Who’ll patch up America?
Taking to the road in search of national unity
By Rick Holmes
March 4, 2017
NASHVILLE - According to the experts, the polls and the election results, Americans are more divided than we’ve been in a long, long time.
We’ve self-sorted by political orientation, with liberals clustered in the cities and conservatives in rural areas. We’ve created our own media echo chambers, choosing to get our news from people who share and reinforce our political opinions. Partisanship in Washington seems to get more toxic with every election cycle, and its poison has spread, straining relations between friends and family members.
People of all political stripes woke up the morning after Election Day wondering “who are these people who see the world so differently from me?”
A question that lingers months into the Trump era is equally pressing: Who can bring us together?
Don’t expect the president to do it. Presidents since Nixon have campaigned on promises to bring us together, but in practice, they’ve only driven us further apart. Over the last 25 years, each president has been more polarizing than the one before. Donald Trump is about walls, not bridges, and he’s already aroused opposition as fierce as that faced by Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
Don’t expect the media to bring Americans together either. There’s too much money to be made in hyper-partisan media and fake news. Trump is doing all he can to undermine any news sources he can’t manipulate. Serious journalists have their hands full simply protecting the distinction between fact and fiction.
No, I’m afraid if we want to get Americans back on the same page, we’re going to have to do ourselves.
We need to have more conversations across the political divide. We need to find agreement on basic facts, from election results to climate science. We need to reassert the values that have, for generations given all Americans points of reference.
We need to break out of our media bubbles and escape our partisan echo chambers. We need to use Facebook and other social media tools not just to reinforce our opinions by chatting with those who already agree with us, but to engage people - in friendly, constructive tones - who you might disagree with on politics.
That’s not easy. Social scientists have shown by experiment what we already know by experience: People naturally tune out facts that don’t confirm what they believe. Both liberals and conservatives actively resist hearing arguments from the other side.
But overcoming such reluctance has never been more important. We need to talk things out, to learn how to see things through the eyes of our neighbors.
These conversations shouldn’t center on what happened last Nov. 8; that horse has left the barn. The question before the citizenry is, where are we going from here?
To watch Americans answer that question, I’m “going mobile,” as the Who once sang. Loading up the RV and hitting the road. For the next months, year or maybe longer, I’ll be reporting from the real places we too often reduce to primary colors on an election map.
I’m starting in the middle. Nashville is in the middle of Middle Tennessee, which is pretty close to the middle of the country. It’s also a blue city in the middle of a red state.
Nashville is young, diverse, hip and thriving. It’s attracting newcomers from up north, out west and around the world. Nashville’s influence in popular culture is immense, but its voice is barely heard in national politics.
About 15,000 people marched through downtown Nashville the day after Trump’s inauguration. Whether they can sustain that energy and have conversations that will make a difference may say much about where America goes from here.
As I take to the road, I’m breaking out of my own blue state bubble. I want to do more listening than arguing - just don’t go after Tom Brady - and to see how Washington’s dramas play in the hinterlands. And I hope to find ties that bind us together as well as the forces that pull us apart.
I go into this adventure with an open mind, but with some long-held beliefs. I believe Americans don’t come in just red and blue, that individuals aren’t defined solely by how they voted last Nov. 8. I believe we have more in common than the politicians think, that we are tightly joined by language, culture and history - not to mention music and sports - and that we share values far larger than our politics.
I hope my travels prove me right.