Our Cooperation Is Rooted In A Common Story

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher
Swift County Monitor-News

“One nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” They are the concluding words of the Pledge of Allegiance. They are a myth.

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty reads. There are those who would scratch out those words and replace them with “stay out.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal,” the Declaration of Independence reads - it is an unfulfilled promise.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.” We are still struggling to form that “more perfect union.”

How does a nation with such noble words in its founding documents and most visible symbols of its highest ideals fall into such a bitterly divided citizenry? Noble words meant to inspire now divide.

We were recently having a political discussion among a group of friends, some with fairly strong beliefs about the merits of their candidates and the failings of the other party. They were also quite opinionated on which news media outlets, print and broadcast, could be trusted and which ones were entirely unreliable and prejudiced. Not surprisingly, their political beliefs lined up closely with their preferred news sources.

Afterwards, we ran into one of those friends who raised the question, “Why can we have political debates among our fellow citizens, then sit down and work together to better our community?”  We can we face tough challenges together in our town, but in Washington, D.C., and St. Paul, they can’t even talk to each other? Why are our parties so polarized?

As citizens, we are partially responsible for the divisiveness in Congress and the Minnesota Legislature when we don’t get involved early on in the process that selects who is running for office. Less than 15 percent of us typically vote in a primary election.

One fear many would-be moderate Republicans have had this election cycle is appearing to be out of step with their president. They fear being “primaried” by someone more loyal, more conservative. There are Democrats who face this same challenge if they appear too moderate for their districts.

What these candidates know is that while the majority of Americans are moderates, leaning left or leaning right, they aren’t the ones showing up to vote in the primaries. So, we too often get stuck with candidates who represent the fringes. They become elected officials who refuse to work across the aisle.

We know many Democrats and Republicans who yearn for a third party – one that would moderate the positions of the left and right. Yet, when it comes time to vote, they have little choice but to cast their ballot for the divisive candidate who most aligns with their points of view.

One essential reason we get things done together in small towns is that we know each other and judge character outside the realm of politics. Our mutual respect and friendship transcend political beliefs.

Where does our tolerance for differing opinions come from at the local level and why is it absent once we elect officials to office who are sent to seats of power outside the community? Maybe it has a little to do with where we get our information.

“Democracy requires citizens see things from one another’s point of view, but instead we’re more and more enclosed in our own bubbles. Democracy requires a reliance on shared fact; instead, we’re being offered parallel but separate universes,” Eli Pariser writes in his book, The Filter Bubble.

“News shapes our sense of the world, and of what’s important, of the scale and color, and character of our problems. More important, it provides the foundation of shared experience and shared knowledge on which democracy is built. Unless we understand the big problems, our societies face, we can’t act together to fix them….” Pariser writes.

Those who crave a balanced and functioning government too often fail to seek balance in the news media they turn to for information about state and national politics. Rather, they seek news sources that reinforce their prejudices, undermine belief in other sources of news, and debase the leaders of the other party. The News Hour on public television provides the most balanced news of any station, and at the same time it is the least watched. Why? It doesn’t cater to a viewer’s political passions. We say we seek balance, but in fact we avoid it.
It is in shared facts that shared problems are solved.

Shared facts through a trusted source of information are essential to getting a community, large or small, to work together to solve problems. Imagine if the only source of information for a proposed school levy, a county building project, or the spending of hundreds of thousands of dollars for economic development was the government and a hundred Facebook sites filled with rumor, accusation and guesses.

Surveys show that local community newspapers are the most trusted source of information for citizens. They are a place for a civil community conversation. They bind us together with a common sense of belonging and purpose. Social media is polluted with false information and polarizing viewpoints.

We are not naïve, thinking that there aren’t polarized points of view in our communities. We hear them. We see them expressed in words of intolerance and anger. Fortunately, most who serve as leaders in our communities are informed, using that information to make balanced decisions that solve problems and move us toward a better future.

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