Is the Partisan Divide Too Big to Be Bridged?


Bernard Clay, a Black, middle-aged data analyst and poet from Louisville, Ky., was leery when he was thrown together with Shaelyn Bishop, a shy, white, young biologist who grew up on a family farm in rural Green County, Ky., 15 minutes from the closest town.

But over a structured brainstorming session in 2022, amid a weekend retreat with the Kentucky Rural-Urban Exchange, something clicked. Mr. Clay, 47, had a side project chronicling Kentucky’s Black Civil War veterans. Ms. Bishop, 34, during quiet hours alone studying the ecology of the Clay Hill Memorial Forest in Taylor County, Ky., had pondered the old stones that almost certainly marked the burial grounds of the once-enslaved, a forgotten memorial to a hidden past.

An effort was born — the Enslaved People of Clay Hill, or EPOCH, Legacy Project — to officially recognize the burial ground. And a connection was made across the gulfs of race, age and geography.

The nation’s poisonous divisions, exacerbated by politicians, cable news and social media, and collectively known as the outrage industrial complex, have been much lamented. Less noticed is the counterweight, a constellation of nonprofits like Kentucky RUX, devoted to bridging divides — urban and rural, Black and white, L.G.B.T.Q. and straight, left and right. Call it the kumbaya industrial complex.

The problem: The starkest divide — Trump-branded conservatism versus the rising political left — may be the one where no one is interested in reconciliation.

“We have to be focused on what we call the exhausted majority — that’s 65 percent of Americans,” said Stephen B. Heintz, the president and chief executive of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a major financial backer of the proliferating groups trying to promote common ground. “It’s just not an efficient use of time to convince true ideologues to compromise.”

On June 17, with the backing of Rockefeller Brothers, the MacArthur Foundation, the Emerson Collective and others, a new group, Trust for Civic Life, will award its first $8 million to 20 civic groups judged the most promising in their efforts to rebuild community and reinforce democratic values. Another $2 million will come later in the year to meet the trust’s pledge of $10 million a year for community-level democracy efforts. In this case, “democracy” is with a small “d” — emphasizing efforts to shore up the values needed to promote democratic pluralism, without explicit mentions of Republicans or Democrats.

The first trust grants, selected from more than 60 organizations, will be announced in Boulder, Colo., at a Democracy Funders Strategy Summit on combating authoritarianism, more evidence that bridge-building has become the hot new concept in a country looking for hope.

In Minnesota, a fledgling Rural-Urban Exchange modeled on Kentucky’s is taking root. Braver Angels, a national organization, explicitly seeks to foster dialogue and respect across the political divide. The Lyceum Movement, hearkening back to early 19th-century efforts to forge communities in a new nation, is convening meetings and lectures in towns large and small in Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota, trying to stand in for local institutions like churches, newspapers and service societies that have atrophied, replaced by a national tribalism.

NewGround is expanding from its Los Angeles base to train facilitators who foster dialogue between Muslims and Jews at one of the most fraught moments in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And at colleges and universities cleaved by sharp-edged partisanship, BridgeUSA has established 65 chapters, hoping to make those who embrace dialogue the real campus radicals, not those who fall in line with the left or right, said Manu Meel, the organization’s chief executive.

“If you’re a student, you need to feel that the way you earn credibility is to be a bridge builder, not a conflict entrepreneur,” Mr. Meel said.

Scaling up such efforts to make a noticeable difference, particularly in the political discourse, might feel like a pipe dream, when forces as big as Fox News, MSNBC, TikTok and YouTube — not to mention the tone of the nation’s leadership — push in the opposite direction. Organizers have struggled whenever one dominant political power is uninterested in meeting in the middle.

For BridgeUSA’s chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, that dominant power is the left. The organization began at Berkeley in 2017, after an attempted visit by the alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos had incited violent confrontations. Now, said Lucy Cox, a 20-year-old rising junior at Berkeley and the president of the school’s chapter, the hole in the group’s outreach comes from the left. BridgeBerkeley’s debates, discussions and social mixers attract conservative student groups.

“But we’ve had no luck in getting Cal Dems or the Young Democratic Socialists of America” — the largest political groups at Berkeley — “to any of these events,” she admitted.

Those groups see even listening to Trump-aligned conservatives as “platforming” evil, Ms. Cox added.

”I wish there were more people willing to hear everybody out,” she said. “I think it’s possible, but there are groups on campus that are unreachable right now.”

At the University of Colorado in progressive Boulder, BridgeUSA’s chapter is finding the opposite problem: Conservatives will not show up, said Abigail Schaller, 21, the chapter’s president. She hopes to have Republican speakers on campus next school year to assure that side of the divide that discourse can be empowering.

“This is a problem that has been 50 years in the making,” Mr. Heintz, the Rockefeller Brothers chief executive, said, “and it will not turn around overnight.”

Even with limitations, those involved say the effort is worth it, if only for their own sanity.

“Relationships are the root and the flower. They are the point at which social infrastructure creates infrastructure for anything to happen,” said Savannah Barrett, who co-founded Kentucky’s Rural-Urban Exchange in 2014, adding, “When you look for common ground you find it, but conversation can’t be about conversion.”

