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Talking Across the Divide

This long article on political polarization in the U.S., which was published in the Denver Post two months before NCDD's 2004 conference was held in Denver, quotes several NCDDers. Here is an excerpt from the article: 'Most people in both political parties want the same things: safety, security, beauty, liberty, strong families and healthy neighborhoods. The best way to achieve these goals, experts say, is meaningful conversation about tough issues across the partisan divide.'

Two Americas. Divided America. Some even call it "50/50 America," where the electorate is so evenly divided that the last election hung on a scant 537 votes in Florida. From Sunday brunches to hair salons, everyone is talking about how the 2004 election will likely be the most polarized in recent history.

And everyone has someone or something to blame.

Dick Meyer – the editorial director of CBSNews.com, who has covered politics for 20 years – wrote a commentary that fingered these culprits.

"The divisive war with Iraq and enduring questions about the administration's credibility created an opposition to Bush that doesn't just disagree: It hates his guts. The same thing happened in the last administration, inspired greatly by Bill Clinton's scandal."

First lady Laura Bush blames polarization on journalists. "I think that a lot of times the media sensationalize or magnify things that aren't – that really shouldn't be," she said in a recent interview with Fox News Channel's "The O'Reilly Factor." "I do think there's a big move away from actual reporting, trying to report facts."

Progressives blame religion and religious conservatives blame secular humanism. Almost everyone blames talk radio. But here's the real problem.

"Few people have a cross-spectrum or trans-partisan way of analyzing the obstacles to civility," says Mark Gerzon, president of Mediators Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to addressing global conflicts through conflict resolution.

He should know. After writing "A House Divided: Six Belief Systems Struggling for America's Soul," the Boulder-based author was retained by Congress to facilitate the historic Bipartisan Congressional Retreats in 1997 and 1999. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trust, the sessions were designed to foster civility, respect and bipartisanship among members of the House of Representatives.

He asked members of Congress to list the obstacles to civility. More than 200 politicians had something to say. By the end, the wall was covered with yellow Post-it notes listing at least 100 obstacles to civility.

"There were obstacles inside the political system and inside the House of Representatives, obstacles in the American culture, the media and talk radio. There were lots of layers."

At the individual level, he says, it's really about how we think. "Can a guy listen to his wife when she's telling him what a jerk he is? All people have a hard time sitting in the chair and listening to that. It's about me, my desire to be right, to not hear things that don't fit with my point of view."

Gerzon is part of an emerging movement known as dialogue and deliberation. There's even a National Conference on Dialogue & Deliberation, which will be held in Denver at Regis University on Oct. 23-24. These nonpartisan organizations believe that polarization harms democracy and paralyzes our ability to handle an unprecedented convergence of crises, both nationally and internationally.

"If we want to enjoy and participate in democracy, we've got to learn to marshal the capacity to listen to things we disagree with," says Gerzon.

"Most of us just flip the channel – from Rush Limbaugh to Phil Donahue or vice versa – because we want the world to agree with us."

True dialogue is a demanding skill to master, even for the president of Mediators Foundation. "When I sit and listen to someone tell me why they support the Iraq war and why it's a great idea, I've learned to discipline myself to really listen. I say, 'Know your enemy.' Actually listen to the way they think. Because the enemy, the person on the other end of the political spectrum, is a good person, and you can learn something from that person."

Even with loved ones, dialogue can be difficult. Leilani Rashida Henry, a Denver business consultant, comes from an extended family that's mixed racially and politically, a military family both conservative and religious. She and her partner, both Democrats, loved Michael Moore's movie "Fahrenheit 9/11." At a recent family reunion she asked if anyone had seen it. "My aunt rolled her eyes and said, 'No.' No one else said a word except my cousin, who said there was only one theater in his town, but he wanted to see it on DVD."

If dialogue is tough to practice in the best of times, it's particularly challenging now. Only twice in recent political history has the country been so polarized: in 1994 when Republicans took over Congress under the Clinton administration, and in 1946 after World War II.

