Deepening the Divide: Life Experience and Politics

On Tuesdays and Thursdays YOUR VOICE features political commentary from students and young professionals.

Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal published an article which put forth the idea that Republicans and Democrats may be having vastly different life experiences. A driving force behind this is location. Democrats tend to be found in urban areas, while Republican dominated politics are a typical characteristic of rural communities. The last few major elections have consistently provided proof: cities are voting blue and rural residents are voting red.

At first, this may seem like a simple summary of political terrains, which have been a widely accepted norm for a while now. Forecasters knew how the majority of states where going to vote long before the 2012 presidential elections even took place. The field is so predictable, that in urban cities such as Boston, in the last mayoral election we saw blue candidates dominate the scene. This makes a great deal of sense, as only 6.5 percent of registered voters within the city are Republicans. It seems that battle lines have officially been drawn in the two-party system. But rather than dismissing this as fact, I believe there is reason to pause, and examine the ramifications of politically homogeneous locations on American political discourse. 

With one’s political identity comes a likeminded set of values, or a moral compass, at its core. More and more Americans seem to be surrounding themselves with people just like them, which is something to be expected, as being around people similar to oneself is generally more comfortable. In an era of consumerism, industries are ready to tailor to our interests, and this can be seen in the distinctive lifestyle divides between cities and rural areas, all the while strengthening our level comfort on a daily basis. While it may not seem to be a big deal that rural residents aren’t frequenters of Starbucks, or that city-dwellers couldn’t imagine life without a smart phone, when these characteristics start to create a sense of otherness, than it may be time to reevaluate how we’ve been communicating across party lines.

In recent years especially, American political discourse has become characteristically uncivil. From the rise of “attack ads”, to a surge in social media slandering, many are avoiding civic participation altogether, as its moral reputation has continually been tainted. It has become increasingly hard for us to have discussions with those we disagree with politically, not only because few good examples exist, but because our conversations are now tainted with an inability to relate to one another. When our conceptions of core things like community (and the resulting attributes of loyalty and care that breed out of such definitions) have deep discrepancies that stem from our life experiences, then it becomes all the more difficult to have important political conversations.

In Jonathan Haidt’s novel, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, he looks at years of research on moral psychology in order to account for why the American political system is so polarized. He says, “Technology and changing residential patterns have allowed each of us to isolate ourselves in cocoons of like-minded individuals…our counties and towns are becoming increasingly segregated into “lifestyle enclaves,” in which ways of voting, eating, working, and worshipping are increasingly aligned.” While he works out his greater argument within the book, he does not dismiss the fact that both liberals and conservatives are necessary for healthy political life. In order to avoid the vacuum of “tribal moral communities” based on political ideologies, we need to rethink what it means to be intentional with people that are not like us. 

Good political discourse should not only take place when it’s convenient. It should not only occur with those who we know will applaud and uphold our opinions, but it needs to take place with those whom we have the most to learn from, who more often than not are those we intensely disagree with. The hope of any conversation of this nature would be a tenor of mutual grace and respect. This sort of conversation is enabled by an ability to find similarities, or points of interest with the person sitting across the table from you. It is quite worrisome that Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, have such increasingly different life experiences because it makes it all the more difficult to find threads of commonality.

Few Americans, according to USA today, have faith in the ability for politicians to take part in civic political discourse. This may be a reflection of what is proportionately symptomatic of our community, and perhaps a reason to take hope. If we can begin, on a micro level, to intentionally bridge the otherness which society has created, by stepping out of our comfort zones and across party lines, perhaps we can replace a tide of hostility with grace. There can be no justice or progress in American politics until we can learn to agree to disagree in a way that works. We have learned the ‘what not to do’, and with that lesson behind us, perhaps we can start refining our views by searching for the virtues behind the politics.

This process of bridging the gap starts with each of us. If we open our minds, and agree that people at their core are all striving for the common good as Aristotle would proclaim, then we can begin the process of being better neighbors to one another.

-Jenny Hyde is a recent alumna of Gordon College, where she graduated with a degree in International Affairs. She is headed to Washington D.C. for a year-long volunteership in the fall, with hopes to continue to pursue her love of writing and encouraging leadership among young women.