as a nation, have become incapable of entering a conversation with an open mind and heart, especially with those whose views differ from our own.
I can remember one particular instance at a table in the dining hall with a group of my friends in my junior year of high school. It was just weeks after President Trump had been elected, and two of my friends began discussing the current state of affairs in the government. It was clear from the beginning that they held polar opposite views from one another. The further right of the two made a comment in support of Trump, which in turn inflamed the other, who leaned further left.
The conversation quickly deteriorated into a shouting match in the middle of the dining hall in which both spewed out the reasons that their own views were correct. No one made any progress in this discussion. No minds were opened to new fleshed-out ideas. Instead, the only result was a bruised friendship and both parties becoming more determined to defend their beliefs at all costs.
Every time one enters a discussion on politics coming from a place of prejudice, the conversation immediately becomes an unproductive one, for neither side will be able to communicate effectively with the other.
Sociologist and social psychologist at Stanford University Robb Willer gave a TED Talk on the topic in which he stated, “When we go to persuade somebody on a political issue, we talk like we’re speaking into a mirror. We don’t persuade so much as we rehearse our own reasons for why we believe some sort of political position” (TEDxMarin, “How to have better political conversations,” 01.20.2017). Willer believes that when we enter a political discussion with someone with opposing views, we tend to have a script of our deeply rooted beliefs, which we refuse to relinquish, rather than choosing to listen to the other side.
When the listener begins to respond with their views, rather than paying attention, we either shake our heads and laugh at their ridiculous views, or we come back and speak over them about how their position is inexcusably wrong. Our self-righteousness inhibits healthy debates across the aisle and eliminates any possibility of having a productive discussion in which both sides feel heard and understood. This disconnect between groups is the reason that political views in this country have become so polarized. Neither side feels as if the other is willing to compromise or even attempt to understand their views. So, instead of trying to understand one another, they mutually reject each other’s ideas, resulting in their own preconceived opinions becoming even more deeply entrenched.
This is not an issue that occurs only on the interpersonal level. Rather, it reaches the top branches of our government. On Jan. 19, 2018, almost exactly a year after Trump took office, the failure to pass the Extension of Continuing Appropriations Act led to a federal government shutdown (The New York Times, “Government Shutdown Begins as Budget Talks Falter in Senate,” 01.19.2018). Congress has become so divided that successfully passing any bill is now a significant feat. This dilemma has rendered our government slow and inefficient, leading to an increase in civil dissatisfaction in the government according to several polls (Gallup, “U.S. Satisfaction With the Government Remains Low,” 02.28.2018).
It is time that we make significant efforts to unify our country. Call on those on the far ends of the spectrum. Invite them to have discussions on contentious issues, but do so with an OMAH. The solution is not to shy away from discussing controversial topics, but to engage in these conversations thoughtfully and with the intent to listen to the other side and understand their reasoning. Perhaps in doing so, we can rethink our own viewpoint or enrich our perspective so that we may share it elsewhere more thoughtfully and insightfully.
A healthy democracy is one in which no views are suppressed and all voices have an audience willing to listen. Let’s restore our democracy. Heed the advice of Ms. Trethaway. Live with an open mind and heart. Start consulting news outlets that do not align with your political standing, and push yourself to have healthy discussions with those with whom you disagree.