American cultural expectations don't help. "Talking about politics for many Americans is considered slightly inappropriate or even rude," says Deborah Tannen, author of "The Argument Culture." "In countries like France, Germany and Greece a good knockdown argument is fun. But we don't have a tradition of lively political arguments as a form of sociability. … (Arguments) might be worse now than before because there is so much at stake."

Indeed, it's nothing like the last election, when people complained there wasn't much difference between the two presidential candidates. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center shows that during this campaign, 63 percent says it "really matters" who wins, versus 45 percent in 2000.

"I've heard many people say, 'This is the most important election in my lifetime,"' says Tannen. "People don't feel as frivolous as during the 2000 election, when everything was so great because we had prosperity and peace."

Visceral hatred isn't just between Republicans and Democrats. The partisan divide is sliced by political polarization fragmented by cultural polarization. People like Bob Rosenberg are caught in the crossfire.

As president of the Colorado chapter of the Log Cabin Republicans, a grassroots organization of gays and lesbians, Rosenberg recently hosted a booth at the Gay Pride Parade.

"People would not even come within 10 feet of us," he says. "To me, that's a knee-jerk response to something they don't understand. They think that if we're gay we must be Democrats because Democrats are on our side."

But he's also at odds with many Republicans. "There's intraparty (warfare) between the Log Cabin Republicans and the Christian Coalition.

Some Republicans don't know I'm gay – we'd be at loggerheads immediately because we'd have no possible agreement over abortion or being homosexual."

Most of his friends are Democrats. Political conversations are usually civil, except one recent dinner where he says a fellow Republican got a little mouthy. "I knew we were hurting people's feelings, and I said, 'This isn't the time to discuss it.' I'd much rather change the subject than get personal."

Dori Maynard, president and chief executive of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, observes that dialogue in America isn't always encouraged. "We're almost unable to talk about the rage many people of color feel about the disenfranchisement during the last election in Florida. Particularly after Sept. 11, to question Bush's legitimacy became almost unpatriotic. That's a real issue bubbling under this campaign. But there's no real way to talk about it, in part because the news media didn't really talk about the disenfranchisement of black Americans and Jews (in Florida.)

"Factor in the fact that many black people died for the right to vote, so giving it up is not something we do that frivolously."

Polarization, she says, is further complicated by a recent tendency to ignore the needs of our multicultural society.

"What's happened since the Reagan administration is that the issues of people of color have been marginalized as special interest. It's become not only legitimate but prudent political thinking to court soccer moms, yet the concerns of Asian-Americans, or particularly African-Americans, are perceived as falling into identity politics and dragging down the debate."

Each ethnic community is divided by such fault lines as geography, class and gender. "Sometimes these concerns are universal, and sometimes they're particular to that segment. Discussing all our concerns is how we come up with a much more united and coherent public policy – one that will help us move forward in a time of great global competition,"

Maynard says. "If we can't do that, we risk becoming balkanized. We have to really listen and dialogue with the goal of understanding, not agreeing."

John Parr, often called "the godfather" of the dialogue-and-deliberation movement, helped pioneer the art of talking across the divides. In the 1970s he played key roles in the campaign and administration of Gov. Richard Lamm. "I realized it was counterproductive to just polarize people on environmental issues," he says. "You had to find ways to build a consensus and get people to collaborate on solutions."

So he started using dialogue techniques in the governor's office, particularly in his leadership of the Colorado Front Range Project, a public-private planning effort on growth issues in Colorado's 200-mile urban corridor. "We changed the debate from growth versus no-growth to quality growth," he says.

Three decades later, Parr, a Democrat, used the same techniques – seeking common ground, focusing on solutions not problems – when watching the Democratic convention together with his Republican in-laws.

"We actually had a blast listening to Kerry's speech. We talked about what resonated with us, the things he said that we really liked." As a result, his father-in-law changed his mind about his presidential vote; his mother-in-law remains undecided.

