A friend of mine had a complaint the other day.
He voted for President Donald Trump in 2016. He didn’t do so, he said, because he much liked Trump or his policies. He cast his ballot for Trump because he wanted to make a statement.
He said he was tired of being told “by liberals” that he was a racist because he opposed President Barack Obama. The same went for Hillary Clinton, he said. It made him furious, he said, that “liberals” said he was sexist just because he thought she’d make a lousy president.
He was a conservative, he added.
And he was fed up with having his values demeaned or besmirched.
Donald Trump’s candidacy gave him — and a lot of others like him, he said — a chance to send a message. Trump allowed them to say that they just weren’t going to take it anymore.
Fair enough, I told him in response.
It had to have been frustrating to be told that you’re not a good person or that you’re a bigot.
And this friend of mine is a good guy who is not a bigot.
But, I asked him, did he really think that all the name-calling and unfairness was one-sided?
After all, for as long as I can remember, I told him, it’s been a staple of conservative politicians and activists to argue, both implicitly and explicitly, that Americans who didn’t support huge levels of military spending weren’t patriotic.
Or that Americans who supported reproductive rights for women or equal rights for LGBTQ citizens didn’t have “family values.”
In other words, if they didn’t agree with conservatives on certain policies these folks were told they didn’t love their country or their families.
Couldn’t he see how the people he calls “liberals,” having been told that again and again and again, might be just as frustrated, just as offended, just as enraged as he has been?
He sat silent for a moment.
“Yeah, I suppose I can,” he said.
Then he shook his head.
“Probably how we got to where we are now, with nothing getting done.”
It’s a cliché now to talk about how divided we Americans are. We’re told that people who live in rural America resent those who live in our cities — and that the resentment is reciprocated. That we don’t agree on issues of immigration, abortion, tax policy, education and on and on.
Because we don’t agree on so many things, gridlock has become the norm.
And every day brings about new levels of hostility and toxicity into the system.
There’s truth to this.
Anyone who takes part in public discourse these days knows that things have gotten a whole lot meaner.
Like my friend, partisans on both sides of the divide can find plenty of justifications for, as they see it, returning fire with fire. It’s easy — very easy — to point at the other side and say, “They started it.”
But the important question now isn’t who started it.
No, the important question is: Who’s going to put a stop to it?
Differences don’t have to be paralyzing.
Anyone who has been involved in a relationship in which trust figures — a marriage, a friendship, a business partnership – knows that working through differences is just part of the process. If you can’t talk things out, if you nurse grudges and grievances, you aren’t going to be able to move forward. If you can’t grant that your spouse, your friend or your partner might have a point now and then, the marriage, the friendship or the partnership won’t last long.
And the work that should be done won’t get done.
My friend and I talked some more that day.
We laughed a bit.
As we got ready to part, I told him he’d given me something to think about. He said I’d done the same.
Did we solve any problems?
But it was a start.
Sometimes, that’s all we can ask.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.