Eric Ireland and Michael Whidden come from two different worlds. Not surprising given the vast mosaic of communities and people in our United States. Eric lives in Greenville, South Carolina and is married with two children. He works in management for a manufacturing company. Michael lives in Brooklyn, New York and is married with three children. He works as a sales representative for a wine distribution company.
Eric’s political sentiments lean right or red; Michael’s political sentiments lean left or blue. We were connected through Braver Angels, a group founded in 2016 to bring Americans together, to bridge the partisan divide and to strengthen our democratic republic.
Our first contact was in August 2021, and we have had three hourlong Zoom conversations since then. For our most recent meeting, we wanted to each write about a topic to explore our similarities and learn about our differences. The topic we chose was depolarizing America. You will see that, despite the rabid conflict which is spotlighted by all types of media, we share deep affection and respect for each other and, more importantly, our country.
And based on our respective experiences, this affection and respect is the norm among all types of Americans who are simply trying to care for their families and be good people.
We offer our opinions below to encourage the millions of our fellow Americans out there to see across the false divide…to reach across the false divide…to be proud and loud about mutual respect and affection.
This America of 2021 is our great nation to continue to nurture and shape for posterity.
— Eric on Depolarization —
Polarization is a mortal threat to United States as founded, and those that created that threat — We Americans — are the only ones that can solve it. The good news is that we can, because it’s based on misunderstanding.
Polarization goes by many definitions, but the most lethal is the one that disallows common ground and is driven by a distrust of the aims and motivations of others. This is lethal to a country like the US, because our preamble begins with “We.” It begins with the powerful statement that the United States is a people that holds ideas in common — great ideas like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. All else in the US constitution and culture flows from this. If we cannot have a “We”, then there is no us…or US.
The history of the US is full of periods of dynamic turmoil over ideas and the direction of the country. From its founding, through civil war, industrializations dislocations, depressions and social unrest, the US has never fully settled. However, there has always been a prevailing culture among the great majority. A culture that believed the US “had the right idea” in creating the maximum amount of liberty for individuals via a notion of equality before the law; coupled with a complex separated-powers government and “can-do” mentality. That the US was a noble creation deserving of loyalty, respect, and good faith support. That its wrongs could be righted and its promise accessible to all who desired it. Our current polarization is due in large part to the erosion of that prevailing.
In large parts of the population, the prevailing sense is that this culture has diminished to the point it holds little power anymore. Our We holds no power to motivate or to hold a diverse people in common. We are polarized, we are told, because we hold values that are wholly divergent from one another. Values that cannot be shared. Further, that those who hold opposing values hold only ill will for the views of others. The “We” appears to be a collection of “They’s” and “Them’s”. But, I do not think this is true. I believe our polarized moment is a sum of only one set of parts.
Our unique polarization is built on a steady diet of one set of parts. For many of us, it’s JUST the parts we like and its the parts that tell us we are on the side of the angels and the others on someone else’s side. Like putting a puzzle together with only the outside pieces, we have an outline of what’s going on — but little else. With the exception of those on the extreme ends, most of us think and live our lives in the complex center of the puzzle. This is the TRUE reality. Not the one we see in media, but the one we live in our daily lives. The vast majority of Americans are much more complex than what we see and hear — and I believe we know that. I believe we need to act on that complexity.
The way out of this polarization is very simple and very hard to do. It requires Americans, not all Americans but enough, to push back on the simple. To challenge the simple story and the clichéd conclusions. To learn and listen. To respectfully hold to account other’s opinions, and most especially those found in the media. Finally, it takes courage. Those in the messy middle are often not as combative and strident as those on the edges. That is their strength, and our weakness. But, the messy middle is where the polarization ends and that is worth fighting for. We have allowed this polarization to turn our We into “them’s”. That means we have the power to reverse it, and continue to build the country that begins with the words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.”
— Michael on Depolarization —
It is important to depolarize the United States because we are still the greatest country in the world because of the unique character of our people. There are too many grand things ahead for humanity and the U.S. will lead the way. Not because a Republican or a Democrat will be President or control Congress or state houses or judicial branches but because of The People of America.
People who do not accept the status quo. People who think independently and creatively. People who are indomitable once they’ve collectively set their sights on an objective. People who are survivors because they or their ancestors have persevered through arrival on our shores of new generation after new generation (voluntarily or involuntarily) and all of the challenges that follow.
