The Democrats’ Vision Of Bridging Divides Is Exactly What The Country Needs Right Now

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Last night was the first night of the virtual Democratic National Convention, and I watched the whole thing. I missed the DNC four years ago because I was laid up in a hospital for much of the summer, too sick to handle any political news. This year, I’m grateful to be able-bodied enough to take it in.

The evening was food for my soul. The Dems have chosen hope and unity as their mantras, and I was uplifted by the imagery and rhetoric they chose. I thought they set just the right tone: a dire seriousness about the state of the country, an urgency about the need for a change in leadership, and a hopeful spirit of coming together as Americans.

A Broad Coalition

A great many speakers talked of polarization and the way President Trump has deepened our national divide. One big speaker was Republican John Kasich, who is courting the moderate vote that will be one of Joe Biden’s strengths. Kasich opened with this:

Many of us have been deeply concerned about the current path we have been following for the past four years. It’s a path that led to division, dysfunction, irresponsibility, and growing vitriol between citizens. Continuing that path will have consequences for America’s soul-a wrong road by the president who pitted one against the other. He’s unlike all of the best leaders before him, who worked to unite us and bridge the differences and lead us to a united America.

Later in the evening came Bernie Sanders, representing the opposite, far-left wing of progressivism. With these stirring words, he urged his followers to understand the gravity of the situation and the need to vote Trump out of office:

Together we have moved this country in a bold new direction showing that all of us — Black and white, Latino, Native American, Asian American, gay and straight, native born and immigrant — yearn for a nation based on the principles of justice, love and compassion. …Many of the ideas we fought for, that just a few years ago were considered “radical,” are now mainstream. But let us be clear. If Donald Trump is reelected, all the progress we have made will be in jeopardy.

Bernie, too, talked about the dangerous tone Trump has set and the need to overcome partisan divisions in order to move forward:

Under this administration, authoritarianism has taken root in our country. I and my family, and many of yours, know the insidious way authoritarianism destroys democracy, decency and humanity. As long as I am here, I will work with progressives, with moderates, and, yes, with conservatives to preserve this nation from a threat that so many of our heroes fought and died to defeat.

I was moved to hear not only Kasich but also Sanders describing working across the aisle, and to see the broad coalition Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are building. Later in his speech, Bernie gave a ringing endorsement of Joe. I felt that it sounded authentic.

Our Two Political Divides

One thing that interested me was the different ways speakers described our national divisions over the course of the evening. Everyone agreed that Trump has made these divisions worse — although, as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pointed out, “Donald Trump didn’t create the initial division. The division created Trump.” Everyone agreed that Biden will help bridge our divides and end the vitriol. But over time, I realized there were two different “divides” being described.

One was the partisan divide between progressives and conservatives, as seen above. But another kind of divide was also mentioned: the divisions Trump has deepened across race, gender, and other identities.

Just before his closing, for instance, Bernie said this:

And to heal the soul of our nation, Joe Biden will end the hate and division Trump has created. He will stop the demonization of immigrants, the coddling of white nationalists, the racist dog whistling, the religious bigotry and the ugly attacks on women.

Reminders of inclusivity, and the need to bridge this kind of divide, were constant throughout the evening. The convention is a rainbow, with many different colors of speakers and singers. I felt an embrace of LGBTQ+ people and a general feeling that “all are welcome here.” I loved this hopeful vision of what a free and just society can look like, a vision of no more divisions across identity, no more hatred of people who are different from ourselves.

We really do have two kinds of divide to bridge. And yet, I want those of us on the left to think about this more deeply. I think we have some soul-searching to do here. Bernie was being a little lazy in his phrasing, a little whimsical perhaps, in jumping from the partisan divide to the identity divide. The reality is that among many of us on the left, our passion over one gets in the way of our willingness to bridge the other.

Why Some Are Wary Of Bridging Divides

Our national disagreements about racism and bigotry are, for many of us, the big sticking point when it comes to working across the aisle. Antiracists on the far left have been working hard for racial justice for many years now. History has made many people wary of calls for moderation and compromise. Too often, those have been watchwords for maintaining the status quo. Because of that wariness, many progressives have become impatient, even intolerant, of conservative ideas and politicians.

That intolerance is motivated by compassion for the vulnerable. My question is not whether it is upright and noble, but whether it is helpful to the cause of racial and social justice. And my belief is that ultimately, intolerance of conservatism does more harm than good when it comes to achieving results.

An illustration of progressive intolerance lies in reactions to John Kasich’s appearance at the DNC. Far-left progressives have criticized his inclusion in the convention, seeming to feel that his presence indicates a takeover of the DNC by Republicans. Much of the flak is centered around Kasich’s record on social justice issues like abortion. One tweet protesting his appearance screams: “UNDER JOHN KASICH HALF of Ohio’s abortion clinics have stopped providing abortion services.”

Such criticisms do a huge disservice to social justice by utterly missing the larger picture. Kasich’s presence at the convention targets moderate voters, who are likely needed to oust Donald Trump. If Trump stays in office, he will almost certainly appoint another Supreme Court justice or two, deepening the conservatism of a court that has already become more conservative under his influence. Under such a court, Roe v. Wade will be in serious jeopardy. How many more abortion clinics will close if it’s overturned?

No Time For Intolerance

The critical need, right now, is to vote Trump out of office. As Bernie said, another four years of Donald Trump will jeopardize all the gains his movement has made. I would go further: another four years of Trump will jeopardize our very existence as a liberal democracy, and thus all the gains we have made since our country’s inception in terms of social justice.

If voting Trump out means building coalitions between progressives and conservatives like Kasich, it’s well worth the compromise.

This is why I’m concerned not only about authoritarianism on the right but about intolerance and unwillingness to compromise on the left. The orthodoxy and dogmatism among some of my fellow progressives gets in the way of true progress just as much as any attitude on the right.

And that, in turn, is why I’m glad to hear so many Democratic leaders, including someone on the far left like Bernie, emphasizing the need to work across the aisle right now. With a pandemic, widespread unemployment, the climate crisis, and the need to dismantle systemic racism, the stakes are just too high for any one group to decide that “it’s our way or the highway.” That mentality might feel noble, but it leads nowhere.

It also carries enormous privilege. Only people who have little to lose are willing to risk the collapse of society to get their own way. The vulnerable understand that a collapse would fall directly onto them.

If we’re going to make headway on the issues we hold so dear, we must learn how to talk, listen, and work with the other side. As with dismantling systemic racism, dismantling polarization will require more than just lofty rhetoric — -we need to examine our deeply held beliefs, our words, and the ways in which we relate to each other in our day-to-day lives. I am fully behind the messaging of the DNC so far, from the vision of inclusivity to the vision of bridging divides. It’s aiming us in the right direction.

I believe Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are the leaders we need at this moment in history. I’m excited to vote for them, and I hope you are, too!

Originally published at http://katiesonger.com on August 18, 2020.

I’m a memoir writer, blogger, and sometimes-speaker with a passion for civil discourse. I also write about chronic illness and more! www.katiesonger.com

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