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A Story of Bridging Partisan Divides in the Legislature

A major goal of NCDD2016 is to lift up stories of how people across the country are Bridging Our Divides through D&D work, despite pervasive narratives telling us we can’t. So we wanted to share just such a story that NCDD member Jessica Weaver of the Public Conversations Project recently wrote about. The piece tells the story of women legislators who are resisting the urge to focus on the negative and instead look to solutions. You can read the story below or find Jessica’s original post here.

Shining a Light Beyond Polarization

PCP new logoWe’ve all seen the headlines. Gridlock. Paralysis. Incivility. All the result of widening political polarization in the United States government, and also among its people. Like other aspects of identity, political ideology can be a dividing factor in our national conversation. We refuse to engage with the “other side” and reflect critically on our own views.

The science shows that polarization has indeed worsened – almost exponentially – over the last ten years. Pew Research also indicates that in addition to estrangement, this trend has seen increased venom and antipathy between liberals and conservatives. There’s evidence that this trend is worsening, and that it has had profoundly destructive effects on American governance and its public discourse. We know that story.

But at a women’s leadership conference a couple of weeks ago, I heard a very different story. Women from all levels of government – senators, state legislators, and city council members – came together to talk about their experiences, challenges, and lessons from careers spent proving they were worthy of hard-earned entry into a sector dominated by men. In addition to stressing the importance of building personal relationships across the aisle to operate effectively, several legislators had a surprising response to the inevitable question about the seemingly irreversible tides of polarization and incivility.

Image via Politico

Instead of bemoaning how partisan bickering had stymied their work, Senator Barbara Mikulski (pictured center above) was almost indignant. “That’s not the whole story,” she said, and argued that in fact this had been one of the most productive years for women in the Senate that she could remember. And she would know: Mikulski started a monthly bipartisan dinner group just for female senators that encourages relationships between women across the aisle, and creates mentorship opportunities between generations of politicians.

The exchange made me think about something we talk about often at Public Conversations: the danger of focusing solely on conflict, especially in binary terms. By rehearsing the narrative of polarization, we are at one level simply making reference to a political reality, but at another, are pushing a wheel over the same groove, in jeopardy of deepening the schism. The story is self-fulfilling, according to recent research out of University of California – Berkeley, titled “Self-Fulfilling Misperceptions of Public Polarization,” which concluded that citizens across the political spectrum perceive one another’s views as being more extreme than they really are:

“Thus, citizens appear to consider peers’ positions within public debate when forming their own opinions and adopt slightly more extreme positions as a consequence.” In other words, being inundated with information about polarization doesn’t make us more moderate, it makes us more extreme.

This is a difficult position: how can we acknowledge the realities of deep conflicts without reinforcing narratives that are devoid of anything else? The question isn’t just relevant for polarization or other identity-based conflicts; it’s a question about how to discuss humanity’s most destructive creations – hate, bigotry, fear – without letting negativity define the whole story. I think an important answer lies in choosing to “shine a light on the good and the beautiful,” in the elegant language of writer and Muslim thinker Omid Safi. He writes, “Why shine the spotlight on the hate? This is somehow part of our national discourse. Someone does something offensive and crazy, and we immediately advertise it. But I do wonder about the mindset of always being quick to rush to publicize bigotry against us — and forget about the many who rise to connect their humanity with ours.” He ends his reflection by naming specific people whose work he wants to “shine a light on.”

So, Senator Mikulski and your dinner companions, I want to shine a light on you. Perhaps more importantly, I want to shine more lights in this often black or white world. This isn’t a call to end conversations that are challenging, simply to make space for celebrating good work that is of equal importance in the stories we tell. As Safi concludes:

So, friends, let us stand next to one another, shoulder to shoulder, mirroring the good and the beautiful. Shine a light on the good. Applaud the good. Become an advocate of the good and the beautiful. Let us hang on to the faith that ultimately light overcomes darkness, and love conquers hate. It is the only thing that ever has, ever will, and does today.

You can find the original version of this Public Conversations Project piece at www.publicconversations.org/blog/shining-light-beyond-polarization

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Roshan Bliss
An inclusiveness trainer and group process facilitator, Roshan Bliss serves as NCDD's Youth Engagement Coordinator and Blog Curator. Combining his belief that decisions are better when everyone is involved with his passion for empowering young people, his work focuses on increasing the involvement of youth and students in public conversations.

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