Can we Love our Political Enemies?
Originally published in Elephant Journal here.
I have friends and, more importantly, community members I depend on, on both sides of the fence.
Because of this, and at the risk of upsetting all of them by saying so, I’m finding myself struggling with the vehemence, angst, and downright inhumane responses toward our fellow humans who vote differently.
Tensions are rising
Tensions are rising as the election approaches. The polarity is reaching a fever pitch. And any of us with enough life experience know that enhancing polarity rarely (if ever) results in synthesis, expansion, healing, or forward motion.
I’m personally steeped in the left-leaning culture, including the LGBTQIA community, the women’s movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. To the extent that we have social justice movements, progressive culture, and work to break the barriers of acceptance, we largely have Black, Indigenous, other people of color, LGBTQIA, and women to thank. I love this world and its people.
Fears & anxieties
These days, I see fears and anxieties pouring out of these folks on every social media platform. The pain that they feel over the policies of what they consider to be an uncaring administration can sometimes come out as name-calling, enemy-making, and even dismissing the humanity of those they see as the “other.” As I’ve asked about this tendency, I have heard personal stories of families torn apart due to the modern-day Gestapo agency that is ICE (United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement). I heard the deep grief about Black Americans left dead in the street as a result of bigoted and biased police brutality and violence.
Misguided or not, these left-leaning friends believe that voting their person(s) in will get them the outcomes they want—a kinder, fairer, more inclusive world where people aren’t left behind. Arguments (and evidence) for and against this reality can be made on all sides. For example, some of the marginalized groups mentioned above have sometimes done worse under Democrats than under Republicans.
Land-based rural communities
Fortunately, and with the greatest of admiration, I am also steeped in the rural land-based communities of Western North Carolina. They date back centuries to when native people, white people, and formerly enslaved Black people carved out a life of symbiosis with the land base (that complex and interconnected set of eco-systems which keep us in perpetual existence since before recorded time).
The communities that I’m familiar with are literate in land-based wisdom. This includes daily practices of both self-reliance and interdependence and has kept them alive through times (including now) when corporate and government interests dismiss, ignore, exploit, extract from, and demean poor Appalachian people of all colors. I have come to respect these people beyond measure for their wisdom, skill, and knowledge of locally adapted systems of farming, forestry, herbalism, geology, fishing, water management, and land intelligence, as well as their willingness to share these things with newcomers and neophytes.
The politics of these people tend to run toward the right, with their major concerns being the preservation of their rural lifestyles and not being ignored by the urban elite who seem to be running the country.
Misguided or not, these right-leaning friends believe that voting their person(s) in will get them the outcomes they want—respect for their rural communities, economic opportunity, livelihoods for their young people, and a say in the process. Arguments (and evidence) for and against this reality can be made on all sides.
For example, one could argue that Democrats do much more for rural land preservation and conservation than Republicans. Still, like it or not, Trump garnered 62 percent of the vote in the small towns and rural areas (including Appalachia) of the United States in 2016 compared to just over 30 percent in urban areas.
These two seemingly disparate groups have at least one common thread: lifetimes and generations of grief, pain, oppression, and suffering that have been unheard, unseen, and untended to.
In my recent conversations, both online and in-person, I’ve come to understand that the lashing out has to do with desperation and urgency. These individuals are worried about the issues that matter to them, and it’s combined with a sense of hopelessness that the issues will be addressed. (That sounds like a cocktail for frustration.)
Election as metaphor
People all along the political spectrum must certainly realize that one election will never right all the wrongs or fix our broken systems; the United States presidential election tends to act as a metaphor. Despite the fact that focusing on our differences is not only a danger to our democracy but actually upsets most Americans, the process somehow opens a portal to our hopes and fears like nothing else. We seem to blame the “other side” for all the problems, instead of the problems being inherent to the nature of a state or empire composed of run-amok capitalism, global imperialism, and corporatocracy. The small amount of power we have to change an enormous system leads to adamance that people vote “our way.”
It’s not lost on me that I sit in a place of great privilege to be able to bear witness to the motivations and experiences of both sides. I’m also clear that along with that privilege comes the responsibility to provide some much-needed room for these outpourings to land. It’s become increasingly clear to me that those who are experiencing oppression and suffering (and even those with advantages who are speaking for the marginalized) need loads of understanding and empathy during this time.
One thing that helped me put all this in context is an incredibly comprehensive report entitled “Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape” conducted by a group called More in Common, with the aim to bring people together.