In Aspen, Kelley Carson, a Republican, is raising her 14-year-old daughter Katy with the same principles of dialogue: listening with respect and keeping an open mind.

"My mom informed me about the Republican Party, and I made her watch the Democratic convention," says Katy. "I'll watch the Republican convention with her. I've mostly made up my mind about Kerry. To me he seemed like a good man and not so much about, 'Let's take back the White House for the Democrats.' The Bush campaign is more about taking back the White House for Republicans, and I don't agree with that."

The teenager, home-schooled for the past few years, prizes what she calls "civil discourse" and wields strong opinions about the current state of national debate.

"People need to be way more educated in this country. We need to make people smarter. Most people who talk just state their opinions and won't keep an open mind. Even if you stick with your original opinion, it's better to know both sides. My mom and I have heated conversations, but we don't get so personal that we're just screaming."

Most people in both political parties want the same things: safety, security, beauty, liberty, strong families and healthy neighborhoods.

The best way to achieve these goals, experts say, is meaningful conversation about tough issues across the partisan divide.

"I don't think there's anything negative about people feeling passionate about political differences," says Tannen. "I wish more Americans felt passion about politics. But it's important to oppose each other without being nasty or turning to the sort of loud personal attacks that we see so much in politics today."

Conflict that's deep and authentic, agrees Gerzon, "is what creates the healthiest, safest neighborhoods and innovative legislation that ultimately develops bipartisan support."

After all, the Founding Fathers intentionally built democracy on the bedrock of conflict. It has been around since the Federalists went after the anti-Federalists. As former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich said at Gerzon's first congressional retreat: "Conflict in the House of Representatives should be welcomed; it is democracy's alternative to civil war."

Staff writer Colleen O'Connor can be reached at 303-820-1083 or at coconnor@denverpost.com.

Really hearing other viewpoints

Dori Maynard of the Maynard Institute, on fault lines in the 2004 political campaign:

"Two people look at the same thing, and depending on the fault lines – like race, gender or generation – they see it very differently. Trying to pretend this doesn't exist trips us up in political conversations. We need to pull back and have conversations with the goal of understanding each other and how we came to those points of view.

"We all need to stand back and say not, 'This is how I see the world,' but 'Let me try to listen to others so I can integrate that into my world view.' I have to understand that by screaming at them, I'm not going to change their point of view. Even by understanding I'm not going to change them, but at least I'll understand. It's the only way we going to be able to have any kind of coherent public policy.

"We have diversity, which is different from unity. Once we learn to talk across diversity, then we go for unified public policy. We don't have to give up (who we are.) I'm not asking the NASCAR dads to come to the California Bay Area and agree with all that goes on here. I'm not asking people to merge into one lifestyle.

"I think it's great we have so many different cultures. It can be very exciting when the goal is understanding, not agreeing. Because then we give up the need to win or prove ourselves right. Then it's quite fine to go into different worlds, even if we don't agree."

– Colleen O'Connor

A primer on civility

Religion is one of the most divisive issues in these polarized times. So how do you talk about it? Here are suggestions from The Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, whose mission is to promote the shared values of Colorado's faith traditions as a unifying force in the renewal of democratic life.

"Show interest in what others think, and perhaps ask how they developed that position," says Maureen McCormack, chair of the Public Policy Commission. "Share information and what you believe or prefer without trying to persuade. Perhaps mention something you've read or learned that makes sense to you. Search for common ground. If a person is deeply entrenched in a position, you may choose to say nothing."

There are many resources for dialogue on the TIA website (www.interfaithalliance.org).

