“Respect, I think, always implies imagination—the ability to see one another, across our inevitable differences, as living souls.” ~ Wendell Berry
I’m afraid I’ve forgotten how to write non-political poems and some recent essays I turned in were just a few degrees shy of ranting. Over the last few years my usual peace/love/humor social media feed on Facebook and Twitter has started to read more like a women trying to jump higher than despair. Every morning it takes strength just to face the news. This isn’t who I want to be. Isn’t who I think we are.
Remember the bundle of sticks story, said to come from the enslaved storyteller Aesop over 2500 years ago?
A father is distressed by the constant quarreling among his sons. Nothing he says eases the discord. When their arguments became fierce, he asks one of his sons to bring him a bundle of sticks. He hands it in turn to each son, asking them to try to break it. None of them can. Then he unties the bundle and hands out individual sticks, which they break easily. “My sons,” says the father, “do you not see how certain it is that if you help each other, it will impossible for your enemies to injure you? But if you are divided among yourselves, you are no stronger than a single stick in that bundle.”
History tells us when ordinary people are pitted against one another, those divisions are fostered by people who benefit. Divisions keep the majority preoccupied while a tiny minority amasses ever more wealth and power. So-called divides are used to keep people tussling over religion, race, ethnicity, social issues, politics — all amped up by fear of change, fear of losing what little you’ve got to someone who isn’t just like you. Meanwhile, what little power and wealth ordinary people have is usurped easily as individual sticks are broken. When we don’t stand up for each other, we lose.
But we are not hopelessly divided. In fact, across so-called political divides we are growing closer on pivotal issues.
Results from a 2019 poll byThe Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation show a strong majority of Americans — about 8 in 10 — say that human activity is fueling climate change.
There’s plenty of shared fear. Forty percent overall believe action to combat climate change must come in the next decade to ward off the worst consequences while 12% believe it’s already too late. These concerns cross party lines and are a significant change from a few years ago, when a 2014 Gallup poll found people ranked climate change among their lowest concerns, with a majority caring little or not at all about the issue.
How to tackle the problem? Nearly two-thirds of people polled support stricter fuel-efficiency standards for the country’s cars and trucks. While many are willing to pay more in taxes and utilities, a majority agree on two methods for funding climate action. Seven out of 10 say the money should come from increasing taxes on wealthy households. And six out of 10 favor raising taxes on companies that burn fossil fuels, even when told companies may pass costs along in the form of higher prices.
A Pew Research Center fact sheet from early 2019 shows a strong majority of Americans (62%) say immigrants strengthen our country thanks to their hard work and talents. A total of 28% believe, instead, that immigrants burden the country by taking jobs, housing, and health care. This is a major reversal from attitudes prevalent 25 years ago, when a 1994 poll indicated 63% of Americans believed immigrants burdened the country while 31% said they strengthened it.
There are differences in opinion. Democrats overwhelmingly agree immigrants strengthen the nation (83%) while nearly half of Republicans saying they burden the nation (49%). But views among younger Republicans challenge older party views, with a majority (58%) of those under 39 years of age agreeing that immigrants strengthen the country. Notice again an increasing convergence of viewpoints.
The Commonwealth Fund’s 2019 survey found than two-thirds of people (68%) in states that have not expanded Medicaid favored expanding the program. A majority of Democrats (91%) and independents (74%) were in favor. Only 42% of Republicans overall approved, but 57% of Republicans most likely to be affected (making less than $30,350 annually) approved of expansion.
Despite confusion around this complicated issue, Americans are increasingly interested in some form of universal healthcare. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 58% of people approved when asked about “a national health plan, sometimes called Medicare for All, in which all Americans would get their insurance from a single government plan.” In a CNN poll, over half (54%) said the government should provide a national health insurance program funded by taxes, although only 20% agreed it should entirely replace private health insurance. While there are strong differences of opinion a survey by RealClear Politics found healthcare was the top concern of voters, even Republicans were evenly split on supporting or not supporting Medicare for all.
Overall a significant majority of Americans believe workers should receive paid medical leave (85%) as well as parental leave (82%) following birth/adoption.
Economy and Money’s Influence
A 2020 Pew Research Center study on economic inequality found seven out of ten adults agree the U.S. economic system unfairly favors powerful interests.
Americans overall agree which groups have too much power over the economy. Eighty-four percent say politicians, 82% corporations, and 82% say the wealthy. Three-quarters agree health insurance companies have too much power, 64% say banks and other financial institutions, 61% say technology companies. There are differences of opinion within these categories, for example Republicans are more likely to say labor unions have too much power while Democrats believe corporate power is a greater concern, but there’s still plenty of common ground.
Americans in general also tend to dislike special interests interfering with elections. Eighty-four percent think money has too much influence in elections. Nearly 8 in 10 favor limits on both raising and spending money in congressional campaigns. Meanwhile, 78 percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, want to overturn the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that further opened the floodgates to corporate campaign spending, including spending from undisclosed sources.
What will it take to revive hope and work together for the common good?
My friend John Robinson, author of Mystical Activism: Transforming A World In Crisis, spoke in a recent interview about Earth’s sacredness and the peril our planet is in. He compared it to driving down the road and seeing a two-year-old wander into the street. As he says, “You don’t keep driving and think to yourself, ‘that’s interesting, I wonder what’s going to happen.’ You jump out of the car, you stop all the other cars, and you grab that child to save him. That’s the kind of response that happens when we suddenly get how much in danger we are in and start responding to the world.”
It’s an apt analogy, not only because our instinctual response is to save the child no matter if leaping into the road endangers us, but also because it is an unconscious act of love. That’s where we are now. Life on earth is that child and the politics of the drivers going by don’t matter, the child is in peril.
That word “love” may be key. It’s found in what we are lacking, including a sense of community and shared purpose. Across all so-called divides, we truly want the same things. Things like safety, freedom, meaning, a sense of belonging, hope for the future, a say in decisions that affect us. We may believe there are different routes to achieve these goals, but the goals are darn similar. That’s common ground.
We’ve been led to believe a brighter, more collaborative future is unrealistic, even impossible, but that’s a narrative that divides and breaks us just as effectively as tearing apart Aesop’s bundle of sticks. Howard Zinn reminded us in this article written a few years before his death,
There is a tendency to think that what we see in the present moment will continue. We forget how often we have been astonished by the sudden crumbling of institutions, by extraordinary changes in people’s thoughts, by unexpected eruptions of rebellion against tyrannies, by the quick collapse of systems of power that seemed invincible….
I keep encountering people who, in spite of all the evidence of terrible things happening everywhere, give me hope. Especially young people, in whom the future rests.
Positive change takes place when people work together regardless of naysayers, regardless of divisions fostered by those who seek to consolidate ever greater wealth and power. We’re here for more than short-term satisfactions. Leap up, save the baby from the road.