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What Mr. Rogers can teach about healing our toxic political climate

AP

A friend recently posed questions about becoming better informed in order to make voting decisions and wanting a community conducive to healthy voting-prep discourse, issues many of us struggle with. The “red vs. blue” divide seems to have rendered constructive political dialogue almost impossible. Political ideologies are not sacrosanct. In preparing to vote, what does matter?

During the final night of the Republican National Convention, my husband and I streamed “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” The next morning, we recognized the irony in our viewing choice. The almost all-out call to partisan political warfare of the RNC contrasted starkly with the caring communication of Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks).

The “Neighborhood” script perfectly juxtaposes human struggle with answers to the question of what matters most, including in voting. Lloyd asks Fred Rogers about the “heavy stuff” he covers with children — “death, divorce, war. It gets dark” — and Mr. Rogers’ responds focusing on “friendship.” Later in the script, talk-show host Arsenio Hall comments, “There’s an attitude out there ... there’s a lot of hopelessness. What do we need to do?” And Fred replies, “There are no simple answers of course, but if we could, ... let people know that each one of us is precious.”

Mister Rogers’ advice speaks to what matters, including in voting decisions. We matter — each one of us. And differentiating candidates and their policies relative to caring and inclusiveness matters. But, here’s the central problem: the potency of the red vs. blue divide directly rejects community and caring. Unless you’re on the same side of the divide, healthy voting discourse doesn’t happen, even among friends and family. And by selecting news and opinion sources which match partisan leaning, we self-limit access to diverse background knowledge. Our social media feeds are custom designed to reinforce our world view, not challenge or expand it. Confronting these realities would be the first step toward prioritizing community and inclusiveness.

In recent years, wanting to find a community of discourse myself, I was drawn to Mormon Women for Ethical Government. Interacting with women across the country on MWEG’s private Facebook discussion pages, I found examples of both constructive dialogue and civil engagement — women consistently practicing MWEG’s mantra: Faithful, Non-partisan, Peaceful and Proactive.

In my quest for media sources, I found The New York Times daily op-ed newsletter informative. David Leonhardt, editor at the time, frequently linked the reader to contrasting views. Then, two years ago, Leonhardt (moderate) with Ross Douthat (conservative), and Michelle Goldberg (liberal), hosted The Argument podcast. Their diverse reasoning, delivered with respect and genuine intent, exemplified healthy political discourse. These perspective-broadening examples led me to consciously select readings across the political spectrum, among others, conservative Bret Stephens, moderate conservative David Brooks, economist Paul Krugman, humanitarian Nicholas Kristof, and Jamelle Bouie on politics, history and race. Seeking diverse ideology, it’s significant to me that these varied writings also reflect genuine care for humanity.

Even with efforts toward inclusiveness in vote preparation, the “red vs. blue divide” remains formidable. To this, Mister Rogers would likely counsel focusing on commonality. The divisive political ideologies — the size of government, the role of markets and the welfare state, etc. — have divided us from the beginning. Now, with the perspective of 212 centuries, surely we recognize that these central differences of opinion actually ground us in one purpose — figuring out together what will work for the good of all of us.

Mister Rogers would likely also suggest looking beyond commonality to consider the paradox of fundamental inequality in a country originally defined by equality. In voting decisions, we surely must incorporate thought about overcoming the legacy of suffering and disparity among the descendants of indigenous populations and slaves in these United States.

Preparing to vote, Mister Rogers would have us remember that each one of us is precious: our basic needs are common; we’re ultimately responsible for vetting information input and finding healthy discourse; and we must not sweep the errors of the past under the rug. Working together, determined to overcome the ‘red vs blue’ divide, we just might live up to the promise of our democracy.

Camille Baker is a retired mathematics educator, wife, mother and grandmother, and member of Mormon Women for Ethical Government.