Lincoln famously said that “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” A new documentary finds both division and connection.
June 14, 2020
Over the past 30 years, Americans have gravitated toward others who share their political leanings, a phenomenon Bill Bishop calls “The Big Sort.” Increasingly, where you live determines who you talk to and what kinds of conversations you have – and makes it difficult to understand people who live a few minutes away. We were reminded of our insularity again with the death of George Floyd and the protests that followed. In a nation strained by a pandemic, recession, and racial injustice, the need for understanding and reconciliation is dire.
“Divided We Fall,” widely released this spring by American Public Television, could not have come at a more important time. In it, the National Institute for Civil Discourse brings together 12 strangers – six who supported Trump and six who didn’t – for a weekend-long discussion about everything from polarization to political correctness.
The diverse group of Millennials from Chicago and Gen Xers from Ashfield, Massachusetts includes a contractor, a real estate agent, a chef on an oil tanker, a high school history teacher, a software engineer who likes to bake, and a car salesperson who also teaches pole fitness classes. They defy easy categorization. There’s a liberal doula who recounts being insulted online by other liberals, and two black conservatives who upend their peers’ assumptions about race (one says he voted for Trump in 2016 but doesn’t think much good has happened since then). Several people talk about the pride they felt after September 11, 2001, when it seemed like Americans truly cared about each other.
It’s a respectful conversation in which everyone listens and everyone is heard. But that doesn’t mean the conversation is superficial. Participants are honest and pointed in their opinions. Over breakfast, a table of right-leaning participants says they no longer feel like they are allowed to have opinions and are tired of being shamed and dismissed for their political views. At a left-leaning table, one woman takes to heart the suggestion that her media sources may be too homogenous. In a conversation about guns, one woman tells how her brother was shot when she was a teenager. Another woman, who has a concealed carry permit, says she doesn’t think the average person should have an AK-47 at home.
After a number of group discussions, pairs of participants sit down and describe what they learned from the other. The interplay of personal and group dynamics is instructive to anyone who is committed to making civil discourse a part of daily life. Perhaps the most illuminating scene comes when the red and blue groups detail the core values they see as most important to moving the country forward. They are, almost to a word, the same.
At the end of the film, a facilitator asks each participant to write a headline for their weekend of conversation. Some of their suggestions:
- We’re Not So Polarized
- There Is Hope
- We Can Get Along
- Connection Not Conflict
- Let’s Be Friends
- Parallels in Politics and Where Our Lines Cross
- Discourse Trumps Discord
Americans are not as polarized as our elected officials and the media often depict us. To get a glimpse of the ways we still connect, you can watch “Divided We Fall” and urge your local public television station to broadcast it this summer.
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This article originally appeared in the June 14, 2020 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and published articles — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
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