Every year since then, a cohort of about 60 people, drawn from all over the state and selected for the widest possible range of perspectives, has met for two three-day weekends, one in a city, one in a rural area, with an optional weekend to follow.

A weekend in Campbellsville, Ky., in May highlighted the effort’s promise — and its shortcomings. There was no denying the eclectic nature of the group: Jody Dahmer, the gay urban gardener running for City Council in Louisville; Belle Townsend, the queer small-town poet fresh out of college; Mohammad Ahmad, the young, observant Muslim and Palestinian-American from a Cincinnati suburb; Darryl “Dee” Parker, the Black social and racial justice activist from Hazard, Ky.; and LaToya Drake, the Black woman from the small town of Glasgow, Ky., wondering if her love for rural Kentucky was requited.

What was lacking in a self-selected cohort of would-be peacemakers was the ardent followers of former President Donald J. Trump who dominate Kentucky politics and appear to have little interest in the extended hands of the RUXers.

Bob Foshee, a 71-year-old retired educator from Louisville and the resident curmudgeon of the 2024 cohort, produced a handwritten breakdown he compiled of the 2020 vote for Mr. Trump and President Biden in the counties around Campbellsville University, which hosted the RUX weekend. Taylor County broke 75 percent for Mr. Trump and 24 percent for Mr. Biden. Green County broke 83-16. Casey County, 87-13.

Yet among discussions of an unrecognized Black past, gratitude for the safety that RUX provided for Kentucky’s queer community and methodical brainstorming sessions to encourage leadership and entrepreneurship, the politics clearly weighing on Mr. Foshee seemed to be off limits.

“The gentle approach that this program has doesn’t attempt to pierce to the quick,” Mr. Foshee said.

To Ms. Townsend, 23, Campbellsville University has a particular meaning. Max Wise, an alumnus and a former professor at the university, is the town’s state senator and the author of Kentucky’s sweeping anti-transgender law that passed last year. He tried this year to outlaw diversity, equity and inclusion programs in public schools, colleges and universities.

Yet his name never came up during the weekend at Campbellsville.

Ms. Townsend, who is also a baker and a sometime tracker for the Kentucky Democratic Party, can be fierce. Her hometown in Western Kentucky, Robards, population 500, was not exactly open to her feelings on gender and sexuality, she said. She believed she could not come out to her extended family, few of whom would take the Covid-19 vaccine, she said, so she waited for many of them to die in the pandemic, which they did.

Still, she did not lament the lack of conversation on the anti-L.G.B.T.Q. politics of the Kentucky G.O.P.

“That lets them drive the narrative,” she said.

That appears to be a recurring issue in the bridge-building movement.

One Saturday afternoon in Michigan in late April, under the fluorescent lights of the Kalamazoo Public Library’s third-floor meeting room, about 40 Western Michiganders, none of whom appeared to come from Michigan’s prominent far right, gathered for a meeting of the Kalamazoo Lyceum.

Lyceums began in the early 19th century to bring the brightest minds to small towns and rural lecture halls in the hope of bringing all citizens of the fledgling American democracy into the communal conversation. By the outbreak of the Civil War, around 3,000 lyceums dotted the American landscape.

“The problem is real, but I don’t think bemoaning it is useful,” said Nathan Beacom, the executive director of that movement’s reincarnation, who was in Kalamazoo that afternoon, regretting how the profusion of Little Leagues in the Des Moines of his youth had shriveled to one as parents put their children into paid traveling leagues more concerned about achievement on the ball field than community in the stands.

But, he added, “I don’t think the answer is talking about politics more. I think it’s talking about politics less.”

The gathering then broke into smaller clusters to discuss community, belonging and communal accountability.

“To me, this is just an enjoyable activity. I would rather do this than golf,” said Reid Williams, a writer and editor at a new nonprofit local news outlet, NowKalamazoo.

Ben Tillinghast, a young law student at Notre Dame who drove up from South Bend, Ind., where he has participated in the lyceum there, to experience Kalamazoo’s version, was realistic. A Lyceum gathering, he said, is “not the magic pill that’s going to fix society’s problems.”

Society’s problems, no, but individuals’ shortcomings, perhaps. For Ms. Bishop, the young woman who participated in Kentucky’s Rural-Urban Exchange, the work has been a source of personal strength. From the beginning of her partnership with Mr. Clay, she said she wondered whether she was the person to try to shed light on a forgotten slave burial ground. But Mr. Clay had been firm, she said: “Shaelyn, we can do this.”

He has been poring over the archives of the antebellum Sanders plantation, chronicling the names of the enslaved. The two have enlisted archaeologists for an initial examination of the burial site. She is pressing to join the board of the Clay Hill Memorial Forest, so that they can carve out that small piece of the forest preserve to be cleaned, marked and honored.

“I’m most comfortable in the forest alone than talking to people,” she allowed. “But that’s the power of RUX. It’s been life-changing to me.”

Source link


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here