America needs fighters. It also needs bridgers.
In so many arenas of American life, we laud those who demonstrate a “fighting spirit” … our athletes, our business leaders, our movement builders, our politicians. We have deeply internalized the belief that “some things are just worth fighting for.” That in pursuing a righteous cause, we “shouldn’t go down without a fight.” After all, hasn’t America secured its greatest achievements when brave people stood up and fought — for independence, for the end of slavery, for civil rights, for freedom abroad?
In this light, it is perhaps a bit more comprehensible that many who participated in the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol claim they were responding to a patriotic call to “fight like hell.” And it may also help explain why polls indicate a level of sympathy — even support — for their actions among many Americans who did not themselves storm the Capitol.
At the same time, the January 6th attack has jolted many Americans into seeing the limits of fighting as a way to achieve the outcomes we seek. Once our political disagreements curdle into acute conflict, where does that road take us? How does it end?
Will one side ideologically “vanquish” the other? Further, will be “our” side that achieves these enduring gains? Let’s think about this for a minute. In an election in which the choices were relatively stark, more than 74 million Americans voted to reelect Trump while more than 81 million Americans voted to install Biden. (Either way you slice it, that’s a lot of people to coax across to your worldview.)
Or, more worryingly, will America simply crack open into some patchwork version of civil war, neighbor against neighbor, rural town vs. urban town, red state vs blue state. (Hmmm, how exactly would this work, geographically speaking?)
Even as we stare into the abyss, however, we struggle with the idea that we should put down our weapons, climb out of our trenches, and shake hands on the battlefield. Although weary of fighting, we are simultaneously wary of the terms of surrender. By seeking a brokered peace in America, what do we risk giving up?
Ask a conservative, and she might share profound, genuine concern that giving an inch to the other side will simply hasten America’s inexorable slide into socialism. Ask a progressive, and he might point to racial equity and climate action as urgent, righteous causes that brook no compromise.
Each sees a different set of looming, existential threats and deeply distrusts the other’s ability to discern and act on what is so clearly true, and scary, and urgent. When trust is so low and the stakes are so high, each will be tempted to keep on fighting and to reject calls for bridging, peace-building, or unifying.
As Americans of all political stripes, can we construct an enduring truce that steers us away from acute conflict, empowering us to bridge across our differences even while we fight for the diverse — and often conflicting — values, beliefs, and outcomes we hold dear?
The individuals and organizations already dedicated to political bridging and domestic peace building work in America are holding this tension every day. Like everyone, “bridgers” perceive threats, feel fear, experience outrage, and care deeply about their children’s futures. Like everyone, they hear the clarion calls to “fight” for what they believe in and to “show up” for their own side. And many have directly experienced the “bridger’s dilemma” of being criticized roundly by their own political compatriots for “selling out” to the other side.
Yet, bridgers persist, knowing that holding this tension between fighting and bridging is critical to maintaining a healthy, pluralistic society. Knowing that fighting in the absence of bridging leaves only scenarios that are fantastical (“my side will achieve an enduring advantage”) or dystopian (“civil war is inevitable”).
America needs fighters, yes, but it also needs bridgers. Perhaps ideally, America needs all of us to be a bit of both. What about you? Are you ready to be a bridger? Ask yourself, deeply and honestly, what is the alternative?
Here are some immediate, hands-on actions you can take to build your bridging muscles:
- Consume a more balanced media diet. Whether to moderate your own views or simply to understand others’ perspectives on the issues you hold dear, consider adopting AllSides or RealClearPolitics as one of your news feeds.
- Put The Reunited States documentary on your February watch list. Civic Health Project is a proud sponsor of this just-released documentary film, showcasing several individuals who are heroically bridging America’s political and racial divides. Watch the trailer, join the livestream, download the film.
- Sign up for an online conversation event. Bridging and dialogue organizations like Living Room Conversations and Braver Angels are stepping up their program offerings in the wake of pandemic and election upheaval. Whether you watch a short video, attend an event, or join a realtime conversation, you’ll feel encouraged that Americans across the political spectrum are committed to bridging our divides.
- Learn more about why we’re so divided. Check out our recent blog, read this Washington Post editorial penned by our advisory council member Prof. Robb Willer, and take this free, modular online course offered by our grantees at Open Mind Platform.
- Become a cross-partisan democracy reformer. Many structural weaknesses in our democratic systems, institutions, and norms led us to this moment. Inspiring organizations are working on reforming campaign finance, reducing partisan gerrymandering, implementing ranked choice voting, expanding voting, and other reforms. Most of these organizations are woefully understaffed and underfunded. Need a quick primer on cross-partisan structural reform efforts? Start here or here or here.
Most importantly, stay engaged with friends and family members who view things differently. Each one of us, every day, is called to be a “bridger” at this time. As hard as it can be, signaling that our relationships transcend political divides helps to reduce enmity, dispel stereotypes, build trust, and foster mutual learning. We don’t have to abandon our principles to embrace our friendships. One America Movement’s “How to Talk to Your Neighbor” guide and Greater Good Science Center’s Bridging Differences Playbook offer simple tips for navigating our personal relationships.