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Red and blue: Let's talk reconciliation

Red and blue: Let's talk reconciliation
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America, we have a problem. A deep chasm divides us. We don’t need surveys to tell us that, but they drive the point home like a sledgehammer.  

A Pew Research report published two days after the election revealed, perhaps not surprisingly, wide disagreement between Trump and Biden supporters, on issues including how the pandemic, racial inequality and law enforcement should be addressed. This was followed by a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll that found about half of all Republicans believe President Donald TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE “rightfully won” the U.S. election but that it was stolen from him by widespread voter fraud that favored Joe BidenJoe BidenFauci says school should be open 'full blast' five days a week in the fall Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip Immigration experts say GOP senators questioned DHS secretary with misleading chart MORE

At least as distressingly, overwhelming majorities of both Biden and Trump supporters said in October that the other candidate’s winning would lead to lasting harm to the nation. And about 80 percent in both camps said Biden and Trump supporters disagree over core American values and goals, while nine-in-10 in each group say they disagree on basic facts.

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Two camps, with tens of millions of voters in each, can’t agree on the facts that drive our viewpoints, on the governing policies we should adopt or on the essential values that guide us. 

While this is hardly the only challenge the Biden administration will face over the next several years, it is surely among the most consequential. Our national civic infrastructure is frayed to the breaking point. It needs repair, literally from the top down and the bottom up. That means rebuilding civil society in the halls of power in Washington, in state capitals across the country, and in every local community. 

Other nations have had to grapple with terrible internecine conflict. Countries like South Africa, Argentina and El Salvador, whose populations endured horrific oppression and violence, created “truth and reconciliation commissions,” designed to reckon openly with past wounds and promote healing. Thankfully, the partisan divide we face in this country has thus far been mostly violence-free. That it will remain so, however, is not a foregone conclusion. 

If we’re to have a fighting chance of tackling the enormous challenges we have as a nation, we must get beyond demonizing “the other,” who as likely as not is our neighbor just down the road or in the apartment next door.

What’s the way forward? Here’s one idea: a federally-funded program to create “reconciliation councils” in every state and county, with a mission to seed and nurture opportunities for local community members with widely disparate perspectives to speak with one another and, perhaps, even find common ground. The councils would, for example, develop facilitated ongoing “reconciliation circles” of individuals from the different political and cultural camps, designed for getting to know one another on a human level and for deep listening. The goal would be to gain understanding of one another's needs, concerns and interests. Local groups might also be tasked with finding community improvement projects to work on together.  

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Significant resources to inform and advise such a project already exist. Organizations like

Braver Angels (“red” and “blue” engagement) and Essential Partners (formerly the Public Conversations Project) are already doing some version of this work. Reconciliation councils could also draw from the ranks of local mediators, clergy, therapists, teachers and law enforcement de-escalation experts.

And at the local level, reconciliation circles could be staffed by trained, federally-funded facilitators, from both sides of the political chasm. In addition to demonstrating people skills, the key job qualification would be a sincere commitment to bridging the divide, including by bringing even the most strident members of “their side” to the circle. 

Deep polarization in this country isn’t likely to go away any time soon, as the Pew surveys remind us. But even in the face of those daunting reports, there’s a glimmer of hope: In October, significant majorities of both Biden and Trump supporters said their preferred candidate should focus on addressing the needs of all Americans. Embedding reconciliation councils, and circles, in every corner of this country, or something like them, might be a good way to start.

Michael Felsen left federal service after 39 years as an attorney with the U.S. Labor Department’s Office of the Solicitor, concluding his career in the Senior Executive Service from 2010-2018. Outside of work, he has been active in interfaith reconciliation efforts in Boston, and his writing on Israeli/Palestinian peace and Jewish-Muslim relations has been published extensively here and abroad.