Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s cover story “How to heal America’s partisan divide.”

Illustration by Kyle Hilton

“Was that gunfire?” I scanned the baseball diamond in front of me. Colleagues on the infield looked at each other, equally puzzled.

It was a pristine June morning in 2017. The Republican team had traveled across the Potomac to a Virginia suburb to practice for one of Washington’s most anticipated rituals: the annual Congressional Baseball Game. Having played in the game as a congressman and now as a senator, it would be my 17th contest. And I was happy to be back in the familiar surroundings of center field after several uncomfortable years parked at third base. 

I was anxious for the game the following day. My family was in town, and in just 36 hours, they would join some 20,000 fans in the stands as I walked with a bat to home plate. It’s an adrenaline rush for those of us who typically get our kicks from appearing on C-SPAN. 

This year, however, the adrenaline came early, and for the worst reason. We were nearing the end of practice, when, seconds after I heard the first shot, an unmistakable volley of gunfire pierced the air, followed by our third baseman yelling “Shooter! Shooter!”

How to heal America’s partisan divide
Sen. Mitt Romney: Calling upon our better angels
Fabiola Santiago: Our strength is in our diversity

The gunman stood just outside of the third base dugout, firing indiscriminately on the infield with a large caliber rifle. I turned and ran toward the opposite dugout and dove for cover. 

The next eight minutes were an intense blur. The gunman fired nearly 100 rounds at members of Congress and staff. As the sound of gunfire filled the air, a staff member who had been shot in the lower leg made his way to the dugout before collapsing on top of those of us already on the floor. I tightened a belt around the wound and held it there — a makeshift tourniquet to slow the bleeding. All the while, gunfire raged around us as the Capitol Hill and Alexandria police engaged the shooter.

When the gunfire finally stopped, I ran back out on the field where Congressman Steve Scalise appeared to be in critical condition. I pressed my batting glove against a bullet wound on his thigh while we waited for first responders. I called Steve’s wife, Jennifer, to tell her the news before her television did.  

Thankfully Steve and the others who were wounded would recover, and the only life lost that day was that of the gunman, who was mortally wounded in the shootout. The most enduring memory I have of that terrible morning came as I watched bullets dislodge bits of gravel in my path toward the dugout. 

I couldn’t help but wonder: Why us? How could anyone look at a bunch of middle-aged lawmakers playing baseball and see the enemy?

It’s a fool’s errand to delve into the psyche of someone sick enough to carry out such an act, but the shooter didn’t hide his view that my political party was such a threat to the nation that we all deserved to die. 

How could anyone look at a bunch of middle-aged lawmakers playing baseball and see the enemy?

Of course, politically motivated violence is no respecter of party. Nearly a year and a half after the baseball shooting, the FBI apprehended a man who mailed pipe bombs to several Democratic politicians and left-leaning media outlets. The bomber had even tweeted pictures of my family along with an aerial photo of my home in Arizona with a caption noting that my house had “a lot of entrances” and that he would see me and my family “soon.”

My sister, Kaija, recently compared our national predicament to the time when our aging father began losing his hearing. Dad controlled the remote in our house, and in his later years, as Kaija put it, “the volume slowly started to creep up and up.” Eventually the whole household was listening to the TV at max volume like it was normal.

That’s where we are. Discourse that would have been unacceptable not long ago has been normalized. It’s so loud that we’re starting to forget who we are, who we represent and the common ground we share.   

Discourse that would have been unacceptable not long ago has been normalized.

In 2012, a year after Democratic Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was shot in the head while greeting constituents at a Tucson supermarket, she courageously attended the State of the Union address before Congress. I’m a Republican, and a conservative one at that, but in a gesture of friendship and solidarity, I sat next to her on the Democratic side of the House Chamber.

During President Barack Obama’s applause lines, Gabby wanted to stand up but was unable to do so on her own due to her continuing recovery. I helped her up, and that often left me standing, a lone Republican among a sea of cheering Democrats. My phone was flooded with furious text messages from those who wanted to know why I stood and how I could “agree with President Obama.”  

I thought, “How did we get here? And how can we get back to having the constructive, civil deliberations regarding policy issues that our country deserves?”

I believe in the power of conservative principles to transform lives, lift countries, alleviate suffering and make people prosperous and free. A few years ago, I made a pilgrimage to Dublin, Ireland, to visit Trinity College, the school that shaped the father of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke. I hoped that just by walking those halls his intellect might rub off on me. My wife concluded that it might take a few more trips. 

