Lessons from the No Man’s Land of a Divided America

“I’ll tell you what,” sighed Connie Evans, a longtime friend and respected community member from my hometown of Cartersville, Ga. She’s a rare example of a Hillary Clinton supporter in a community where 76 percent of those around her voted for Donald Trump, “Sometimes I feel like a missionary in a foreign field.”

As a first-year student at Harvard University, a community in which 87 percent of voters selected Hillary Clinton, and a native of Cartersville, I knew exactly what she was talking about: being a political wild-flower in a sea of daisies can be tough.

In the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, much has been said about the “bubbles” and “divisiveness” of America. Mainstream media has concluded, the polls have shown, and most Americans agree that America is more polarized than ever. Even outgoing President Barack Obama gave such “bubbles” a shout-out in his farewell address, referring to them as “a threat to our democracy.” Trump repeatedly referenced the divided America in his inaugural address.

This divisiveness lends itself to intolerance. On November 1st, 2016, Pew Research reported that “nearly six-in-ten Clinton supporters have a hard time respecting Trump supporters.” It’s clear that the two sides of America have attempted to pull away from the other, each holding tight its familiar and like-minded community through hyper-partisan Facebook newsfeeds and reflexive condemnation of the other. But for students like me, who—regardless of political affiliation—attribute large parts of our identity to both our conservative hometowns where we came from and the school we now attend, this isn’t an option.

Despite the heavy focus on “bubbles” in the media, less discussed is the handful of people who have successfully overcome this polarization and who straddle the divide. These people may exist as different-minded citizens living in generally like-minded communities, like Connie, or they may exist as people who split time between two different worlds, like me. I represent a subset of students at Harvard who balance an extremely conservative hometown with a staunchly liberal environment.

A look at my own life and the lives of my fellow students (who find themselves in a similar situation) shows that there are lessons to learn from the no-man’s land. We have no choice but to balance both “bubbles.” We do so successfully by respecting and appealing to common values and accepting that though they can try, we won’t always change minds.

Politics and Friendship

“If you asked me if I’d be okay not talking to anyone at my high school, or my church, or to my friends’ parents,” began Ching Sullivan ’20, who grew up in the conservative suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, “I would say, ‘no, I would prefer to be friends with them,’ and the same goes for all the people around me.”

Sullivan is expressing the importance of maintaining friendships despite political disagreements because she relies on such relationship in her day to day life. Like Ching, I can point to countless teachers, community members, and friends who have had a large impact on my life despite often disagreeing with my political views. I have learned to maintain these important relationships using certain strategies in my discourse. It’s important to put friendship before politics and respect everyone’s basic worth.

Ching reminds herself that friends who voted for Trump are first her friends, even though she may greatly disagree with their views. Instead of defining people by the way they voted on November 8th, she continues to see them as the peers, teachers, and mentors with whom she grew up. “One vote does not define them as people,” she said. “I go to church with this person. I do homework with this person. I talk about everyday life with this person. I still see this person as a human being who I enjoy being around.”

Though Ching doesn’t consistently make a point to talk about the election with her friends at home, she will stand up for what she believes in when it comes up. However, even if she disagrees with some within the various bubbles she inhabits, she remains linked to them through friendship, and an understanding of their culture and heritage. This allows her to disagree with them while continuing to engage them and their views in civil discourse. As Ching has concluded, political differences don’t have to conflict with interpersonal relationships. In fact, friendship allows Ching to empathetically participate in political discussions with those holding different views.

Politics and Core Values

Another way to negotiate the political divide is to consider and appeal to the root values of those with whom one disagrees. Students who inhabit both “bubbles” often have a better understanding of such values and thus utilize this understanding when discussing politics. Henry Atkins ’20 spent much of his childhood in the rural Pennsylvania borough of New Brighton. He has witnessed friends sling vulgar words across party lines, and believes this is a direct result of the lack of respect for the other side’s culture, heritage, and concerns. To solve the problem, Americans should be reaching out to one another and making attempts at understanding. Atkins noted that “the minute you start attacking other voters, you distance yourself from them. The minute you start self-segregating yourself, the obligation that you feel toward the people in these areas is diminished.”

