On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
With 306 electoral delegates and nearly 80 million votes, former Vice President Joe Biden won the election and will become the next president of the United States on January 20. But nearly 74 million people voted for President Trump, and many of them believe the election was stolen from him. This has exacerbated already sharp divisions in this country.
These divisions are often found in families, families that will come together for Thanksgiving this week – though perhaps in smaller groups than usual due to COVID-19.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5, welcome. With 306 electoral delegates and nearly 80 million votes former Vice President Joe Biden won the election and will become the next President of the United States when's he's sworn in on January 20. But nearly 74 million people voted for President Trump and many of them believe the election was stolen from him. This has inflamed already sharp divisions in the country.
KOJO NNAMDIThese divisions are often found in families who will come together for Thanksgiving this week whether in person or virtually due to COVID-19. So can the country unite under a Biden administration? And how can Thanksgiving dinner be peaceful and pleasant or at least civil this year? Let's find out. Joining us now is Philippa Hughes, Social Sculptor and the founder of CuriosityConnects.us, a partner in a national project called Looking for America. Philippa Hughes, thank you for joining us.
PHILIPPA HUGHESHi, Kojo. Thank you.
NNAMDIIn 2014, Philippa a few days before Thanksgiving and two weeks after the mid-term elections in that year, you were on this broadcast talking about civility. And here you are again about the same thing, same time, two years later. How has our political discourse changed since then? Where are we today as a country?
HUGHESWell, unfortunately I feel like we haven't made much improvement in the last two years to be honest. You know, I feel that Trump supporters have sort of solidified in their belief that, you know, he is the greatest president. And so he hasn't lost a lot of support. But the hopeful part, I think is that there was a huge surge in sort of an anti-Trump ideal. And I tie that to our civil discourse, because I think that the fact that we are moving in the direction of what the president-elect has said about unity is a really positive sign. He is creating the sense that we can have unity and that we can have civil discourse. And so I feel very hopeful that when we have a leader who is saying those things, we can actually do that.
NNAMDITell us about the Looking for America project that was inspired by dinners that began in your home after the 2016 election.
HUGHESYeah. Well, when we talked last time I had only been host -- organizing the dinners in my dining room. So they were quite small and intimate. But after we talked last time, we actually took the project national and I traveled around the country for over a year organizing art shows and large scale dinners to get people to talk to each other. And it was absolutely amazing. It completely changed my whole perspective of how we can have conversations using art as a starting point for those conversations. And it made me realize that people actually want to have these conversations. In fact, they're hungry for the conversations.
NNAMDISo the dinners were successful at bringing people with different political views together to find common ground?
HUGHESAbsolutely. It made me realize that, you know, here in Washington we just talk about politics all the time and we are actually more polarized I think here in our -- we're less able to have civil discourse in some ways here in Washington whereas out in the rest of the country people are curious about each other and they're open to these conversations. And art was a way to help them engage with each other.
NNAMDIPhilippa, the theme of the Looking for America project is to see what it means to be American throughout the country. Did you find that people had different ideas about being American or what being American meant or means depending on the state or region of the country?
HUGHESYeah. I mean, there's so many different ways of being American all across the country. I mean, we have so many different cultures in each part of the country. And so absolutely, there's lots of ways to be American. But the great thing is that we can celebrate all the different ways. And we can also find our commonalities and find different ways of talking about what it means to be American. And so absolutely there's many differences and there's also common ground in that.
NNAMDILet me introduce Calvin Blaylock who works for a conservative Think Tank in here Washington and is a volunteer with the anti-human trafficking organization International Justice Mission. Calvin Blaylock, thank you for joining us.
CALVIN BLAYLOCKWell, thanks for inviting me, Kojo. I am very grateful for this opportunity to be here and especially honored to share the stage with these two phenomenal women who I have a great deal of admiration for. Philippa, who I've cultivated a friendship with over the past couple of years and Carolyn, who's worked with organizations like the National Institute for Civil Discourse, which I really appreciate. So, again, thank you so much, Kojo.
NNAMDIThe Carolyn that Calvin is referring to is Carolyn Lukensmeyer who served as the first Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. She remains a board member there. Carolyn, thank you for joining us too.
CAROLYN LUKENSMEYERWell, Kojo, thank you very much for having me. I'm delighted to join Philippa and Calvin.
NNAMDICalvin, you met Philippa at one of her bipartisan dinners and it's my understanding you two are on opposite sides of the political spectrum. But as you mentioned, our friends who respect each other and can have civil discussions about politics and policy, how is that and would you describe your relationship with her?
BLAYLOCKYes. Well, when I graduated from college in 2018 and moved to Capitol Hill in the heart of D.C. what I eagerly hoped to find was people who were interested in politics, who were engaged in their communities and were willing to work across the aisle for the common good of 330 million Americans. And unfortunately that's not necessarily what I found.
BLAYLOCKI mean, what I found was this interesting overlap of two separate cities. Liberals and conservatives each kind of hosting their own events with their own typical speakers, the same attendees every time and each kind of working just for the good of their supporters and not really anyone else. And that bothered me. I mean, I think this topic of civil discourse is extremely important. And there's a lot at stake if we get it wrong and there's a lot to gain if we get it right. So I started really actively looking for platforms for good civil discourse, bipartisan cooperation and things that are going to strengthen our national unity.
