In the light of this new year, we find ourselves confronting a chasm of national division so deep that it seems impossible to bridge. Our two main parties have settled into all-or-nothing, us-vs-them camps. The value of party unity over the shared self-interest of good governance has spread far beyond Capitol Hill, from Hollywood podiums to small town diners, across college campuses and onto factory floors.
This is not a sustainable path for any nation that wishes to remain a republic. History shows that fracturing the populace is the fastest path to consolidating power for a few, a truth that is becoming more vividly clear with each passing day.
It is a moment in which we can no longer indulge the luxury of citizens continually retreating into separate camps to congratulate each other for their imagined rightness. Instead, we’ve got to reach back across the centuries of our history, reminding ourselves what was built here at the start and all the good our Constitution has since enshrined. We must seek what we have in common, what it is that we believe defines us. This is how we start.
1. Remember what it means to be an American
Consider the hallmarks of America, the values that schoolchildren even in other nations are taught as distinguishing us:
the power of embracing free speech
the belief that separation of church and state allows for true religious freedom
the wisdom of checks and balances
the promise of equal liberty for women and men of all races, ethnicities, and origins
Lay down party affiliation for a moment and ask yourself if you still value those things. If you do, then go further: consider how you are demonstrating these values and how you safeguard them. Once you take ownership of your own responsibility in lifting up these ideals, consider how others on all sides are trying to do this as well. Acknowledge their efforts; thank them for it. That’s being an American.
2. Speak up
It is impossible to avoid the din of this moment: “fake” news vs. real, facts vs. alternative facts, memes and tweets and status updates. No wonder that so many people have pleaded for their fellow citizens to stop talking about politics. It’s an understandable self-care impulse borne of fatigue and of discomfort with conflict. But comfort is the least concern of a nation in a time of great transition.
Speaking up means raising an alarm whenever a policy seems to break with the constitution, when checks and balances are being flouted, or indeed any of the great hallmarks above are under assault. To question what one sees in moments like this is not to attack the government; it is to defend the process of keeping that government legitimate.
At the same time, for speech to have the most value requires that you educate yourself about what you are saying. Read and re-read the text of policies, laws, and bills that concern you. Watch videos and listen to audio clips (in the fullest context possible) from the most original source before reporting a claim, even one you believe to be plausible. And if you find yourself wrong after the fact, be clear about that too.
3. Keep talking to your fellow citizens
If you’re going to speak up, find a bigger audience than just your allies. Talk to friends and loved ones who do not entirely (or at all) share your worldview. You may disagree with someone on 90 percent of things politically, but 90 percent is not 100 percent. Actively seek the overlap in the Venn diagram of your beliefs. If you both value free speech, for instance, talk about that as your starting point, even if your interpretations are different. And when specific legislation hits close to home—from cuts in VA health care access to your right to use a bathroom—say so, helping others understand the practical application of the laws being passed.
Work more consciously to make that true outside of your own family as well. If you have a social media presence, consider the power of offering your sincere firsthand perspective. When people who look forward to seeing the latest pictures of your baby also hear that you’re scared about losing your civil rights, it can personalize the debate in a way that a sarcastic meme would not. If your high school drama coach hears that you lost your business because of government regulations, it makes it harder for him to dismiss your vote as being made in ignorance.
If you are protesting or organizing a rally for your cause, invite more than the unusual suspects: do not keep to your own camp, require agreement on every subject to participate, or assume that only one party has an interest in defending an American value.
4. Consider your language
What gets in the way for so many of these discussions is how we talk to each other. Our colloquial language—especially when we find ourselves jeering—can be truly damaging, serving only to widen the canyons between us. The left has been throwing around “fascist” a lot, as well as “Nazi.” The right likes to talk about “whiny” liberals and “snowflakes.” The former set of language so demonizes the right as to moot any possibility of engagement; the latter so dismisses the left as immature as to make them unworthy of consideration. Who would maintain dialogue with either?
When thinking about your choice of words, examine your motivations and the goals you hope to achieve. Saying “fascist” too loosely not only decreases the word’s potency, it muddies both what you want (fewer executive orders or more adherence to checks and balances) and what you fear (the threat of curtailed liberties). Deriding every opinion you dislike as coming from a “whiny” “snowflake” allows you to duck out of what you’re really saying (that you believe there should be more latitude in acceptable language and behavior) while avoiding what you feel (a defensiveness about being called prejudiced by those who don’t share your opinions).
To be thoughtful in language doesn’t remotely mean we should sugar-coat things or refuse to call an actual Nazi a Nazi. But it’s worth the effort to replace scorn, sarcasm, and buzzwords with plainspoken expressions of what we mean. That is civil discourse.
5. Refuse to normalize that which isn’t
One of the biggest impediments to patriotic action right now is the making of equivalences. If an elected official is called out for something, one side cries foul, the other immediately claims that this person’s predecessors did the same thing, and the rhetorical ball bounces back and forth endlessly. We must be better and smarter than that; just as the old maxim instructs us not to jump off a bridge because our friends did, we should never acquiesce to un-American practices simply because they are not entirely novel.
Instead of hiding behind precedent, ask a serious question: Is this a good policy? Does this serve me, the Constitution, or the nation? If it does not, what value is there in knowing that I should have complained sooner? We must avoid normalizing that which defeats us; we must show a poor policy as exceptional in the negative, calling it out as an aberration of our values, no matter when it first appeared.
6. Know your representatives
Citizens who do want to speak up need to enlist those on the front line of a democracy: our elected representatives. It has become increasingly clear that this is not a waste of time; Congress has never fielded so many calls so often as in the past few weeks. The calls are coming in metaphorically left and right, giving politicians plenty to debate (and helping a few find their backbones). It is better still, when possible, to show up at their local events, such as Town Halls. A citizen who can be seen has even more impact than just one who is heard. And from a practical standpoint, a representative who has concrete evidence that the constituency is watching is a representative forced to consider the future electoral outcomes of every choice.
Of course, you can’t call or visit your representatives if you don’t know who they are. In the age of internet databases and even apps that match voters with Congresspeople, you have little excuse for not knowing. There need be no guesswork; lack of will is the only thing stopping anyone with phone access from having a direct pipeline to their representatives.
7. Most important: defend your fellow citizens
Perhaps the single hardest task in our polarized times is to truly embrace the belief in equality for all, not just some or many or most. You don’t have to know a lesbian mom to defend her right to work and provide for her children in the same way you do for yours. If you want Catholics to be able to worship in peace at their cathedrals, then you need to champion the safety of mosques, synagogues, Mormon temples, and Jehovah’s Witness Halls—without any of them being beholden to the government. If you value the freedom to march in the street waving a cartoon likeness of the president, then you have to accept that so-called Alt Right commentators can make incendiary comments on TV.
Equality has to extend even further, beyond the application of our laws to the practice of empathy. Even if the economic recovery is terrific in your city, remember what it felt like the last time you hunted for work and then consider the residents of a town that still feels like it’s dying. When you think about the thrilling terror of giving birth to your first child, imagine what it must feel like to have no health insurance as the due date arrives. When you gather around your table and say thanks for all you have, picture that gathering under no roof, with no table, and perhaps not even food.
The more we work mindfully to see others through the lens of our shared human struggles, it is harder to think of our fellow citizens as them. To be a patriot is to think of us, one people who must stay vigilant in how closely we examine the actions of our government and how seriously we ourselves defend the pillars upon which our nation rests.