Building Bridges of Understanding to Nowhere

Much has been written about the need to build bridges in order to overcome the morass of divisive, recalcitrant politics being played as a zero sum game where everyone loses and nobody wins. The president’s speeches have been filled with similar appeals to the public and media.  Bridges do need to be built, but from where to where, and from whom to whom?  It seems most would-be bridge builders want to span the chasm between them and the remaining hard core MAGA crowd. That would be a pointless bridge to nowhere. Access to their world is permanently closed. In the meantime, the same bridge building technique passes over 85% of the adult public not in the MAGA crowd and not on the far left. They are people to whom the bridges need to be built.  Biden has the right idea with his appeals to the middle and working classes, but too many critics dismiss his pleas as just more of his empathetic ways. They’re wrong and he’s right to continue pressing.

Some bridge builders have the right idea but are their own worst enemies. An example I observed recently: adjacent to our Saturday farmer’s market, was a University student manned Black Lives Matter kiosk: a worthy endeavor to be sure. A white woman stopped to say she believed all lives matter.  No bridges were to be built then as several students heaped accusations of arrogant white privilege on her. A lost opportunity as they made their cause odious in the eyes of one more person who could have been engaged in constructive conversation. They used self righteous emotions as a cudgel for punishment rather building a bridge.

The failure to build bridges to the correct people is a problem in organizations and corporations as well. Years ago I consulted with an organization that had gained a national reputation as innovative, daring, and transformative. That narrative led them to put all their efforts into big projects and products offering potential for greater success.  They neglected the needs and interests of their bread and butter clients, who left them in droves. They became a hollow organization of elite managers filled with grand ideas, and no middle or bottom to support it.

That’s what happens when bridges are built over, not to, the people most needed for sustained success.  The moderate wing of the Republican Party failed miserably in maintaining connections with a base that was not against progressive ideas, just cautious about going too far too fast with too much.  Likewise, the Democratic Party found itself labeled the party of the Ivy League elite, passionate about justice and equity, but out of touch with “real America.”  It was a fatal mistake in a land when wheat and soybean farmers know more about world affairs than many urbanites.  Parties need to be aware that, urban or rural, regardless of color or ethnicity, they must never take the majority for granted, put them in separate silos, or disregard their differences. For the United States to remain united in a democratic republic, its people must be united with respect for their differences, not divided by them. 

Bridges need to be built from centers of political power to the majority of Americans, not the radical fringes. They have to be built to different places and serve different purposes with the intention of creating a network leading to the common good. What are they to be made of and how are they to be built? They have to be built on a foundation honoring American virtues of freedom, rights, cooperation and self reliance. Americans want a hand up, not a handout. They can’t define what that means, but it’s strongly held nonetheless.  Government policies and programs must be introduced, enacted, and administered as necessary to strengthening America’s core virtues.

Bold announcements about billions of dollars dedicated to this or that need can easily trigger hysteria over out of control spending.  Needed projects must first be announced by what they will do, and how that will make life better for all.

Finally, bridges have to work the way they’re supposed to. In politics that means elected officials and bureaucrats must remember they are in the business of customer service, which is something Washington based congressional staff and high ranking civil servants have a hard time understanding.          

The midterms are upon us. It’s probably too late for campaigns to start building bridges they have long ignored, but it’s not too late for them to be ready for the next general election.  In the meantime, individuals passionate about issues of justice and equity must better learn how to sublimate emotional outbursts in favor of building bridges that will change minds.

© Steven E. Woolley

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