Having grown up in California and having lived in Indiana, I often joke that I speak both “red state” and “blue state.” Most of my friends in California voted for Barack Obama. One friend was so enthusiastic about his election in 2008 that he made a “Hope Mix” for me with songs like U2’s “Beautiful Day” and Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” Virtually no one I know in California voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
In Indiana, on the other hand, I had a good doctor friend of mine confide that when she saw Obama, she saw the devil. A well-educated lawyer of my acquaintance turned to me one evening and said, “I don’t care what they say. He’s a Muslim.” Almost everyone I knew voted for Trump, and the speed with which Indiana fell into the Trump column on election night told me not to make any assumptions about the rest of the evening.
This huge partisan divide separating Indiana from California and red states from blue states did not start with the 2016 election. Yet the election has confirmed what sociologists have been warning about: We are the Disunited States of America, strangers to one another, living in our ideological bubbles while convinced that “the other” is not just an African-American president or a billionaire president, but our own neighbors, our fellow citizens.
In the year that has passed since shell-shocked news anchors called the election for an equally surprised Donald Trump, the divide has worsened. Watching Ken Burns’ powerful documentary, “The Vietnam War,” I had a palpable sense of incipient déjà vu, as if we are again in 1967, heading toward 1968 and the open brawl that ripped through American society.
The social upheaval, the ideological straitjackets, the tendency to fix onto personalities our hopes and fears, the crude stereotyping and bigoted language, the conviction that our ideological opponents are devils or morons — we are living in a merciless age. Presidential tweets and late-night comedians have made a sport of cruelty, and what once would have been unimaginable public behavior is now modeled by our elites. Meanwhile, social media’s anonymity has unleashed the inner thug in so many of us that it is both psychologically and spiritually hazardous to engage in what now passes as “dialogue.”
What are we to do?
Last Nov. 20, a few weeks after the election, the Church ended its Extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. At the time I joked that Pope Francis’ biggest mistake was not making it two years long. It was a profound event, calling us to reflection on the loving kindness of God and the centrality of mercy in Scripture and Church teaching.
I do believe that we Catholics — so easily seduced by the priorities and the errors of the culture in which we live — must recover the insights of the Year of Mercy. This means first that we must acknowledge that we are the most blessed recipients of God’s mercy, despite our flaws, despite our sinfulness.
Tempered by this revelation of how God responds to us despite our failings, we need to pull away from the fixation on other personalities and their flaws. Let us have a robust debate of the issues — DACA, tax reform, refugees, abortion — but let us keep the language civil and the focus on the issues, not the cheap shots.
I have also spoken to many, many people who confess that they are cutting back on the news. Speaking as a journalist, I find it hard to endorse such behavior! Yet the truth is that much of what passes for “breaking news” is meant to attract clicks, appealing to our base emotions and filling us with useless anger and frustration. Cable news has become poisonous.
A couple I know decided that no screens are allowed in their bedroom: no iPads, no cell phones, no TV. And no newspapers either. “We were bringing Donald Trump into our bedroom,” the husband explained, “and it wasn’t good.”
Finally, what I would love to see is a red state/blue state family-exchange program. Like similar programs in the Cold War days, we could take an Indiana family and bring them to live with a California family for a week, and vice-versa. An Angeleno might learn that a deer hunter with a “Make America Great Again” hat actually is a human being with hopes and fears she can empathize with. And that Hoosier family could find out that a Latino is not a terrorist threat or a job stealer. He shares the same American dream.
Good riddance to Year One. Having more empathy, more mercy and a bit more humility would be a great way to start Year Two.
Greg Erlandson is editor in chief of Catholic News Service.