Bridging the Political Divide One Mile at a Time 1

The first in a two-part series. The election is heating up so I thought it was time to “reprint” this essay which appeared in the Tacoma News Tribune in October 2004. At the time, it struck a chord with quite a few people.  

Increasingly it seems birds of a political feather almost exclusively fly together. All of my teaching colleagues are Kerry supporters as are the parents from my daughter’s soccer team; on the other hand, I live in a Bush-Cheney neighborhood (2008 update: surprisingly, the Obama signs outnumber the McCain signs). I buck this trend towards ideological segregation four times a week when I run between 10 kilometers and 10 miles with M, my neighbor, friend, and loyal training partner. M is a conservative republican; I’m a liberal democrat.

Our friendship, formed over several thousand miles of running together over the last six years, is unique. Few people have close friends whose politics are markedly different than their own.  People prefer associating with like-minded friends who affirm rather than challenge their thinking, their values, and their politics. We are either too insecure to engage with those who think and vote differently than us, or it takes too much energy, or we haven’t figured out how to disagree with one another without compromising our friendships.

My friendship with M gives me hope when pundits tell us our country has never been more divided and partisanship has never been more pronounced. How do we, as red and blue runners (2008 update: dated cliche), bridge the political chasm that exists between us?

We bridge the chasm by spending time together getting to know one another as people. 

We pass the miles debating the merits of the war in Iraq, multiculturalism, Title IX, gay marriage, candidates for political office, and tax and education reform (2008 update: Sarah Palin). Sometimes I measure our debates by miles telling my wife after a run, “We had a nine mile debate on gender differences and athletics today.” Our political disagreements often lead to personal stories, stories that help me respond more thoughtfully to M’s conservative claims.  The nature of my internal dialogue has changed from “How can you be so stupid or reactionary to take a position like that?” to “What in your past might explain you’re taking that position?” In listening to M’s stories, and learning his story, I better understand his politics. 

In interacting with M, I have also learned to appreciate many of his personal qualities including his work ethic and unpredictable sense of humor. More importantly, despite our extreme political differences, we have learned we hold some important values in common. He is as committed to his wife, kids, church, and friends as I am to mine. We work hard and respect those with whom we work. We both try to make our corners of the world better than they otherwise would be in our absence. In the end, M’s human decency matters more to me than the way he votes. 

We bridge the chasm by respectfully considering each person’s position on specific issues while realizing neither person is going to forsake their overarching political philosophy.

People are threatened and fearful of political differences. When a dinner party guest states an unpopular point of view, typically he or she is met with awkward silence. Conservatives don’t just want liberals to support the President’s actions in Iraq; they want them to passionately embrace the ideas of limited government and free market capitalism. Similarly, liberals don’t just want conservatives to oppose the death penalty; they want them to passionately embrace the ideas of pluralism and social justice. 

To be continued.

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