Op-Ed: Mending the Political Divide Starts at Home
By Francis Ambrogio
I have always been passionate about politics. Politics is exciting, interesting, and, at the end of the day, it matters.
However, in my past three-and-a-half years as an officer in the U.S. Army, I have become somewhat more quiet and less publicly engaged in politics. The American public’s tremendous trust in its military is grounded in the armed forces’ dedicated, apolitical professionalism. Were servicemembers – especially our leaders – to engage in partisanship, the public’s trust in both our advice and our actions would be brought into question. General Douglas MacArthur said it best in his farewell address to the cadets of West Point: “Let civilian voices argue the merits or demerits of our processes of government….These great national problems are not for your professional participation or military solution.”
I spent most of the past two years forward deployed in the Republic of Korea, and, thanks to being on the far side of the world, I found myself doubly removed from the American political maelstrom. Surprisingly, I found it quite a relief. Sure, we read the news, and we got some cable news piped in via Armed Forces Network in the dining halls, but the background noise of daily life was neither the cacophony of CNN nor the firestorm of Fox.
This isn’t to say that we weren’t immersed in a heated political environment. In fact, my comrades and I witnessed perhaps one of the most dramatic times in Korea since its transition from dictatorship to democracy in the late 1980s. We saw massive political demonstrations, the impeachment and imprisonment of a Korean President, multiple missile launches from North Korea, the ratcheting up of economic, diplomatic, and military pressure against the North to previously unseen levels, the “Peace Olympics” in Pyeongchang, a number of groundbreaking inter-Korean conferences, and finally, a big, beautiful summit in Singapore between President Trump and Kim Jong Un. Yet, these were not our politics. We did not vote on Korean questions, and while amongst us there were certainly differing opinions regarding our own foreign policy, we were there to do our duty – to stand steadfast alongside our Korean allies and to be ready to fight and win, should deterrence fail.
Returning home was exhilarating. It was wonderful to be back in my country and my town. It was also the height of election season, and while elections are always hotly contested, this year has been truly ugly. We have all seen it, and, indeed, most of us have probably found ourselves sickened by it.
Not long ago, in a discussion with a group of college students, George P. Shultz, one of the great modern American statesmen, said that to get through our political morass we need to “start from problems.” He suggested that rather starting from theoretical ideals about government or from factional objectives, that we, first, find the willingness to countenance those we disagree with and, second, cooperate practically with them to solve common challenges.
Shultz is a former Marine officer, and while he and I may have different preferences regarding the Army-Navy Game, I find his advice on this issue to be spot on. Military units thrive or fail based on the bonds between the individuals within them, bonds which come primarily from shared values and day-to-day interactions. I would argue that these truths hold in civic life, too.
Most Americans hold both liberty and equality to be the pillars of our free society, and fundamentally, we seem to want the same things: the right to live out our beliefs – and to discuss and debate them – in peace, just and fair treatment by our government, a hand in shaping that self-government, and an even chance today at the opportunity to make tomorrow better than yesterday.
Today, in the age of social media, it is far, far too easy to divide ourselves into artificial non-communities, where we only hear opinions with which we already agree and encounter those whom we already like. This self-imposed segregation metamorphosizes our disagreements into suspicion and our differences into enmity.
That is why I started reaching out to people who I disagreed with politically, who knew I disagreed with them, and who I had not spoken with in a long time.
In order to turn this social media effect against itself, I started “cold-messaging” people, only to say, “Hi. It’s been a while. How are you?” I would say, up front, that the pandemonium of present politics had inspired me to reach out, but that I really just wanted to catch up. And, then we would talk.
We don’t get to pick every person we encounter or every idea we engage. We get the people who happen to be our neighbors, and the ideas amongst any given group of people can be as numerous as the numbers of people in the group. This personal and ideological diversity is one of the great things about America – and, yet, we watch the same sports teams, drink the same beer, drive our kids to the same schools, and pay the same bills. We have far more in common with one another than the frenzy of election season might lead us to believe. The trick is putting it into action and engaging on that commonality.
When is the last time you helped a neighbor out with something? Stayed for half an hour after church to chat over coffee? Volunteered at a local charity or spent time at a nursing home? Joined a recreational sports team or a book club?
There are deep divisions in our country today that neither “resistance” nor “owning” the other side will mend. The best way to start the mending, though, might be indirectly – through simple daily interactions that reinforce our common bonds.