Thirty-one years ago Jeff and I moved into a little house on Hatteras Island, here on the North Carolina Outer Banks. Raised in a Delaware suburb, I’d never lived in such a small town. I set about trying to meet our neighbors, who’d seen many outsiders like us come and go. They didn’t pay much heed to us, until it was clear that we were staying.
Bit by bit we were taken into a community of people who were very different from those I’d known before. They fished, ran small stores, repaired houses and cars, and cleaned cottages. They were more open than many of my former suburban neighbors and certainly less pretentious. What you saw was what you got. I loved this about them.
They were also much more conservative than me—which, it turned out, made absolutely no difference at all.
I don’t want to romanticize this. Hatteras is known for its Wild West mentality, and we suffered the brunt of some small-town meanness. One woman, a pillar of the local church, decided I was the new town harlot and snubbed me at every occasion. Everyone else told me to pay her no mind.
Eighteen months later Jeff and I moved to Roanoke Island, a few miles north, where we could afford to buy a house. It was wrenching to leave our Hatteras community. Occasionally, not often, we see our old neighbors. Along with my fondness for them, I will always carry what they taught me:
There is really no difference between those of us who are liberal and those of us who are conservative. We share so much more than we don’t: family values, a love for our children and our communities, our hopes for the future.
A few years later this truth came to light in a very public way, when liberals and conservatives joined forces to oppose drilling for oil and natural gas off Hatteras Island. The wreck of the Exxon Valdez in Prince William Sound, Alaska, helped forge that alliance. But members of the two political extremes never could have come together if not for the natural courtesy that underlay our relationships.
In 2007 and 2008, even as the polarization of American politics deepened, I had the good fortune to work with some eastern North Carolina farmers who were willing to take part in a project that would decrease the pollution draining from their fields into a local estuary. Farmers and environmentalists are seldom allies. Talk about political differences. But this time it worked—because we took care to see each other as people, not as ideologues.
I remember one exchange in particular: We’d gone into a farmer’s office to review the plans for a wetland restoration project. Before we settled down to work, the farmer said, “Did you all see Sarah Palin’s show last night on TV? It was amazing.”
Silence from the rest of the group. Finally I said, “I don’t think most of us watch that show.” I smiled.
The farmer started laughing—and the rest of us heartily joined in.
These days it strikes me that there is no better way to serve ourselves, our fellow citizens, and our country than by reaching across the political aisle, whichever side you’re on, and taking the time to see those on the other side as people.
Don’t just gaze across the divide. Risk a conversation with the folks over there. Despite what you see on TV and at political rallies, most of them are fine people. See what you might share. Find out what’s important to them. Chances are that it’s also very important to you.
Reaching across the aisle will take courage, especially now. But I firmly believe it’s worth the risk. Building on the wide ground we hold in common is the only thing that will help us find our way out of this political morass.
Once we can clearly see—once we can remember—how much we share, we can start talking seriously about ways to solve our country’s myriad problems. I truly believe the majority of us are not far apart. To give examples using two explosive issues:
Many of the political conservatives I love are in favor of a ban on assault weapons—but nothing more than those. They point out that the very reason we have a second amendment is to be able to mount a groundswell of defense should the country be threatened by hostile forces. This may not take the form of the militias mentioned in the amendment. Still, I understand their hesitation have restrictions placed on who can bear arms. But what kind of arms? How powerful should they be?
· Many of my liberal friends have serious qualms about the frequent, even casual, use of abortion. They agree with the position articulated by a few politicians: abortion should be legal, safe, affordable—and extremely rare. Getting to a point where it is, indeed, rare will take a major change in social mores. We will need to start holding all the involved parties—not just the women—responsible. Most of all, we will need to become a much more compassionate society, so that women are never left stranded, alone, and desperate.
We could argue the finer points of either example all day. My intent here is simply to show that, right or left, we share so much more than we don’t.
Can we move bit by bit toward middle ground? I have not a single doubt. By not trying, in fact, we risk becoming a tragic example of that old adage, “Divided we fall.”
We are a people trying to make our way through an uncertain, often frightening world. Our greatest strength is, and has always been, each other. Once in a while, when we look beyond all the posturing and rhetoric, we can see that it’s a very loving world. It really is.
These are the moments I want to hold close.
--In memory of my father, with whom I had many spirited, enlightening political discussions.