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Opinion | Political antagonism harms us all. Let’s all try to do better

July, 1804

Two bitterly opposed U.S. elected officials stood face to face with loaded pistols in a duel.  Vice President Aaron Burr shoots former Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The result is the ultimate display of a lose-lose confrontation. Hamilton is dead, and Burr's political career is over.

 May, 1856

Pro-slavery Representative Preston Brooks entered the Senate chamber in the U.S. Capitol and beat anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner, with a wooden cane.  The beating nearly killed Sumner.

 January, 2021 

Our capitol in Lansing resembled a dilapidated worksite with rough plywood covering the windows and a hastily installed chain link fence. The National Guard surrounded the perimeter, in the wake of a senseless and deadly assault on the capitol building in Washington, which sadly included at least two Michigan residents.  

Michigan remains a deeply divided state, with little evidence of meaningful dialogue and cooperation. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has endured reckless defiance, sadly fueled, at least in part, by former President Donald Trump's reckless texts. 

 "To say we’re living in challenging political times is an understatement,” new Michigan House Speaker Jason Wentworth, R-Farwell, said in his first Capitol speech. “People just don’t trust their government or their politicians.”

Verbal character assaults and cynicism are the popular choice deep within both political parties. Michigan State University studies indicate that Michigan residents are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the last 30 years. Have we given up?  Is it impossible to find common ground, even with the most passionate convictions? Are we on a steady path toward more violence? Should we expect a 2021 Un-Civil War?

 It is easy to observe with some trepidation the 'social media license' that fellow citizens seem to feel is justified. Haven't we all seen or read things that simply make you shake your head in disbelief?

 For example, in my small corner of the universe:

  • On Facebook, I’ve read, “Stop it. If you insist on listening to Fox News... unfriend me.” 
  •  Not far from my home, a sign promoting a political agenda was stolen from a neighbors' yard, and her property vandalized.  
  •  Long-time friends cancel lunch because they could not refrain from venomous hyperbole and biting criticism of ‘the other side'

We all find ourselves embroiled in a non-yielding world that wreaks of hatred. Nothing positive results from a stalemate of mindless nonsense and pre-adolescent name-calling. It is a threat to our democracy, and it harms us all.

I urge you, Bridge readers, to find a moment to reflect on your response to this political quagmire. Is this senseless bickering the preferred position of a majority of American citizens?  Let's hope not.

We recognize that both elected officials and citizens need to play a part in reducing the debilitating effects of division and distrust. Withdrawing from politics cannot be effective. Instead:

  • Let's urge our governor and other elected officials to demonstrate an awareness that their words can either provoke or minimize severe polarization. And express our clear displeasure with those who sow dissension.
  • Let’s not tolerate insults and rash accusations. Let's strive to heal past bitter divisions.
  • Let's model to our children a willingness to learn, with humility and genuine openness to other ideas.
  • Let's embrace a broader perspective and focus on the collective interests and welfare of all, and that a myopic focus on our agenda ignores and infringes on the rights of other citizens.
  • Let's acknowledge that there are no simple or flawless policy changes. Every decision will have its unintended consequences. Blame and cynicism do nothing to solve problems.
  • Let's demand factual, fair, and non-biased reporting from the media.
  • Let's search out organizations such as Braver Angels, a national citizens’ movement to help people “better understand and communicate with one another, without having to moderate positions or compromise values.”

Finally, and perhaps most difficult: Let's examine our own behavior. When someone speaks out on a topic, and our immediate response is emotional angst, do we immediate want to verbally lash out? Do we instanly quit listening, and begin to formulate our rebuttal, before the speaker has finished his sentence? It may be a universal reaction to someone questioning our long held beliefs. How well are we able to overcome our own prejudice?

I appeal to you, Bridge readers, to take action to help mediate political dissension. 

The alternative, I suppose, is that we arm ourselves with heavy wooden canes.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan. Bridge does not endorse any individual guest commentary submission. If you are interested in submitting a guest commentary, please contact Ron French. Click here for details and submission guidelines.

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