I believe in the power of conservative principles to transform lives, lift countries, alleviate suffering and make people prosperous and free.

According to Burke, restraint is a statesman’s chief virtue. “Rage and frenzy,” Burke observed, “will pull down more in half an hour than prudence, deliberation and foresight can build up in a hundred years.”

At the heart of conservatism is a healthy distrust of concentrated power, particularly when that power is exercised by the chief executive. Conservatives embrace the art of persuasion. There is a reason why the founders made Congress the Article 1 branch of government. Legislative bodies decide policy through a process of deliberation, not decree. Power emanates from persuasion. 

Legislative majorities, if they wish to remain majorities, rely not on brute force, but on convincing others of their ideas. The vessel of political conservatism, the Republican Party, my party, seems to be losing confidence in the power of persuasion. This also seems true with my colleagues across the aisle. 

As a nerdy reminder of what it was like when the Republican Party trafficked in ideas, I keep a T-shirt from 1992. At first glance, the T-shirt looks like memorabilia from some touring rock group, with dates listed next to dozens of cities across the country.  

On closer inspection, however, the “tour stops” mark the cities where debates took place that year over the flat tax vs. the fair tax between House Republican Minority Leader Dick Armey and the ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, Bill Archer.   

This was a different Republican Party. 

Each party pushes through what it can while it is in the majority and tries to undo what the other party did when they held the reins.  

So when I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000, I was surprised that my party seemed less interested in ideas and more interested in how to use the levers of power to enact a preestablished agenda. The Democratic Party was no different. The desire to persuade gave way to “might makes right.” That’s largely the cycle we’ve been in for the past decade. Each party pushes through what it can while it is in the majority and tries to undo what the other party did when they held the reins.  

In this game of thrones, elected officials have little incentive to deliberate, let alone cooperate or compromise. Every instinct in this environment encourages a politician to rush to the safety of the tribe, to state their position and stay there. Reaching across the aisle used to get you plaudits. Today it gets you a primary.   

And yet, there’s reason to be optimistic for those who believe that the pursuit of raw power should yield to persuasion.

While we will have a Democrat in the White House, he is thankfully (and I say this as a compliment) a creature of the Senate. Joe Biden’s 36 years in the upper chamber spanned a period when that body further solidified its moniker as the “world’s most deliberative body.”

After spending nearly two decades on Capitol Hill, I’ve come to believe that a divided government is almost always the best government. With divided government, no one party is under the illusion that it can impose its will at the expense of the other. The parties are forced to work together. The slow pace can be frustrating, but I think at this point the citizenry might prefer boring government. 

Reaching across the aisle used to get you plaudits. Today it gets you a primary.

If you think about it, the only real alternative to working together in this interdependent world is to be alone. I’ve tested that alternative, and believe me, it’s no vacation.   

Several years ago, I clicked on Google Earth and located a bunch of small uninhabited islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Determined to live out a strange dream I’ve had since my childhood growing up on a dry, dusty Arizona ranch, I decided to maroon myself on one these remote Pacific atolls for a week with no food or water and with minimal tools, just to see if I could survive. 

A strange idea, I know. 

Just how alone was I? After a few days on the island of Jabonwod, I picked up one of the hermit crabs that wandered through my camp and, with a sharpie pen that inexplicably made it into my meager survival kit, I wrote “number one” on his shell. I wanted to know if he would recur during my stay. A while later, I picked up another hermit crab and wrote “number two” on his shell. By the end of the week, I had 126 numbered friends. I grew quite fond of number 72, with whom I often shared scraps of coconut. I was not so fond of 47, who pinched my big toe. And I still miss good ol’ 44.

No man is an island. And no man should be voluntarily alone on an island for long — that I can confirm. When I find it difficult to be civil or pleasant to those with whom I disagree, when I am inclined to ignore the better angels of my nature, I think back on the alternative.  

So, in my conversations in the new year, I’m committing to rediscover the healing art of persuasion. Rather than reaching for cruel rhetorical cudgels when challenged by others, I’ll listen. When challenging others, I’ll make better arguments at a lower volume. And I’ll lend my political support to those who do the same.

Jeff Flake served six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives and one term in the U.S. Senate representing Arizona. He is also the author of The New York Times bestseller, “Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle.”

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.