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Talking Political Tolerance

How bridging the political divide requires mutual respect and the ability to listen.


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Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Cruising social media shortly after the election, Maura Wolf stumbled upon a Nextdoor conversation online of increasingly incendiary comments—the thread was up to 174—on the merits of a student walkout at Miramonte High in Orinda, protesting President Trump’s victory.

Wolf, an associate professor of leadership studies at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, saw the “conversation” was going nowhere. The national division of Democrat versus Republican was playing out at the local level and in such ugly terms that it pushed people further into their political camps—resembling the shouting contests so common on cable news talk shows.

“I was troubled by the way I was witnessing neighbors interacting with each other in our small community,” she says. “Most of us would never say, ‘Stay in your own house, and keep your opinions to yourself’ in person. When we get personal, we miss out on actually discussing the issues. So, I invited people to meet face-to-face instead of battling it out on the Internet.”

Wolf’s experiment has proven successful, but it has also revealed how most of us are ill equipped to listen to and be respectful of an opposing viewpoint in this historic time of political polarization. In our left-leaning region, this often amounts to conservatively minded voters feeling silenced and ostracized. There are more than 130,000 Republicans of the more than 600,000 registered voters in Contra Costa County. (Roughly 300,000 of those are Democrats, and the other 170,000 are registered “other.”) Of those registered Republicans, many have shifted their political identity underground.

 

Echo Chambers

I spoke to a host of local professors, politicians, psychologists, and community activists for this story: Nearly to a person, they were deeply concerned about the state and direction of today’s political discourse, or the lack thereof. Living in our “echo chambers”—a salient term for a polarized America—has given us permission to disparage those who vote differently than we do. Tolerance has become a hallmark of Bay Area living, but it seems prejudice and stereotypes have gone mainstream when it comes to political identity.

This spring, the East Bay’s political divisions turned violent in Berkeley, with Republicans and Democrats fighting in the street. The “Patriots Day” gathering at Civic Center Park promoted on Facebook rallied Trump supporters against Tax Day marches organized throughout the East Bay. It turned into a bloody flashpoint with almost a dozen injuries and more than 20 arrests. Billed as a “free speech rally,” the clash was followed a few days later by UC Berkeley administrators scrambling to reschedule a speaking event with conservative pundit Ann Coulter after initially canceling it. (Coulter ultimately decided not to speak at the university.)

Seeking out a common identity—whether as being an American or simply being a member of a neighborhood association—is critical to the success of our democracy. As the sources for this story made clear, our private conversations needn’t mirror the partisan portrayals on cable news shows.

While writing this article, a friend texted me a quote from a commentator on MSNBC who, referencing a Twitter post, said Trump had “the attention span of a gnat on meth.” Such dehumanizing language may be funny and gratify some people’s frustration, but it makes open-minded engagement unlikely at best. Polarization begets further polarization, making Wolf’s insight and action to bring her neighborhood together a welcome and necessary shift.  

 

Start the Conversation

While the media are often blamed for driving the political parties and people apart, it doesn’t have to be this way, says Holly Kernan, vice president of KQED News. She points to Start the Conversation, a radio series inspired by the election results that brings together two Californians with diametrically opposed viewpoints on issues such as immigration and abortion. They chat, and you listen. On immigration, the participants came to appreciate one another’s devotion to family and discussed a merit-based approach toward legalization. The abortion activists stayed true to their positions but found common ground on the need to find homes for unwanted children. Perhaps most importantly, each participant became curious about the other’s perspective. As one participant summed it up: “It’s enlightening to not be yelled at by someone that thinks completely opposite from you.”

The kickoff Start the Conversation segment was a free-flowing conversation between a gay married man and a father of four, which touched on health care, jobs, and even nasty Facebook rhetoric. It took place on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial during the week of Trump’s inauguration; one man was in town for the protests, the other was a Trump delegate. The talk ended with a spontaneous hug.

“Because we’re public media, it has always been our mission to use radical empathy to understand each other even if we don’t agree,” says Kernan. “We really want to be the antidote to division. In my adult lifetime, I’ve never seen such a divided country, and it really concerns me. But if we keep our humanity at the core of our conversations, we’ll find that commonalities far outweigh our divisions.”

 

We’re All Giants Fans

“We are not so far apart as we really think,” says Laura Stoker, an associate professor of political science at UC Berkeley. “There’s an undercurrent of ‘can’t we all just get along’ that’s genuine. I think most Americans would like to live in that world. It’s an attitude held very deeply and widely across American society.”

Head to AT&T Park on a summer Sunday, and one’s political identity dissolves into a diverse crowd of 40,000 rooting for the home team. Perhaps you arrived at the ballpark as a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but once “O, say can you see …” starts playing over the loudspeakers, a new paradigm takes hold. “You’re all Giants fans,” posits Stoker. “So all of a sudden, you like Democrats.” The happy irony is that to get along, we need to stop viewing one another as members of a party and start recognizing one another as members of the same team.

Certainly, that’s the challenge causing gridlock in Washington, and facing our state and local legislatures.

