Where I’m from and where I live are very different places. I grew up in a small coal town in the mountains of western Pennsylvania called Clearfield. Today, I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
Clearfield has a population of 5,921. The block where I live today probably has about that many people. And all of Clearfield County, which spans forests, rivers, creeks, valleys and mountains covering 70% the area of Long Island, has a population of just over 79,000, which is about 1/100th the 7.6 million population of Long Island.
The median household income for the Upper West Side is just under $240,000. In Clearfield County, it is under $50,000.
The political divide is even more stark. Clearfield County voted 76% for Trump. My precinct in New York City voted 93% for Biden.
Political disagreement is essential to the effective functioning of a liberal democracy. What is not good is when political disagreements become so dramatic that both sides Balkanize around an increasing number of otherwise non-political issues, like public health.
In Clearfield County, only 47% of the residents have taken at least one dose of a COVID vaccine, compared to 76% in New York City. As you would imagine, infection and death rates are similarly skewed.
This is not a new issue. I remember when I was a first-grader a number of parents fought against fluoridation of our town’s water supply, certain that it was a Communist plot to undermine public health (it wasn’t, but it did help dramatically reduce the incidence of cavities). And this wasn’t just a Clearfield issue. This movement played out all across the U.S.
Politics have always been a bit divisive in the U.S. My grandmother used to tell me how she, a Presbyterian, and my grandfather, an Irish-Catholic, never once argued about religion. Still, she also recounted, there wasn’t a day in their lives together that they didn’t argue about politics. He was a New Deal Democrat and she was a staunch Republican. They never missed an election, intent on canceling out each other’s votes.
Just as my grandparents build their lives and family around common ground far bigger than their political divide, I’m hopeful that we can all do the same across the country over these next few years. I am certain that if people from places like the Upper West Side of Manhattan and Clearfield County better understood each other, we would have less divisiveness.
It starts with caring. Empathy doesn’t mean endorsement. Understanding how we are each shaped by different lives, experiences, priorities and points of view doesn’t mean we have to agree with each other.
It certainly will be enhanced with civility. Listening, respecting and not making every difference personal -- and not attacking -- would certainly help each of us better understand one another.
It will require cooperation. Society is not a collection of autonomous individuals. No, society connotes some sense of shared community, interests and common bonds. I am hopeful that as we all continue to disagree on some issues, we can increasingly find others on which we can cooperate and work together to solve.
I am a very hopeful and optimistic person, even in issues as difficult as bridging deep political divides, and even in the face of today’s polarization. Maybe that’s because my friendships and bonds bridge both worlds -- both the red and blue -- and I know that there are many, many more points of common ground between them than there are differences.
This won’t change overnight, but I hope that I can do my part to help. How about you?