I WAS AT A PARTY RECENTLY when the subject of Mitt Romney’s comment about 47 percent of the country being dependent on the government came up. Everyone agreed it was a lousy thing to say. “I wonder what a Republican on welfare would think of it,” someone said.
In the awkward silence that followed, it occurred to me that I would have no idea, because I don’t have a single close friend who’s a Republican — and very few GOP acquaintances. This realization made me incredibly sad. Not because it’s my civic duty to pal around with conservatives, but because it speaks to the balkanized state of our union.
When I first arrived in Boston in 1997, I made a bunch of friends, some of whom were of the conservative persuasion. I dated a couple of women with GOP leanings, and played cards in a game with plenty of guys who were proud to tell me they’d voted for Ronald Reagan. As a rule, we avoided political discussions, but we didn’t consider one another deluded and evil.
In the ensuing 15 years, the aisle that divides us politically has come to feel more like a moat to me. Admittedly, much of this has to do with my own evolution. I’ve become more outspoken about issues of economic justice and environmentalism, especially since having kids. I also spend a lot of time with other writers, who tend to be flaming liberals.
But it would be naive to pretend there isn’t something larger going on here. The proliferation of cable television and the Internet means that Americans no longer get their news from the same place. Instead, we consult only those sources that reinforce our biases. As a result, we’ve become more righteous in our convictions, and more isolated. The voices outside our little amen choruses seem increasingly shrill and off-key.
Media companies happily widen this divide by hyping the most hostile forms of political discourse. They focus on lurid conspiracies and innuendo, because such stories generate more attention (and profit) than the ones about boring stuff like policy. The result has been the forging of two political tribes, each with its own hermetically sealed reality. We no longer view the other side as our loyal opposition. They’ve become dangerous enemies. Simply put: We’ve become bigots when it comes to politics.
I myself am Exhibit A. When I think about those who deny global warming or who construe gay marriage as an assault on their families, I can feel my blood pressure start to spike. This is not how I want to feel. It’s bad for me and bad for the country. So over the past month or so, I’ve made an effort to get outside my bubble and talk to Republicans. I’ve had long e-mail exchanges with a few.
My goal has been to get past the stuff we disagree about — which sometimes feels like everything. For instance, there’s not much I could say to the grandma who told me that Barack Obama is a “black Muslim” installed by a secret group to subvert America.
But I did find some common ground with John, who manages an auto parts store out in Ohio. (I found him on Facebook.) We both wish the government spent our tax dollars more wisely. We both feel the needy deserve help — though we might differ on how to define “needy.” We both love books and worry about the kind of country we’re leaving our kids.
I’m not sure I’d call John a friend exactly. But I’d like to think we could be, eventually, which is as good a place to start as any.
Steve Almond’s newest story collection is God Bless America. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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