Tips include:

  • Don't speak as though you think your religious beliefs are the correct or preferred belief system for society.
  • Don't disparage another person's religious belief.
  • Don't cast aspersions on the personal beliefs and religious convictions of others.
  • Do recognize the important role of religion in U.S. society.
  • Do seek out values shared by the majority of people of faith and goodwill: compassion, civility and mutual respect for human dignity.
  • Learn about the beliefs of different faith traditions.
  • Talk about your faith, not the other person's.
  • Honestly describe religion as a source of your wisdom, strength and morality.

Also check out the TIA e-weekly "Media Roundup: A Report on the Use of Religion in the 2004 Elections." It offers a useful summary of news stories where religion – either positively or negatively – has played a role in a political candidate's quest for elected office. These stories are a good way to spark conversation with friends, family and colleagues.

-Colleen O'Connor

Build a bridge, not a wall

1. Learn to listen.

Recall what it feels like to talk when someone is not listening. This is where our nation is today. Everyone wants to "have their say," but no one wants to "lend an ear." Listen carefully to people who talk to you. Expect them to listen carefully to you. When people "tune out," tell them you've noticed. When TV sponsors shouting matches, don't listen. Foster dialogue in your home, your workplace, and your community.

2. Stand up against bigotry.

Whether coming from the left or the right, venomous hostility directed at any of our fellow citizens – blacks, Jews, gays, corporate executives, devout Christians, or government officials – isn't an expression of patriotism, but a violation of it. Protect the public arena. When confronted with demagoguery, name it.

3. Seek goals greater than victory.

Refocus on your purpose. Do you want to win or find common ground? To vanquish, or to partner? To have it your way, or find a new way? If your goal is just to gain a victory over opponents on "the other side," then they will seek to undo whatever victory you win. If your goal is justice and reconciliation, they can help you reach your goal.

4. Build bridges, don't blow them up.

Confronted by groups opposed to your beliefs, you will often feel tempted to write them off – they seem so hostile, so unreasonable. These feelings are natural but rather than let them dominate your behavior, keep your options open. Find ways to meet with those who anger you. In Colorado Springs, one of the capitals of Christian fundamentalism, the Citizens Project hosted potluck dinners in people's homes, bringing together members of activist Christian organizations and those who feared them. By the time dessert was served, a lot of stereotypes had fallen away. While the rest of the nation polarized, these residents of Colorado Springs began to find common ground.

5. Think like a minority, because you are one.

Today no ethnic group is the mainstream; no group is a standard of measure for American-ness; no person is average. Even the notion that we can all be categorized as white, black or brown is obsolete. The 1990 census identified 300 "races," 600 Indian tribes, 70 Hispanic groups, and 75 multiracial combinations. America belongs to everybody, not just to one race or language group.

– Excerpted from "A House Divided," by Mark Gerzon

In uniform

At first, seated in her Colorado Springs living room, baby in her lap, 3-year-old at her feet, Jessie Rhodes is tactically polite, choosing her words for fairness.

"It really doesn't bother me that much," says the 28-year-old wife of a soldier still in Iraq. "They have a right to their opinion."

Since her husband has been gone she has tried not to not take personally the anti-war slogans, the political rhetoric about botched foreign policy, the talk-show debate about whether our nation's presence in Iraq is wrong.

Still, the more she talks about what it really means to be the one left behind, how she can no longer watch television news for fear of seeing a hostage with a knife to his neck, how her daughter, now 15 months old, only knows her father as a face in a photograph and an occasional voice on the telephone, Rhodes rethinks her position.

"Maybe," she says, leaning forward, her voice rising, "I am a little angry."

"Honestly, my husband is doing what he does so those people have the freedom to protest," she says.

Capt. Brad Rhodes is not even active duty military anymore. The 29-year-old is a satellite-systems engineer for Booz Allen Hamilton, a defense contractor. He was called up in December by the 143rd Signal Company for the Colorado National Guard. He went to Iraq in March, just as most of the other Colorado soldiers from Fort Carson were coming home.

Rhodes' tour of duty may not end until next summer.

"Somebody has got to do this job," says Rhodes, "I would prefer it wasn't my husband. He is my husband, he is a daddy, not a soldier. But I am proud of him."