Atkins focuses on better understanding the motivations underlying the beliefs of people on both sides of the aisle. “One of the things that I think is really important is considering context when examining others’ beliefs. It’s easy to be offended by others’ beliefs and immediately question their motives,” Henry observes. In his hometown of New Brighton, PA., the median household income in 2015 was $34,688, far below the national median of $53, 889; only 15.5 percent of the population over 25 holds a bachelor degree while 24 percent of working men in 2013 were employed in manufacturing. The demographics of New Brighton are vastly different than those of Harvard’s student body. The Crimson reported that almost 60 percent of the incoming freshman class at Harvard comes from a family earning $125,000 or more.

He continues, “When you look at [the statistics], you see why rhetoric about promoting college affordability and ‘retraining’ people who work with their hands is ineffective, and you also see why touting the economic recovery doesn’t always win you voters in these regions.” To engage in conversation with his community, especially those with whom he disagrees, Henry tries to understand their beliefs, values, and premises that help form the logical conclusions of their worldview. He then uses those premises and beliefs, rather than his own, to begin a dialogue with them.

Similarly, in my hometown of Cartersville, I recognize the impact that evangelical Christianity has on the lives of many I grew up with. To better understand my peers’ beliefs, I consider what they have learned their entire lives sitting in a pew. For many on the left who wish to sway pro-lifers, a minimum respect and understanding of these core Christian values is required. One may not agree with them, but one must respect and appeal to them to be successful at any sort of productive civil discourse.

In addition to appealing to the core values of each respective bubble, one can also appeal to common goals by stressing similarities. As Atkins put it, “I don’t pretend to agree on issues, but I do agree on the ultimate goal. I’m always careful to stress that I want the same things as my friends do—job creation, better living standards, etc.—and once we communicate that we’re both coming from a standpoint of shared values and mutual respect, we’re absolutely able to discuss these issues.”

These sorts of experiences teach us that with a basic respect and understanding of the values of others, it’s possible to appeal to these values when discussing issues. This approach leads to dialogue that is much more constructive than the frightening dialogues which appear in online forums or in the chambers of Washington.

Why You Should Care: Politics on Campus

Students on college campuses must realize their obligation to understand the experiences of their peers, and the first step to understanding these experiences is developing a level of engagement like the one modeled by students straddling two disparate bubbles. Though difficult at times, relationships that transcend politics—focused on common aspirations and rooted in a respect of certain core values—better serve the goal of education.

The mission of Harvard College promotes the education of the “citizens and citizen-leaders of our society” by holding true the “transformative value of a liberal arts and sciences education.” Students who enter through the gates of Harvard Yard read: “Enter to grow in wisdom.” We gain this wisdom by learning to consider all experiences; in doing so, we enrich our worldviews by challenging our own experiences and perspectives. If we fail to consider the experiences of the other side, how can we expect to be transformed as students and citizens?

Leaving Harvard Yard, the opposite side of this gate is inscribed: “Depart to better serve thy country and thy kind.” Reevaluating our methods of discourse is integral to fulfilling this mission. As President Obama elucidated in his farewell address, “The future is ours … only if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people.” We must move beyond speaking about our country’s extensive divides and “bubbles” and focus on ways to bridge this divide. There are lessons to learn from the no-man’s land of a divided America: maintaining relationships and appealing to common values are good places to start.

As Sullivan, Atkins, and I have learned, democracy begins with engagement and a respect for others’ experiences. It takes friendship and it takes understanding. It takes a recognition of the decency of all people. In doing this, at times one may feel out of their comfort zone. One may even feel like a “missionary in a foreign field.” As it turns out, in democracy, that’s how it’s supposed to be.


Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Pax Ahimsa Gethen

Leave a Comment

Solve : *
30 ⁄ 5 =