Rather than any shared culture or ethnicity, America is a country defined by its landscape and a political system of the people, by the people, and for the people. I've written before about the importance of protecting place — the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the lands we call home. But equally important is protecting our system of governance.
When it comes to our politics, America has always been a country of contradictions. We wrote a constitution based on the belief that all people are created equal, but inscribed in that same document fundamental inequalities based on the color of people's skin and their gender. We value rugged individualism, but rely on a system that gains its legitimacy from collective action at the voting booth. Our system requires us to disagree, but also to listen to each other.
The first of these contradictions marks America's original sin, and while generations of Americans have made painful progress, the ultimate resolution required by justice in favor of full equality in opportunity for all still eludes us. At the same time, the final contradiction, which has been the key to America's progress, has begun to fail over the past several decades: We increasingly disagree along ever more sharply partisan lines, but our ability to listen to each other is fading.
This ideological divide is joined by a physical divide as well — as people of common political beliefs increasingly live surrounded by neighbors who share their politics. What this means is that as a country, we are simultaneously losing the two key elements that hold us together: a common place and a shared political system. We increasingly live in different communities and our political system rarely leads to common cause, but rather bigger fights and demonization.
We've come to believe that our fellow Americans are not a strength, but a weakness. It's an understandable conclusion, and one I have fallen into myself, especially when I look at the politicians I disagree with in D.C. and around the nation.
But here's the thing: The very idea of America depends upon us depending on each other. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.
I'm not suggesting that we should set aside our disagreements. As I noted, that's half of the contradiction from which our strength comes. What I want is for us to try to listen to each other — to not immediately assume bad faith from people who have come to very different conclusions than our own, to understand that someone does not have to be evil to be wrong.
Still take to the streets when your sense of justice requires it. Still demand progress toward the nation we have frequently spoken of, but rarely, if ever, manifested. Still stand strong for your rights, and those of others, when you see them under threat. Rally your allies to these causes, but also seek to persuade those beyond your own ideological walls.
Successful persuasion is a funny thing. It requires empathy, but, at its best, also vulnerability. We are most able to persuade others when we are open to being persuaded ourselves.
It's time we came to a national conversation just as ready to listen as to talk, just as ready to learn as to teach. If we want understanding from those across the divide, we have to be willing to offer it. We live in a time where technology has enabled a greater ability to speak than ever before; America's future depends on us developing an equal capacity to listen. ♦
John T. Reuter, a former Sandpoint City Councilman, has been active in protecting the environment, expanding LGBT rights and Idaho's Republican Party politics.