These days her emotions and opinions are still works in progress. She feels frustrated at the simplicity so many seem to attach to issues of war and patriotism.

With 65 days to go until the nation elects its first wartime president since Vietnam, Rhodes is nothing if not conflicted.

"I'm either a liberal Republican or a conservative Democrat," says the officer's wife. She has not yet decided who will get her vote.

She thinks her husband is also undecided. When they do get to talk, politics falls well behind the kids, the house and finances in the order of discussion.

It is wrong, she says, to assume hers or other military families in conservative strongholds like Colorado Springs, will automatically back George W. Bush.

Yet that doesn't mean she is ready to hand the reins to John Kerry.

She's not sure she trusts him.

And, like the country as a whole, there are deep divisions about the war and its politics even within her own family.

In spite of the fact Rhodes' husband is in Iraq – or maybe because of it – some, like her grandmother, believe the war is a mistake and the troops need to come home immediately.

Rhodes says her family has always been one to speak its mind. "No one is going to tiptoe around me," she says.

Still, she can't help but get irritated. "They just don't get it," she says. It's different when you love someone over there.

She won't allow herself to think he might not come home. Nor will she consider his duty is a mistake.

She really takes issue with the slogan often bandied about by those trying to be sensitive. "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home."

She finds it disingenuous. "Supporting our soldiers isn't just bringing them home. Of course I want my husband home. I want him home more than anything else in the world, but supporting our troops is supporting them, whatever they are doing, even if you don't agree with it."

– Jenny Deam

In the neighborhood

You would expect to see bumper-stickered Volkswagen buses in Denver's Park Hill neighborhood. Rows of wind chimes dangling over worn porches; recycling bins overflowing with empty bottles of local microbrew and spring water; entire blocks of front-yard signs lambasting President Bush.

You would not expect to find Bill Ray, the spokesman for the Colorado Republican Party, living in Denver's white-hot heart of liberal politics.

But Park Hill is home for this Republican. He embraces the debate his very presence in the neighborhood invites.

"I get a chuckle every morning when I walk to my car and see my neighbor across the street, with her 'Regime Change Starts at Home' yard sign," says Ray. "I full-heartedly disagree with what her sign is saying, but I respect her right to have that sign in her yard."

Ray socializes with his liberal neighbors – he has even gone fishing with one of them – and they talk politics all the time.

Would he like a few more Republicans on the block? Sure, he says. But one reason they picked Park Hill was because "it's a diverse neighborhood, you have people from all walks of life in Park Hill, that's the kind of life we want for ourselves and our son," he says. "We don't want our son growing up in a homogenous community." That includes a community that is entirely Republican.

Ray's eagerness to flirt with the political other side is not typical, says Jim Gimpel, a professor of political science at the University of Maryland and author of "Patchwork Nation," a book that explores how the country is becoming increasingly divided politically, along geographic lines.

When people move, they don't study precinct maps before they select neighborhoods, he says, but they do choose their neighborhoods based on a "matrix of lifestyle considerations" that have "clear political implications," like the type of housing, the schools, the shopping and the nearby churches.

In neighborhoods where one political persuasion dominates, political outsiders "will be silenced or squelched," he says.

"People tend to clam up when they face a majority because they want to be accepted," he says. "Most folks are conflict-averse."

Ray's next-door-neighbor fishing buddy, Tom O'Connor, thinks the trend toward politically unified neighborhoods is "insane."

"Not all Republicans are evil, you know what I mean, nor are all Democrats," says O'Connor. "That's part of the problem. I think the body electorate is isolated from each other. They're not communicating with each other, it's this vitriolic isolation people have."

O'Connor, who describes himself as "extremely anti-Bush," says he and Ray talk politics without it turning to fisticuffs. He is, however, plotting how to get back at Ray for one dastardly political trick.

