In this era of poisonous partisanship, The Reunited States of America (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2016), by Mark Gerzon, is a lifesaving antidote. At a time when loyalty to party seems to be overpowering love of country, it not only explains how we can bridge the partisan divide but also tells the untold story of how our fellow citizens already are doing it.
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One day, a young man named Sean Long, who had just finished his junior year at Notre Dame, visited me in my office. He had heard about an event we had hosted on a college campus that had led to students forming a “transpartisan club” that offered an alternative to the traditional left–right alternatives. Sean searched me out because he wanted to tell me his story and ask for my support.
“I was president of the Democratic Club on campus,” he told me. “I was sitting in my dorm with a conservative friend who was challenging some of my opinions. We asked ourselves: What would it be like to have a safe, neutral place where students could explore their differences in an atmosphere of curiosity?”
When Sean returned for his senior year, he decided to turn his idea into action. He and two close Republican friends thought of calling it a “club for moderates” but quickly realized that the phrase did not capture what they were trying to create. They didn’t want a club, and they weren’t moderates. They wanted to break out completely from that old mold.
With these two friends, Sean started bridgeND, an organization committed to going beyond debate and finding common ground to inspire students to take action across the political spectrum. “We have a logo and everything,” he told me excitedly, whipping out his iPhone to show me a red-white-and-blue design of a bridge spanning the divides.
At their first meeting, they were amazed that thirty-five people came — triple the number they had expected. To make sure that these newcomers understood the difference between their network and the long-established Democratic and Republican clubs, they issued a statement:
bridgeND is open to all voices — liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, and anyone in between — willing to talk about our nation’s public policy in new ways.
In order to participate, students had to accept three ground rules:
1. Going beyond debate. Not just talking, but moving toward action.
2. Friends first. Building trust and connection before taking on issues.
3. Idea catalyst. Creating innovative policy solutions around which students from across the spectrum could rally.
All across the nation, Americans of all ages are taking similar steps. From the Young Invincibles to Run for America to the Millennial Action Project, those who came of age in the Bush–Obama era recognized that they could not afford to participate in the left–right fist fight of their parents’ generation. Meanwhile, many more mature Americans, having watched the predictable donkey–elephant attack–counterattack drama too many times, have been urgently looking for a different, better way of facing our nation’s challenges. But perhaps no one can attest to the life-and-death danger of hyperpartisan politics more vividly than our men and women in uniform.
Pawns in a Political Game
“The first time I remember being angry about our partisan foreign policy was in 2007, when I was in Jalalabad,” former Army Captain Jake Davis told me recently. As the officer in charge of a tactical operations center coordinating day-to-day combat operations across fourteen thousand square miles of northeastern Afghanistan, he was troubled that thousands of troops and resources were being diverted to Iraq, leaving the troops for whom he was responsible more vulnerable than ever.
“Why did we start a war on another front when the one we were fighting was still unfinished?” he asked. “The important fight, it seemed to me, was Afghanistan. But we couldn’t do it right because the resources we needed were going to Iraq.”
Once he completed his tour of duty, Davis came back home and took a job with a college leadership program. He felt it was an opportunity to “close the gap between what we teach about leadership and the reality of leadership. I didn’t want my students leaving our program after four years and getting lost in the same partisan turmoil that caused all the trouble in the first place.”
After Davis participated in a workshop featuring speakers who were crossing the partisan divide, he immediately wanted to become more directly involved. “The perspective represented exactly how I thought our students should engage in the world of politics: being open to opposing views and learning to think critically about their own positions. It made a lot of our students more hopeful about how they could engage in politics in a way that felt more authentic. And it had nothing to do with a particular political position. Rather, it had everything to do with critical thought and an open mind.”
After participating in the leadership program that Davis helped design, some of his students — both left and right-leaning — approached him. They wanted to know how they could differ with each other without becoming enemies. As classmates, friends, and in some cases roommates, they had no interest in ending up as adults attacking each other like the so-called grownups who dominated the news. Instead, they wanted to dig deeply into their differences and emerge with better policy ideas and stronger friendships. As at Notre Dame, the outcome was that members of Davis’s leadership program started a new extracurricular activity on campus that offered opportunities for both young Democrats and young Republicans to meet beyond partisanship and find common ground.
“The experience offers me hope,” recalled Davis. “One day, if my kids go into the military, they may have political leaders who will think more carefully and collaboratively when they make young men and women bear the burden of going to war.”
Charting a New Course
We begin our journey beyond partisanship with Sean Long and Jake Davis because they are part of the solution to the partisan divide. Like the national security analyst we met previously, they are savvy enough to know that a robust, healthy United States of America requires charting a new course beyond kneejerk, paralyzing partisanship.
Some of the pioneering bridge builders you are about to meet are just starting out on their journey across the divide; others have been traversing the territory between left and right for decades. Some are strong conservatives; others are longtime liberals. But all have developed a commitment to move beyond all kinds of extreme partisanship to rekindle the American genius for problem solving, creative collaboration, and civic innovation.
These diverse pathways beyond partisanship lead, first of all, through our hearts. They begin with each of us learning to acknowledge the liberal and conservative who are inside us. Once we have done this personal work of recognizing our own inner diversity, then the path continues—through our families (who are often multipartisan) to the Internet and social media (with all the risks and rewards of anonymity), to our places of worship (where inclusion and diversity are often a challenge), to our communities, and, last but not least, to the voting booth.
Citizens who have not been aware of this movement to reunite America may feel, as I did until recently, a deep pessimism and even despair about the negative trends in American civil life. Over the years, I have heard many of the reasons why so many of us feel that bridging the divide is impossible.
• Now that [Candidate X] is in the race,” a Democratic activist in a heavily liberal area of Los Angeles told me, “forget about bridge building across the divides. Everybody here is taking sides.”
• This election year  is a fundamental clash of two opposing worldviews,” a leading conservative philanthropist told me. “There is no middle ground.”
• With more than two billion dollars of negative ads,” scoffed a potential funder of our work, “what makes you think a few well-meaning shoestring organizations will make a difference when the media is spewing out this trash?”
• Don’t you know the districts are gerrymandered?” said one scholar derisively. “Improving civility between politicians is irrelevant. The system is broken.”
• Look — who are you kidding?” one liberal activist for campaign finance reform told me. “When one outside funder can singlehandedly bankroll a candidate, what’s the print of trying to encourage people to get along?” (He said the last two words with a sneer.)
• Thank God we’re superpartisan right now,” said one conservative colleague. “That means maybe the government won’t keep spreading like a cancer.”
Everyone, it seems, has his or her reason why the partisan divide cannot, or should not, be bridged. It’s almost enough to make a person give up and stay home. And of course, many citizens are doing just that. Not only do many not go to the polls, many who do feel resigned to voting for whomever they dislike least.
Those who believe there are huge obstacles to bridging the partisan divide are right. Big money, crazily designed congressional districts, negative ads, and polarized news channels — these are real problems. The scores of bridge-building, boundary-crossing heroes who you are about to meet recognize these problems, too.
Fortunately, even as the naysayers’ voices grow louder, the movement to reunite America only grows stronger. Deepening cynicism and hyperpartisanship is one of the reasons why a movement to reunite America is gaining strength right now. The urge to reunite the states of America comes at precisely the time when they are most divided.
Excerpted with permission from The Reunited States of America by Mark Gerzon. Copyright 2016 Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Inc.