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Opinion: A fence won’t bridge the political gap

The political divide in America was not what our founders intended for us. We can still build bridges instead of fences

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When I was 16, my parents decided to send me to my grandfather’s ranch to work for the summer. They said it would build character.

They were right.

Grandpa put me in charge of a team of workers to install a 300-foot line of fence — a project that required operating heavy equipment and welding a daunting number of pipes. I felt like a true cowboy.

After a few weeks, my team finished installing the fence. Then grandpa came out to inspect our work. He closed one eye and sighted the fence line. “These fences are jagged,” he said. After a harsh chastisement, he told me there was only one solution: rebuild.

Today, the United States has constructed a jagged fence line dividing us. We are a nation that is grossly misaligned.

In a recent poll published by The Washington Post, more than 80% of President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump voters agreed that elected officials of the opposing party “present a clear and present danger to the American democracy.” Another poll showed that nearly 80% of Americans have few or no friends across the political aisle. In short, Republicans and Democrats don’t like each other.

America was not born with this contemptuous spirit. Consider our founding Constitutional Convention. Two months after the assembly convened, it was on the verge of collapse from political gridlock. In the convention’s darkest hour, Benjamin Franklin showed true American spirit. He invited all delegates — federalists and anti-federalists — to his elegant mansion for dinner, perhaps in the hope that a venue change would help his colleagues overcome the stalemate. In the friendly environment of Franklin’s home, seasoned with ample food and humor, they were finally able to reach a compromise.

Such bipartisan camaraderie seems unimaginable today.

But, like my grandpa’s fences, the contempt that plagues our politics can be uprooted and replaced with bridges of bipartisanship. I suggest three building blocks to get us started. 

Learn from our political counterparts

We Americans dislike education in our political lives. We make our politicians pay at the ballot box for adapting to new knowledge. And studies have shown we are resistant to new learning that tends to undermine our closely-held political beliefs.

Such close-mindedness is self-defeating. Princeton researchers found the echo chambers we create for ourselves, including on social media, lead to even greater polarization.

Let’s buck the trend. Liberals, read an opinion piece from The Wall Street Journal or the National Review. Conservatives, try reading something from The New York Times or The Washington Post. Challenging, rather than constantly reaffirming, our political beliefs may help us refine our own thinking. We can all learn something new, even from those we oppose.

Love everyone

To love one another, despite our political differences, is an act of will. As Thomas Aquinas said in his “Summa Theologica,” “To love is to will the good of another.”

Do we “will the good” of our political adversaries? The diatribes on social media or cable news suggest not. Our friends, politicians and political commentators are too often quick to denigrate the political opposition — sometimes resorting to ugly mudslinging.

Personal attacks are counterproductive. We need positive policies that promote prosperity, not shameful tactics that promote partisanship.

Take breaks from politics

Finally, we need occasional breaks from cable news. Instead, use that time for quality socializing with loved ones. It’s good for us. Research shows that consuming too much political news damages our well-being.

The last word

In 1787, James Madison cautioned that the rise of a “factious spirit” amongst the American populace has the power to “inflame (mankind) with mutual animosity” and to “render them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.” That warning is especially relevant today.

Our country was founded on a strong tradition of camaraderie and compromise, not contempt and combativeness. We must restore this American tradition.

Let’s uproot the jagged fences that divide us. Let us rebuild with bridges that bring us together. 

Brad Barber is a recent graduate of Brigham Young University and Harvard Law School. He is an attorney practicing in Salt Lake City.