Last year, Democratic State Senator Steve Glazer and Republican Assemblywoman Catharine Baker held a handful of relatively well-attended town meetings throughout Contra Costa County and the Tri-Valley. This year, the joint question-and-answer events have been overwhelmingly popular, with hundreds of constituents filling gymnasiums and community halls. The civil yet energized forums demonstrate the interest in neighbors coming together to see and hear and express divergent views.

Glazer, who lives in and was a three-time mayor of Orinda, and now represents California’s seventh Senate District, says, “I’m not going to just sit in a corner and throw spitballs at the other party.” Glazer says politicians often default to the party platform rather than thinking through a party issue, even if that particular issue isn’t in their, or their constituents, best interests.

“They accept that their party reflects them when it’s not the case,” says Glazer. “I show through my voting choices that I won’t be pigeonholed.”

In the more than 1,200 bills that both Glazer and Baker had a chance to vote on last year, they voted the same way 88 percent of the time, showing that bipartisan consensus is more attainable than most people might believe.

Baker, who lives in Dublin, came to be the Bay Area’s only Republican in California’s state legislature in part by reframing and supporting issues that are typically out of lockstep with her party, without ignoring core Republican beliefs.

“Climate change still allows for personal responsibility,” offers Baker as an example. “For me, it’s perfectly natural to protect the environment as a principle of personal responsibility.”

Finding common ground, which Baker calls “a concept basic to any cookbook on civility” is key when crossing party lines. Find something positive about the other person early in the conversation, even if your beliefs seem far apart.  

“Even if it’s just to say, ‘I appreciate your working hard on that issue,’ ” says Baker. “Acknowledge when people are being sincere. Acknowledge something. Don’t be a jerk.”  

 

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Fear and Loathing on the Web

The temptation to hurl insults is particularly seductive online. Michael O’Brien, a real estate broker and father of three who lives in Clayton, has just written a book called Fearing Nothing, on overcoming anxiety—a condition he was once debilitated by. He sees the political polarization, and the media outlets that profit from it, as feeding on people’s fears. When we buy into the rhetoric and regurgitate it on social media, everyone suffers, he says.   

“People who are having these conversations on Facebook—they are a wreck,” says O’Brien. With many Democratic and Republican friends alike, O’Brien sees a big difference in the way people act in person and online.

“There’s no question that in this area, you walk on eggshells,” says O’Brien, a Republican who voted for Trump largely on the issue of government spending.

“I’ve learned to not share my political views. I’m tired of being bullied—painted into a corner that I’m not respectful of gays or women’s rights.”

 

Illustration by Davide Bonazzi

Crossing the Divide

The Nextdoor online controversy convinced Wolf to reach out to Edy Schwartz, “the best community organizer I know,” to start a series of monthly Community Conversations at Saint Mary’s College. The two set up Saturday morning forums as open invitation meetings that start with a warm welcome, bagels, and coffee. The format is structured, with lighthearted introductory questions, deep listening exercises, small group discussions, a mini lesson on a key civic skill, and a final group check-in. But the content arises in the moment based on what topics are most relevant to the community members present—which have included some of those who posted on Nextdoor.

While coming up with an action plan for a particular issue may arise organically, the point is to cultivate deep listening skills within the attendees. “The premise is that there is great value in face-to-face dialogue, even when there are divergent opinions,” says Wolf. Our common values as Americans are greater than our partisan divides; unless we explore our beliefs, compassion will wither, and our government institutions will become increasingly autocratic or paralyzed, she says.

At the first meeting, one of the small groups chose “crossing the divide” as its topic. This allowed a woman who had been arguing with her husband after the election to share her anger. In turn, being heard allowed her to feel more open-minded to a mini lesson on deep listening. When the woman returned the following month, she reported feeling hopeful and using her newfound skills.

Another woman who attended the forum was able to reach out to her father, who lives in the Midwest.  

“She had made a very detailed list of questions she wanted to hear about from him,” says Wolf. “And they had a long conversation in which it sounded like she really listened to him and he really heard her, eventually agreeing to write a letter to the NRA about a gun issue.

“If I can really listen to you and hear where you’re coming from, and hear the motives that are driving you, a third way often emerges that honors your values and my values,” says Wolf.

Schwartz spent an hour in the Saint Mary’s College parking lot talking with an attendee about ordinances for gun control (concerning safe storage and residential sales) being proposed in Moraga. Rather than adopting an ideological stance, Schwartz heard the opposition’s fiscal argument: Significant legal and enforcement fees were likely to be incurred by the city. By applying the listening techniques, she had an out-of-the-box idea for raising money that might solve that piece of the puzzle. It involved piggybacking on Shop Moraga First to put on a multigenerational fashion show—a fundraiser to offset the city’s gun ordinance expenses.

“When you let go of your frame of reference and really listen, there is a piece of you that comes up with really creative ideas,” says Schwartz. “This is just a small example of what can come from really listening; if we just live our lives that way, we never know what’s going to happen.”

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