Watch: What's pulling America apart?
Rremida Shkoza, a progressive Democrat, did not understand how another immigrant could be a Republican. An Albanian refugee, she fled communist rule in the early 1990s. As Shkoza ran for a boat to Italy — the first stop in her long journey to the United States — she fell and almost drowned.
If not for the kindness of one stranger, she may not have made it to Italy at all. And though Shkoza survived, sought asylum in America and now calls North Carolina home, she frequently thinks back on that terrifying moment.
After President Donald Trump’s administration began enforcing a “zero-tolerance” immigration policy last year, resulting in the forced separation of several thousand parents and children at the southern border, Shkoza says she felt “incredibly triggered.”
She knew these children would be traumatized for life. Shkoza was living proof of that. And she could not understand how any immigrant who had struggled to start over in the United States could not see the cruelty of this policy. (Trump has since rescinded it.)
Then she met Julia Song, a Brazilian immigrant to the United States, at a Living Room Conversation, an intimate event designed to bring people of opposing political backgrounds together to discuss some of the most controversial issues of the day.
Song was a proud Trump supporter, who believed that several of the President’s immigration policies were necessary first steps in reforming a broken and backlogged immigration system. While she acknowledged the humanitarian issues at the heart of many immigrants’ stories — and lamented that leading Republicans failed to do so — she said she had experienced first-hand the cost of illegal immigration on the system.
Though Song was able to come to the United States on a family visa and work toward her citizenship, her brother and mother had not been so fortunate. And if they wanted to abide by federally mandated guidelines, she said they would have to remain in Brazil for the near future.
Shkoza was quite moved by Song’s experience — and while neither she nor Song switched political sides of the debate, they acknowledged the many layers of complexity to it. Shkoza also believed she had found a pathway forward. And it began in a living room in a Raleigh suburb, where she, Song and four others agreed to be open, honest and, above all, vulnerable.
Shkoza’s epiphany touches on one of the critical first steps Americans seeking to heal the political divide must take — daring to engage with those they disagree. This requires stepping outside the largely blue and red bubbles we currently reside in and acknowledging that the individual experiences we have play a significant role in shaping our political views.
But creating the space for uncomfortable dialogue at the local level is not enough. Our legislators must engage in a similar process at the highest echelons of government — identifying the issues that large majorities of American support and enacting laws around them. And if they are unwilling to do so, those same majorities must hold elected leaders accountable at the ballot box.
Finding the purple in politics
Of course, enlisting the help of politicians poses a challenge, given so many of them profit from drawing divisions between liberals and conservatives. And since they have to answer to their increasingly polarized constituencies, many elected officials now take on hyperpartisan positions.
In fact, according to VoteView, Republicans and Democrats in the Senate have trended farther to the right and left, respectively, for the last 10 sessions of Congress. Rather than working together to find bipartisan solutions, many politicians appear to be actively working against each other — seemingly in the interests of their emboldened partisan bases.
However, there is a sliver of hope, says Van Jones, and it’s called criminal justice reform.
For decades, Democrats and Republicans tried to one up each other with their “tough-on-crime” rhetoric. And the reason was simple — doing anything else seemed like a political death sentence. Just ask former Democratic Gov. Michael Dukakis. Many believe his dreams of the presidency were crushed, in part, after television ads ran in 1988, pinning Willie Horton’s heinous crimes on the Dukakis prison furlough program.
But some 30 years later, there has been a shift in the political plates. And last fall, Jones, who worked with a broad coalition of conservatives, liberals and everyone in between, helped in the passage of the First Step Act, the first significant piece of federal legislation on criminal justice reform in a generation.
While Democrats and Republicans had different motivations in pursuing reform, the outcome, is quite significant in the age of political polarization. As Jones writes, “[c]riminal justice reform is renewing the right’s dedication to individual ‘liberty’ and deepening the left’s commitment to social ‘justice.’ As a result, we still have a chance to build a country with ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’ for all.”
Building the world we want to live in
Criminal justice reform isn’t the only issue with bipartisan support, though. Take the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which the Trump administration announced it would phase out in 2017. At the time, the President argued that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had overstepped by using executive authority to protect nearly 800,000 DACA recipients. "It is now time for Congress to act!" Trump said.
2019 is coming to an end. Congress has yet to act, and its fate is now in the hands of nine unelected members of the Supreme Court. This, despite the fact that, according to a CNN poll, 83% of Americans support keeping DACA in place — including 94% of Democrats and 67% of Republicans.
