Exit the Wall. Enter the Bridge, hopefully

What will be the defining structure of this generation — the wall or the bridge? Our future is riding on just that, with generational consequences.

A piece of the Berlin Wall says it all…(London’s Imperial War Museum, author photo)

Well, that was interesting, tragic, wasteful, humiliating. Choose your word. While not “over”, this chapter is at least finished.

Leadership in America should take a different tilt, based on two very people. To get us back to the status quo where we can together address the enormous challenges together will require a new elan throughout the United States and indeed many countries, where polarisation is marching towards the capitol of Western democracies and threatens to fracture us forever.

Those of us who have very different convictions from those that stormed the Capitol need to do more listening. It doesn’t mean a sacrifice of values or a giving in. My grandfather, who I couldn’t disagree with more politically, left a permanent mark on my brain when I was just hitting my teens. “Richie, you don’t learn by talking”. He hit the nail on the head.

The coming few months offers a unique opportunity to demonstrate the massive differences in the outgoing and incoming administration, particularly to the 74 million who lost on 3 November. Implementing policy and governing accountably will show part of that difference, but the big one will be listening.

The “tone at the top” of Biden-Harris will be crucial and should be reconciliatory, and ideally include numerous town halls in not only swing states, but in areas where the Democratic ticket did not win. Simply hearing grievances, writing them down, addressing them in policies as possible and reporting back would do a world of good. In short, accountable governance. These fora would also serve as an important way to explain the role of government, how its work is financed and particularly how little money there can be when Congress cuts taxes so dramatically.

Dialogue’s imperative — willingness

To have a dialogue, one has to have the willingness, as well as equal measures of knowledge of that “other” and practice in carrying out a dialogue. Without that trilogy, we cannot expect any type of reconciliation of our fractured society.

For me, any type of reconciliation resembles a bridge, with myself sitting on one side and the “other” (family, colleague, citizen) on the other side. I often ask myself what small step can I take towards the middle to facilitate the step of my “other” towards the middle. A succession of just a few gestures will mean that at least a dialogue is taking place. Imagine the opposite. Every time that you are disagreeing, insulting or talking past a person, the divide increases.

We also need the humility to look ourselves in the mirror and be aware of our words and deeds. Tone, volume and speed are exponentially important for reconciliation. Looking at some exchanges on social media, within a minute’s time, a volley of 6–8 exchanges means that the valley between two views and two people has become nearly irreparable. In short, loud sarcasm at break-neck speed will get you nowhere. You’re upset and I get it. But what’s your goal — a simple vent or being heard with (some) potential action? Just to be understood should be an initial goal. While the temptation to react contemptuously to an “other” is omnipresent, curiosity may be more productive. I often ask myself what experiences did someone undergo or in what bubble have they lived to have such views? Turning curiosity into compassion could go a long way.

Vocabulary and terminology can also play a role. Fast and loose usage of “isms” (fascism, socialism, communism) exacerbates the problem, As an example, Germany has often been called a socialist country, even though it has had a conservative chancellor since 2005 and a conservative chancellor has run the country for fifty of the last seventy years. That said, the university education of my kids will be free of charge. Socially-driven? Yes. Socialist? Not sure. For me, there is no greater public good than an enthusiastic, debt-free 22-year old kid with a college education. Vocabulary is also key. If you are keen to start or keep a debate (fight) going, use the words “always” and “never”. They both work very well. Additionally, avoid asking “why”, as it immediately sets someone on the defensive.

Bridge Museum — my own small attempt

I spent a portion of my Trump years trying to launch Bridge Museum, a unique cultural institution in my native California. We looked at the bridge as structure, symbol and concept. It’s about architecture, design and engineering prowess on display around the world. It’s about bridges as symbols — race (Selma, Alabama), the stand-off between superpowers (Berlin, Germany) and ethnicity (Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina). It’s about a concept — a handshake, eye contact, a nod and a hug. It’s the invisible connection that we used to feel much more, both pre-Covid and pre-2016.

Despite having a crack concept, an A list of Advisory Council members and a brilliant board, we didn’t make it. We met with a number of influential private and public persons, but the willingness to create such an institution did not reach a critical mass.

Other ways to address polarisation include promoting Sister Cities International within the U.S., increasing red/blue university exchanges and an Olympics style games within the U.S. In addition, creating a culture of Compromise, Dialogue and Empathy (CDE) targeting children would be a project offering value for money. If a teen-ager were to be equipped with the necessary software/soft skills of CDE to navigate life personally and professionally, the pay-off would enormous for the next two generations.

These programs and initiatives would help to partially check the debate culture, in which we have been basting for decades. Debate societies, such as Lincoln-Douglas, as well as how litigious the United States have become, exacerbate the problem. Two toxic cultures — “tear down” and “quick buck” — meet, resulting in untold billions in damage and irreparable relationships.

Dollars and sense — the cost of polarisation

Perhaps the only thing that could possibly wake up and unite the right and the left is how much polarisation is costing the nation. Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmes estimated that the (second) Iraq War cost $3 trillion. While it was tragic in lives lost (for Americans, but mostly for Iraqis), it was tragically expensive. Its only sliver of silver lining is that that experience hopefully will have scared away all but the most arrogant and poorly governed imperialists from ever going to war.

So, here’s the pitch — a bipartisan group of economists from both the coasts and the heartland, to help us understand how much polarisation is costing us in policy, programme and our eventual progress. There is a business case, for all of us, to understand just how unproductive our culture of debate has been and will continue to be. Quantifying it may wake us all up as to the economic damage that it is doing to us all. The thought of two very different types of economists working on this is to me inspiring.

Maybe then we will ditch the wall and embrace the bridge. The problems that we face are biblical — homelessness, climate change, opioids, and yes, now a pandemic which threatens to break our health and wipe out the livelihoods of millions. Indeed, our world is being overwhelmed by events.

For millennium, the bridge — the journey from A to B — has defined the human experience and it hopefully will continue as the structure that defines us. There is no shortage of walls that have stood the test of time to remind us of our complacency, our fear and the bubbles that we hold so dear.

So, want change? It starts with me, with you, with all of us. Again, though, we’ll get nowhere if our hearts aren’t in it.

Governance, Communications and Regional Development Consultant