According to their report, political divisions serve as a “business model” for much of our current TV, radio, and social media outlets. This means that the media has a vested interest in the enemy-making between us. In fact, the More in Common report shows that due to these media biases,
“Americans are segregated into echo chambers where they are exposed to fewer alternative ideas, and fed a constant stream of stories that reinforce their tribal narratives.”
The tribes, as they define them, break down into seven categories:
>> Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
>> Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
>> Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
>> Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial.
>> Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
>> Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
>> Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic.
The report goes on to say, “Today, millions of Americans are going about their lives with absurdly inaccurate perceptions of each other.”
In fact, studies over time consistently show that when those with vastly differing narratives meet with each other one-on-one and engage respectfully, they often find more in common than they realized. And oftentimes, as is true with this report, the participants find the conversations transformational.
In addition to this context, something that helps me feel more compassion toward the “other” is the concept of deep time—a longer perspective than just the here and now. Within that context, we can view patterns. For example, before the era of “empire,” we all lived more closely together in communities of people who relied on each other for survival. Because of the lived experiences and embodied reality of being wholly dependent on each other, we could not dismiss or blame each other so completely.
Inevitably though, power-over systems crept into those worlds. And with them came oppression and marginalization of both people and the natural world. Folks couldn’t be fully themselves or were outright shunned, enslaved, extracted from, and brutalized based on their gender, race, orientation, ability, etc.
In some ways, modernity and globalization have been a boon for some marginalized groups. For example, women have been able to find more economic freedom and bodily choice. LGBTQIA folks moved to metropolitan areas where they found acceptance and chosen family. And formerly enslaved Black people in large numbers migrated away from the rural south. Yet all of these groups, as well as the natural systems of our planet, suffer under the oppression of the nihilistic agenda that serves the select few.
But modernity and globalization have also devastated our world. Because of my life-long work in sustainable agriculture, I know that the industrial food model is a short-lived experiment. The central features of intensive tillage, monocropping, heavy chemical inputs, genetic modification, and factory farming of animals all lead to a dead-end approach in every realm: social, financial, environmental, and spiritual. In the long-term, no one wins. The hope for reform lies in building regenerative, resilient, holistic food production models that focus on the biological models of cooperation, soil building, diversity, and relationships.
On that note, it’s helpful to look at what natural systems have to say about a healthy, resilient, and just political system for a thriving population and planet. According to my friend and mentor, writer and resilience consultant, Laura Lengnick,
“All resilient systems cultivate diverse, mutual-benefit relationships, regional self-reliance (which implies interdependence), and high adaptability levels.”
Her teachings further illustrate a future where we move from industrial to ecological logic, from efficient to robust systems, from expert to place-based knowledge, from imported to regional resources, from extractive to regenerative economies, and from a product focus to community benefits.
Using this model, the world we live in now creates an illusion that we don’t need each other, which inevitably allows us to build walls, discount others, and disassociate from the people around us. Our move toward a more intact world will require us to transcend a focus on the other as an enemy.
Hoping things will radically change election after election, only to find that they haven’t moved much or have gotten worse over our lifetimes seems to ring true for many people on both sides. So, what if our power lies outside of the political systems altogether? What if our power was embedded in the process of building our community—together? What if we turned toward each other instead of away, slowly building that new world?
One of my favorite writers, Arundhati Roy, so eloquently says,
“Our strategy should be not only to confront empire but to lay siege to it. To deprive it of oxygen. To shame it. To mock it. With our art, our music, our literature, our stubbornness, our joy, our brilliance, our sheer relentlessness—and our ability to tell our own stories. Stories that are different from the ones we’re being brainwashed to believe. Remember this: We be many, and they be few. They need us more than we need them. Another world is not only possible; she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Ultimately, the answer comes down to the grassroots. Neither the government nor the corporations nor the wealthy will ever have the will, motivation, or ability to create the land-based, people-based, and economic-based solutions we all long for.
And what do we all long for?
A thriving community we can count on for all of our life needs—one that accepts, celebrates, and honors us for exactly who we are. No matter which sector of life we most affiliate with (food systems, racial justice, human rights, environmentalism, rural living), most of us realize that these systems overlap and intersect with each other.
If you’re eating food of any kind that’s grown in this country, it’s quite likely that you are doing so because of conservative-leaning farmers. And if you have freedom of expression and individuality in your life, you are likely doing so because of a liberal-leaning social activist.
Needing each other
We really and truly need each other.
I’m not suggesting it will be easy. In fact, it sounds painful and arduous. But what is our other choice? Which will move the needle on our issues more: voting for one candidate over another or coming together to build the systems that will support a resilient community?
My money (as well as time, energy, passion, and interest) is on the latter.