For many of us, next Tuesday’s election can’t come soon enough. The country has been locked in a seemingly eternal presidential campaign for close to two years now.
It’s been a particularly nasty campaign season. While local races have thankfully remained civil, state and national races remain a world apart. The lies and doomsday scenarios have made watching TV impossible without the mute button.
Yet Americans as a whole believe the stakes of this election have never been higher, with 83% of elected voters saying “it really matters” who wins. That’s up from 74% four years ago and just 50% in 2000. Voter enthusiasm is running very high. In record numbers, Americans are voting early to choose our next class of leaders. And soon, this will all be over.
We’ve spent the last several years picking sides. We’ve retweeted and shared and donated. But once the winners are certified, after all the yard signs are removed and the flags lowered, communities across the country, Allen County included, will have to deal with a very urgent question: How do we work together again?
BECAUSE to put it mildly, we’re not playing nice right now.
The Pew Research Center reports that Democrats and Republicans are more politically polarized now than at any point in the last 25 years. Stuck in “ideological silos,” politically active Americans often harbor negative views of members of the opposing party and increasingly see the other side as a threat, not just different.
What’s worse, POLITICO reports that among Americans who identify as Democrat or Republican, one in three believe violence could be justified to achieve their party’s goals. One in five Americans believes in endorsing violence if the other party wins the presidency.
Recent plots by right-wing extremists to kidnap the governors of Michigan and Virginia set off alarm bells around the country, but hate-crime violence also reached a 16-year high in 2018, the year for which data is most recently available.
So how do we become civil again, especially after a high-stakes presidential election where one side will have to lose?
Ed O’Malley, CEO of the Kansas Leadership Center, a non-profit based in Wichita focused on developing leaders to foster our state’s growth, has three concrete places to start. First, says O’Malley, “We need to remember that the history of our country proves calmer heads will prevail. But we have to be those calmer heads.
“We need to be the people who deescalate things, and we need to practice that with our own families. Maybe we shouldn’t spend a lot of time on what we disagree on right now. We need to spend some time uniting.”
Second, O’Malley suggests we all pencil in something on our calendars. “Set up a coffee, lunch or Zoom meeting for after the election. Invite people who don’t see things your way. Get it on the books right now,” says O’Malley.
“Next week, half your group will be excited to meet, and half will dread it. But be the person who creates the opportunity for people to come together. For some, that’s a big conversation. For others, it just means inviting your family.”
Lastly, O’Malley suggests we “read something from the other side. Research shows it probably won’t change your mind, but it may help you understand why people think differently than you.”
One might be tempted to write off today’s polarized political landscape as the way things have always been. Yet O’Malley, who served two terms in the Kansas legislature prior to directing the Kansas Leadership Center, says things are different now.
“In my own experience, I’ve never seen anything like today’s lack of understanding across political divides. The inability for so many people to see any value in ‘the other’ really shocks me. I don’t think it’s healthy,” reflects O’Malley. “It’s healthy to say ‘I believe deeply in my political beliefs and I respect that you believe deeply in yours.’ But I think what we’re hearing more and more is: ‘I believe deeply in my political beliefs and if you don’t believe the same things you must be a horrible person.’ And that’s really dangerous.”
O’Malley referenced Benjamin Franklin, who after leaving the Constitutional Convention of 1787 was asked by an eager audience outside if the United States would be a republic or a monarchy. Franklin’s famous response, “A republic, if you can keep it,” teaches us, according to O’Malley, that there are more important things than winning an election.
“The question before us today,” O’Malley says, “is what does it mean to keep the republic? What can we do in Iola, Wichita, across our country, to keep the republic? To me, it’s more than voting. It’s about tending our civic fabric, about believing ‘Out of many, one.’”
“When next week’s election is over, it’s time to mend the civic fabric of our country and our communities. And that means coming together across our political differences rather than continuing to fight them.”
IOLA MAYOR Jon Wells sees compelling reasons to be optimistic about Iola’s ability to navigate its post-election future. “The nice thing about our City Council is that we’re non-partisan,” Wells said. “Without the party label, we’re all much more likely to talk about a certain issue pragmatically.”
Such sober thinking will be crucial, as Wells sees several issues community leaders must promptly address.
“One of the big things we’re going to have to start tackling is housing,” said Wells. “We’re thrilled about the Peerless announcement, so let’s build on it. And realistically, the solution isn’t Iola’s alone to solve. This needs to be an Allen County solution. As the other communities in Allen County go, so goes Iola. We really need to discuss this county-wide.”
Wells identified another advantage communities like Iola have: their size. In small towns where everyone knows everyone, it’s hard to demonize your neighbor.
But it’s more than just being small, Wells insists. “I think the civic engagement in Iola is a huge asset to our community. Between all the service groups, church groups, volunteer organizations, the more you have citizens civically engaged, the more they’re willing to talk about issues in a reasonable manner.
“If you volunteer every Saturday at a recycling project with Rotary, for example, you can strongly disagree with the person stacking cardboard next to you about how to fund the hospital, but you also understand they’re fundamentally a good person.”
WITH SIX DAYS left until Election Day, an estimated 70 million Americans have already voted, over half the 2016 total. We’ll know the results soon enough. But across the country, leaders like O’Malley and Wells are already looking forward. Their task in the coming days will be to put this election behind us and ease our country back to being civil again. A tall order, but as O’Malley would surely insist, one necessary to keep our republic.