The United States is the longest-standing democracy in the world and one of a very few started with a near blank slate, conceived as an idea to unleash each person’s individual potential within a governmental framework that ensured, as much as any structure, that such opportunity would be passed down for posterity
We have the third-highest population in the world after China and India. We have the fourth-largest area in the world after Russia, Canada and China. We are a significant presence on Earth and must embrace our obligation to be the best possible model of self-rule and global leadership. We must unite enough to rededicate ourselves to these noble objectives, also acknowledging that the concept of unity does not mean singularity…that there will be differences in outlook, culture, religion, opinion, sensibilities and so much more…and we must levrerage the strength of our differences.
Why are we polarized?
We are currently polarized because the digital revolution has given each American potential access to oceans of information without any map to navigate through it. We are each subject to an unrelenting tsunami of news and opinion without the emotional bedrock to remain calm. We are each entrusted with media outreach that far outstrips entire governments yet we filter our content as if we were gossiping over the backyard fence (that is, not at all).
In such a chaotic climate, we are reactively aligning ourselves with the loudest voices that catch our attention and give us comfort by sounding like what we would want to say and reflexively steering as far away as possible from those who sound and look dangerous. It is as if each American lived in an information bubble equivalent to a small, quiet, familiar, remote town and we are now each walking through a cacophonous city square overwhelmed by the loudest, most ribald of every walk of life.
In this nascent phase of the digital revolution, we are giving attention to the troublemakers and extremes of behavior, similar to how a fist fight between school children will attract a large crowd. But, I believe…I know…that we will get past this…just like humanity adjusted to the revolution of hand-written tomes to mass-produced books, from anonymous pamphlets to more responsible journalism, from televised fluff to moving entertainment.
We are also polarized because, until now, the voices in the mass media sphere were those with the same, conventional financial, political and social clout. Now, there have been so many new voices added to the public discourse. While there are many who are not trustworthy, who have ill intent or who are simply incorrect, there are also countless new perspectives and viewpoints that are joining the public conversation and, in the end, that is a good thing. A great thing.
The last reason we are polarized is, I believe, that the systems of our country are failing too many people. We are seeking to blame what is easiest…what is the most vulnerable target…when in reality it’s more complicated. Too much wealth has become concentrated in the hands of too few. The mantra of modern management and technology is to eliminate waste but they haven’t eliminated waste, they’ve just concentrated the spoils of efficiency in the hands of the few who are fortunate enough to succeed in eliminating such…in essence, there is still waste, it’s just now been elevated into the hands of the few. Meanwhile, everyday people (which is almost everyone who is not a mulimilionaire) are getting squeezed to work more with static salaries. People are angry…and rightfully so…about this.
How can we depolarize?
It may sound naïve, but if start with the premise that the United States is truly a government of The People, by The People and for The People, then we must conclude that depolarization can only happen if it starts with The People. That means individuals must assert their rights to propose and implement solutions. And those individuals must join with other individuals to form groups to start accruing a critical mass for those solutions. And those groups must create institutions to entrench those solutions and elevate leaders of government who espouse those solutions. This is the process.
The solutions must start with each person accepting their individual responsibility to neither consume nor broadcast rage-inducing clickbait. Perhaps people (or social media companies) should be charged/taxed for each post they make to cover costs of servers and social media platform maintenance. There should be a digital citizenship class that is taught to children at perhaps certain stages of life. Perhaps adults should be required to take an online digital citizenship class before they can log back into their social media accounts. There should be some sort of liability for social media platforms if false or dangerous information is promulgated and remains on their website. The wild west of the internet needs to come to an end. If they have the means to capture and monetize so much of our digital activity, they need to mobilize their resources to ensure our digital activity is not false or dangerous. We need a new generation of social media entrepreneurs who create platforms that do the opposite of stoking rage and ignorance. This is the substance.
But, more generally, each American needs to extend to their fellow countrymen vast understanding, curiosity, leeway, respect and support, recognizing that — while the digital revolution has made the entire world accessible to us — now more than ever we are intertwined and interdependent upon our fellow American with whom we share land, a government, infrastructure and so much more.
I wish I had an answer to how to level the economy more; perhaps our training and educations systems have to adapt more to the new reality. Perhaps people must adapt to the new reality. Leverage the access we have to almost unlimited information to educate ourselves. A generation ago, folks needed correspondence courses to learn a new topic. Nowadays, an informative youtube video and a few insightful articles are just a few clicks away. People must learn to exploit the networking and promotional opportunities of social networks. And while technology is utterly transformative, we must not forget that, in the end, human activity is ultimately human-to-human.
[image from www.dailybeast.com]