SE Cupp argues this is yet another example of the exhausted majority being ignored. And the reality is the two-party system, with all the politicking that comes with it, may no longer be able to serve the needs of millions of moderate Americans.
But don’t take her word for it. In a NBC/Wall Street Journal poll from earlier this year, only one in 10 Americans said they thought the two-party system was working fairly well. Almost 40% of them thought the solution was the creation of a third party. And Cupp thinks that vocal minority is on the right track.
Though creating a third party may seem an impossibility, just imagining a party “that isn’t swayed by cable news hosts, preening politicians, special interests, that isn’t designed solely to enrich coffers and play to an ever-shrinking base, but exists simply to reflect the moderate majority, lowers one’s blood pressure almost instantly,” Cupp writes.
It also serves a much greater long-term goal, Cupp says — ensuring that Americans who feel disenfranchised by the current system are not “politically homeless.”
Embracing a state of discomfort
But as Shkoza and Song demonstrate, everyday Americans must also put in the work. The challenge? Many of us actively try to avoid discussing politics with our own family members — let alone complete strangers. As scholars Samara Klar, Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan explain, “For many people, politics and partisanship bring up thoughts of conflict and hostile debate.” And why would any of us voluntarily seek out conflict?
Perhaps because not having political arguments poses a bigger threat than simply keeping the peace at Thanksgiving. As Caroline Hopper of The Aspen Institute writes, “[A]rgument is fundamental to any democracy, and limiting arguments can suppress needed deliberation.”
But doing so requires fundamentally rethinking the way we have arguments. If the purpose is to win, Hopper says, then it will be unsuccessful. Better arguments employ many of the same principles seen in the Living Room Conversation — paying attention to context and experience, embracing a state of discomfort and creating the space for transformation or change.
Filmmaker Ken Burns believes that conversation, even argument, is critical to overcoming the fractured state we find ourselves in today. It may be tempting to presume the other side lives in an alternate universe that bears little resemblance to ours, but we must resist that temptation. After traveling across the country, Burns says he has learned, “it is the diversity of our experiences that creates something new and better, something even more American.”
However, even with that knowledge, many Americans may still feel unprepared to take that step. As the Pew Research Center indicates, in the last 25 years, Democrats and Republicans have grown increasingly hostile toward one another. In fact, Pew researchers note that members of each party feel their opponents “are so misguided that they threaten the nation’s well-being.” In other words, they feel giving the opposition oxygen is a greater threat than actively engaging with them in conversation.
Art as a means to build empathy
In light of these existing hostilities, it may be necessary to break down some of the barriers that divide the two parties. And what better way to do that than with art.
According to Dacher Keltner, who runs the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, works of art — be they musical compositions, dance recitals or photography exhibitions — have the ability to bring on “awe and wonder.” That state of awe allows us to begin to understand how other people feel. Put simply, art can make us more curious and empathetic individuals, who seek to find the nuance in the human experience.
Philippa Hughes, a creative strategist who herself has grappled with a major political divide — her Vietnamese immigrant mother supports Trump, while she does not — decided to put this sociological research into practice. In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, she began hosting dinners for Democrats and Republicans in her art-stuffed Washington, DC apartment.
What she found, even before the dinners began, was that attendees explored, studied and commented on the artwork adorning her walls. And the political conversation that followed, though heated at times, reflected a group of people whose minds had been expanded by their initial experience of Hughes’ vast collection of paintings and other works.
She has since replicated these dinners in her home — and far beyond — bringing together Americans across the political divide to, as Hughes puts it, “experience art, share personal stories and break bread together.” And the greatest lesson she has taken from hosting nearly two dozen dinners? There’s no right way to be an American, and our democracy will be stronger if we are willing to embrace our differences.
The America we deserve
After spending one afternoon debating the nuance of immigration reform, Shkoza and Song made an unusual, but wonderful, discovery. They were both proud dog moms. While Shkoza owns a boisterous Wheaten Terrier, Song has a small but mighty mutt, who most closely resembles a beagle.
That connection — that only dog owners can truly make — bonded them in a new and surprising way. And it reinforced just how much the two women actually had in common.
Had she not attended this gathering and met a fellow puppy mama, Shkoza writes, “I might not have as much hope for the future of this country as I do now.”