"He taped a George Bush sticker onto my car," O'Connor says. "But he did it with very light tape, so I could take it off."

– Douglas Brown

At work

Rhonda Vogts has always believed that being politically involved and community-oriented was the best way to build her family-owned restaurant.

Now she knows that politics and business should not mix.

"I didn't realize how easily things can get blown out of proportion," says Vogts, co-owner of the Cherokee Dining on West 12th Avenue restaurant. "Political disagreements shouldn't be taken as personal slights."

When Mike Morrissey, 72, a longtime defense attorney, asked Vogts to display a political sign supporting his son's bid for Denver district attorney, Vogts didn't hesitate.

Morrissey had been a regular since the restaurant opened in 1984, eating lunch there at least three times a week. To thank him or any other customer for so many years of patronage, Vogts would have put up a sign for any candidate, no matter their party affiliation.

In this case, Mitch Morrissey was a Democrat. And Vogts' support angered Republican customers even though there weren't any Republicans running for the office.

"After several weeks, customers were verbally telling us they were upset that we had put the sign in the window," Vogts says. "They felt we were picking a side and that it wasn't appropriate for a business to do that. So we took the sign down."

Mike Morrissey says it was simply a question of loyalty. He is unsure if he will ever return to the restaurant.

"I go way back in politics and the basic thing in my life – both politically, private and legally – is loyalty," Morrissey says.

Mitch Morrissey, who won the Democratic primary, says he understands the unfortunate position that the restaurant and other service-oriented businesses find themselves in, especially during an election year.

"I have no problem with what happened," he says, adding that other businesses he has frequented chose not to post his signs. "Restaurants are particularly vulnerable and have the most to be concerned about it."

Vogts says she tried to take a stand.

"But I crossed the line and I feel horrible," Vogts says. "I let everybody down. We've lost several customers over it, including Mike Morrissey. I wasn't trying to be political. I was trying to be a good neighbor."

– Sheba R. Wheeler

At the dinner table

Greg and Desiree Renaud knew when they got married six years ago that they stood on opposite sides of the political fence.

He was an anti-Clinton Republican who read Ann Coulter and preferred to get his news from the Fox cable network, thinking CNN was too liberal.

She was a former Reaganite who had gone over to the Democrats and loved Al Franken and Molly Ivins.

But it wasn't until this year, when Desiree became a campaign volunteer, first for Wesley Clark and later for John Kerry, that the Lafayette couple's differing views became so sharp-edged they began to back away from discussing political issues at all.

After a few heated exchanges in which voices (but not fists) were raised, they basically agreed to disagree. Today, they don't even watch the Sunday morning public-affairs programs together.

"I think we would just end up hooting in derision at different times," says Greg, 39, a former emergency-services dispatcher who makes his living training dispatchers around the country to use the latest 911 systems.

Like Americans at large, the Renauds seem so polarized that they no longer explore each other's opinions in the traditional give-and-take fashion – especially when it comes to anything involving foreign policy or the war in Iraq.

"It would be nice to be able to debate these things without getting really angry, but we have different approaches. I love to talk politics, but he just really doesn't like confrontation," says Desiree, 45, a website designer who met her husband online.

"Most of the time, we kind of dance around the issues, because we don't want to damage our relationship."

Greg agrees. "We simply avoid topics that are sensitive politically," he says. "There's not a lot we could do to change each other's minds."

Despite their differences, though, the two have managed to maintain an air of mutual respect.

Greg tolerated a Wesley Clark sign in their front yard, although he removed it as soon as the general dropped out of the race, and "He has always been cordial with everyone I've had over" for campaign get-togethers, his wife attests.

And while Desiree intends to put up a "Kerry/Edwards" sign, even though she realizes "it will probably annoy him a little," she stops short at placing a bumper sticker on their only car.

"That might be pushing things too far," she says.

– Jack Cox

Colleen O'Connor – Denver Post Staff Writer

Denver Post, August 29 (2004)

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