Continuing my journey into understanding our American political differences in ideals and philosophy, I started reading Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit by Parker J. Palmer, and quickly became an advocate for the tension-holding process of civil conversation described within the book.
The escalated ugliness revealed through our current election season process has been confusing and overwhelming, a point at which, in the past, I usually found myself completely withdrawing from. This year, though, I have become deeply curious about the “why” and "how" of politics, which has led me to learn more than ever before about my country through our formative documents, the founding fathers, presidents, parties, and political process, the psychology of diversity, and so much more.
Our peopled government has never seemed more at odds and unwieldy, yet we must — every single one of us as citizens — find a way to support the Great American Experiment. It seems to me that this broader conversation begins at home, with friends and family, at the dinner table and in community. This isn’t easy for me — as an extreme introvert and pacifist, I tend to avoid conflict — but it does feel absolutely vital so that we may continue growing our country toward greater dignity, compassion, and unity.
One divisive comment I’ve noticed that often halts continuing conversation is when one person speaks of “democracy” and the other states that we are a “republic.” Curious about this, since my high school years of social studies are many decades gone, I googled. Keeping in mind the context in which the Founding Fathers (see my earlier post on this group of diverse men) formed the United States of America, the definitions I found seemed simple and I agree with Parker Palmer’s comment that we are both: “we are a representative democracy set in the context of a constitutional republic.” The terms and their intention do not have to be mutually exclusive.
Parker Palmer acknowledges that “our differences may be deep” — as we are seeing in this year’s election primaries — but points out that this is nothing new (only 39 of 55 delegates signed the Constitution in 1787). What is new to my generation is how many Americans are behaving without respect, dignity, decency or compassion — and trying to call it “honesty.” Palmer says that if American democracy fails, it won’t be from external forces, rather “it will happen because we—you and I—became so fearful of each other, of our differences and of the future, that we unraveled the civic community on which democracy depends, losing our power to resist all that threatens it.” Fear of “the Other” is rampant right now and destroying our ability to discuss the issues we disagree upon; we cannot suppress necessary conversation, we can’t dig in our heels (or walk away) and refuse to talk. I know it’s tempting — I’m an expert at walking away from conflict and volatile relationships. But here, now, there is more at stake than my own personal comfort zone. Palmer speaks of “creative conflict” and his book clearly shows ways to engage respectfully with those whose opinions strongly differ from ours.
I’ve been watching debates on both sides of the political spectrum and, yes, the issues are major. Are they going to disappear just because we get angry and call people names, be vulgar, incite violence, or turn our backs? I doubt it. I lean toward the Democratic party myself, but I certainly appreciated the comments made recently by Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan: “Politics can be a battle of ideas, not insults … Our political discourse did not used to be this bad, and it does not have to be this way” (“Wall Street Journal,” March 24, 2016).
During a recent family political discussion, where we all did a fairly good job of remaining calm, we kept returning to common ground, finding the core elements that we could agree upon. In those core moments, we could remind each other that the conflicting issues are how we address and resolve our concerns, rarely the deep issues themselves like how to keep people safe, employed, and fed. We could pause, break bread together, and then return to the table. Politicians in DC used to do that; they used to have their families there and members of opposite parties would attend social functions more freely and openly together — participating in community.
Parker Palmer’s book Healing the Heart of Democracy was written in 2011 and released in paperback with a new Introduction in 2014 (this is the copy I have); I was struck by the following paragraph — from a chapter on citizen heartbreak (when your heart breaks, does it break open or shatter apart — how we handle heartbreak is reflected through our subsequent behavior), pain, cynicism, and anger erupting in destructive behaviors that are symptomatic masks — in light of our current political schism:
“There are exceptions, of course. Some of the cynicism, anger, and hatred we hear is scripted and strategic. For example, manipulating our ancient fear of ‘otherness’ is a time-tested method to gain power … if you have a public megaphone. Well-known media personalities—and too many political candidates and officeholders—exploit a market that will yield returns as long as fear haunts the human heart, a profitable enterprise in relation to their own financial or political fortunes but one that can bankrupt the commonwealth.”
This book is a gem that I wish everyone would read. What’s most remarkable about Palmer’s book is that, rather than be depressing, it is uplifting because the author returns again and again to ways in which we can bring about change through compassion, respect, and conversation. The dynamics of difference involved in our political system means that the pendulum swings back and forth from one election to another, but we don’t have to let it become a wrecking ball if we attend to the checks and balances provided initially by our Founding Fathers and allow them to grow in context with changing times and cultures.
I will end with these wise words by Parker Palmer (in a chapter where he is writing about seeing our own history as clearly as we can, rather than through rose-colored glasses):
“If we remain clear about the gap between America’s aspiration and its reality, [the Declaration of Independence] can continue to energize movement toward our goal. But when we imagine or pretend that it describes America’s reality, the [document] becomes an enemy of its own aspiration.”
“In every generation, we must try again to close the gap between our reality and our aspirations.”