How we can heal after the 2016 election
© Greg Nash

Regardless of the outcome of Tuesday's presidential election, roughly half the country will be hurting.

When I consider the possibility of Republican nominee Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHouse Republicans move to block Yemen war-powers votes for rest of Congress Trump says he's considering 10 to 12 contenders for chief of staff Michael Flynn asks judge to spare him from jail time MORE as our next president, I feel nausea, disbelief, shame, outrage, terror, panic. It's hard for me to imagine life going on as usual with him at the helm.

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Yet I know there are many people who will feel the exact same way if Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonRoger Stone challenges Dems to produce WikiLeaks evidence Steve King asks Google CEO for names of employees to see if they're liberals O'Rourke edges out Biden in MoveOn straw poll MORE is elected. We've unfriended each other on Facebook and avoided each other at family gatherings. The fact that we can dismiss each other's fears as unjustified and unwarranted proves the depth of the chasm that separates us.

With the country so sharply divided, the next four years are likely to be marked by continued mudslinging and political stalemate. There is almost nothing that the two candidates, the two parties, the two Americas seem to agree on — except preventing the other side from getting what it wants.

We will be trapped in the classic prisoner's dilemma, where if each side continues acting in its own perceived self-interest, both will be worse off.

The United States is not alone in this situation. Widening social cleavages are evident in Britain and across Europe. But around the world, political systems have rebounded from far worse: civil wars, genocides, ethnic cleansing and apartheid.

In countries from Cambodia to Colombia, Rwanda to Bosnia, Germany to South Africa, severely torn and traumatized societies have undergone the process of healing, forgiveness and renewal — even though the path is often a bumpy one.

As a superpower and major aid donor, the United States is accustomed to giving advice, not taking it.

But America has much to learn from the experience of nations that have rebuilt themselves after periods of civil strife.

History suggests that successful national reconciliation requires, first and foremost, a shared vision for the country. What is it that makes America great — and what would an even better America look like?

Building a shared vision starts with an inclusive national dialogue that provides a safe space for people to express their fears and pain as well as their hopes and dreams for the future.

It's about listening to one another and finding what holds us together instead of harping on what tears us apart.

Reconciliation also means building trust through honest, accountable governance and responsible citizenship.

  • Schools need to revive civic education to give students the knowledge, skills, tools and confidence they need to function as engaged and enlightened participants in the political process.
  • The media need to stop operating like the tobacco industry, making a profit by manufacturing a poisonous product specifically designed to cause addiction.
  • Politicians need to restore honor and dignity to public service by adhering to the highest moral and ethical standards and separating the official decision-making process from the campaign money-raising process.

What if, instead of seeking to ram through a partisan agenda in the first 100 days, the new president and Congress agreed on a "detente," during which they went on a joint listening tour?

What if, instead of trying to sabotage the new president, congressional leaders pledged to identify a few areas of common ground where all sides could work together?

What if, instead of finding ways to circumvent Congress, the new president refused to act without congressional approval — and a bipartisan majority gave it?

Having worked in Congress and the administration for over 20 years, I know full well this will never happen. Even if one side wanted it, the other side would be loath to cooperate.

Yet if either party blindly pursues its own agenda, the United States is in for four punishing years of hateful accusations, spurious investigations, legislative deadlock and growing fragmentation.

By pressing for maximum partisan advantage, Democratic and Republican leaders will only defer the important work that needs to be done to heal our nation and, in doing so, pave the way to their own demise.

Ohlbaum is a former congressional staffer and a former deputy director of the Office of Transition Initiatives at the U.S. Agency for International Development. She is currently an independent consultant.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.