Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Obsessing about Trump’s Comments, or Making Progress: We can decide

“He emerged from the Metro at the L’Enfant Plaza Station and positioned himself against a wall beside a trash basket. By most measures, he was nondescript: a youngish white man in jeans, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and a Washington Nationals baseball cap. From a small case, he removed a violin. Placing the open case at his feet, he shrewdly threw in a few dollars and pocket change as seed money, swiveled it to face pedestrian traffic, and began to play. It was 7:51 a.m. on Friday, January 12, the middle of the morning rush hour. In the next 43 minutes, as the violinist performed six classical pieces, 1,097 people passed by.”

You might recognize this story, from 2007. The violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world, playing a violin valued at $3.5 million. As the news report indicated, “His performance was arranged by The Washington Post as an experiment in context, perception, and priorities…In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The result? During the 45 minutes that Bell played, only 7 people stopped for at least a minute; 27 people tossed in a total of about $32, and 1,070 people hustled past the assumedly common busker.

Gene Weingarten, the reporter who wrote the story about this event, asked the question: “What is beauty?....Is it a measureable fact, or merely an opinion?”

Extreme partisanship: an obscurer of our goal

As I pondered the possibilities for 2018, the Joshua Bell story came back to me. Where should we look for “beauty”? Where should we look for “goodness”? How should a focus on the good energize us, shape our behavior, and keep us on a path to improve the quality of life for all people? But then, with some apprehension, I considered the current partisan divide – perhaps worse than it has ever existed in this nation.

Partisanship has skyrocketed during the past two decades. In her Theodore H. White Lecture at Harvard University, Nancy Gibbs asserted that the political center has “all but vanished.” She noted that since 1994, Pew Research data showed that the number of Democrats and Republicans seeing the opposing party as “very unfavorable” more than doubled. She contends that the partisan gap divides us more than any other divide – race, income, gender, or anything else.

Remarkably, Pew showed as well that people view members of the opposing party with fear. “More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics – those who say they vote regularly and either volunteer for or donate to campaigns – fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”

Nate Silver’s analysis of presidential elections during that same time period showed that for the Trump vs. Clinton election of 2016, “Of the nation’s 3,113 counties (or county equivalents), just 303 were decided by single-digit margins — less than 10 percent. In contrast, 1,096 counties fit that description in 1992…During the same period, the number of extreme landslide counties — those decided by margins exceeding 50 percentage points — exploded from 93 to 1,196.”

Whether the result of self-selection through preference, or a product of social forces and deliberate policies that promote homogeneity, these data provide stark evidence of political segregation: we tend to cluster in proximity to people who think and vote like we do. Does this promote silos? Does this foster the partisan divide? Does this contribute to political gridlock around issues we need to resolve?

In my conversations, personal and professional, I perceive many liberals and conservatives poised to pounce on any incorrect utterance from the other side. It seems much easier to make ad hominem attacks (justified or unjustified) than to tackle issues of substance. That is troubling.

700,000 DACA residents have had their lives literally on the line; the future of these individuals lies in large part under the control of our legislators. However, beginning with one infamous meeting that included the President, the conversation in Washington and throughout the U.S. shifted predominantly to debates regarding: Did the President say “hole” or “house,” or did he say nothing of the sort at all?

As the outlook for DACA legislation dimmed, and as the final days passed toward the deadline for a government shutdown, cable news was replete with legislators from both parties speaking from the same template: “Well, since they did X, we must do Y. It’s their fault, of course, because they said A after we said B, but we said that because they had previously said C.” Attack – parry – riposte; the verbal duels proceed, with everyone stuck in place.

Finding “goodness” amidst division

We need to sift through this mudslide of argumentation, to see and testify to the beauty and the good of our fellow human beings. We must keep our eye on the prize – quality life for all, in accordance with our values – and not be waylaid by partisan bickering.

We may need to suck it up, bide the current situation (which we can change in future elections), and figure out how to work with others who hold different views and how to work around racist and incompetent leaders. Unfortunately, a certain proportion of public officials, organizational leaders, and community leaders are racist or incompetent, or both. I’ve worked my way around them in the past, and I plan to continue working my way around them in the future. If Martin Luther King and his visionary counterparts had waited to act until after the uprooting of every racist public official and community leader, no civil rights progress would have occurred.

Golden days of bipartisanship might, or might not, have ever existed. Nonetheless, let’s take our cue from the 7 people who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell – to look for beauty – not from the 1,090. As a New Year’s resolution, let’s keep our eye on the prize and resolve to work collectively in 2018, respecting differences, willing to compromise.