BLAYLOCKAnd that's how I came across Philippa and Looking for America. As is often the case, when Philippa reaches out to me they needed more conservatives to participate in the discussion and I gladly jumped at the opportunity. Now this was an event with about 100 maybe more people from Think Tanks, congressional offices, community leaders all across the city, willing to come and engage in these weighty conversations together, but to do so with good will towards each other.
BLAYLOCKAnd I really enjoyed that first experience. We were paired with a partner across the political aisle and banned from talking about politics, which was a healthy way to start off a new relationship with a friend. We asked each other questions, like, tell me about a time when you were most proud of yourself. When did you really see your true self on display? And it was only later in the night after we had really gotten to know each and shared a mean together that we started diving into those deeper more difficult political conversations.
BLAYLOCKAnd this model has proven effective again and again every time I've been invited to participate with Philippa. And it's something that I really think that we could replicate all around the nation. So I've definitely experienced the fruits of it and am eager for more people to experience that as well.
NNAMDICarolyn Lukensmeyer, what is the National Institute for Civil Discourse and why was it created?
LUKENSMEYERThe National Institute for Civil Discourse was created after the tragic mass shooting in Tucson, Arizona in January 2011. Six people were killed and 13 injured including representative Gabby Giffords. And Gabby was loved in Arizona and the city and the university came together very quickly after the memorial service for those who had been killed and said, we have to make something good come out of this tragedy. And that led to NICD being created at the University of Arizona.
NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones. Here now is Douglas in Takoma Park, Maryland. Douglas, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGLASI think the civil discourse is great. But we've all been in that situation where you have some crazy relative who just goes on and on and on. And I was once in that situation. And I did this and it works. I interrupted and I said, you know, I'm not sure we should talk about politics. Why don't we talk about something that won't make people uncomfortable? Something like sex or religion. Everybody will start laughing and that will silence the crazy guy.
NNAMDIWell, it's interesting, because I think religion enters into the political discourse that a lot of people are having. I don't know the extent to which sex does. But, Carolyn, what do you think about Douglas's suggestion? It seems to me -- allow me -- it seems to me that that's exactly what Calvin experienced with Philippa and that is that people started talking about themselves and about different things before engaging in the discussion about politics, but go ahead please, Carolyn.
LUKENSMEYERWell, Douglas, I laughed out loud when you told your story, because I think if you find yourself at a Thanksgiving table where it starts awry that kind of interruption that will bring some humor to the conservation and let the whole table go on to something else is very wise. At the Institute in 2016 after the election we got thousands of messages from across the country of people really worried about Thanksgiving. One that moved me the most was a mother in New England who said, we have two daughters, both in Ivy League schools, different ones. They haven't spoken to each other since the election. What can we do?
LUKENSMEYERAnd frankly each year since then this has been the similar mantra. And at the institute we really try to create tools to help people know that they could come to the table at Thanksgiving and have a decent conversation. And two things that worked very well, we've heard back from thousands of families. Have a conversation about shared values and beliefs about what makes this a great country. Think of one thing about American democracy that you are most grateful for. So stay in the arena of who are we as the country.
LUKENSMEYERAnd as Philippa has found at her art and dinner events, people love this country even if they're on vastly divided sides of the ideological spectrum. And when they talk about their love of the country, they get interested in each other. And get interested in what they share rather than focusing on profound differences.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. As James Baldwin said, "I love this country more any place else in the world and that is why I essentially reserve the right to criticize it perpetually." We're going to have a conversation about how this works around the dinner table at Thanksgiving. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're having a conversation about having civil discourse in times of a huge political divide in the country especially what happens over the Thanksgiving dinner table. We're talking with Carolyn Lukensmeyer, who served as the first Executive Director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse. She remains a board member there. Calvin Blaylock works for a conservative Think Tank in D.C. and is a volunteer with the anti-human trafficking organization International Justice Mission. And Philippa Hughes is a Social Sculptor and the founder of CuriousityConnests.us, partner in a national project called Looking for America. Let's go to Nancy in Rehoboth Beach. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYHow do you do? Two things I wanted to do. One is I'd love to get -- I'm a dance therapist by training and we're starting an art program that's going to be in Milton, Delaware. It's probably going to be a year before it comes. But a lot of it is to try to understand each other and communicate. So I'd love the person, who's in the arts related to that. But the other thing I wanted to say was, I have a 94 year old dad and he has been a provocateur Republican for all his life. And I have been much more liberal. And finally I said to him, Dad, let us sit down and talk about what we want for this country and our family. And it worked for a minute, but that was about it. But a minute is better than nothing, right?
NANCYOkay. So basically I'd love to get the name of the woman who is doing an art program.
NNAMDIThat would be Philippa Hughes and I'll have her respond. Philippa.
HUGHESYeah, I think this is so great that you're thinking about dance. You know, I come from a visual art world. But I've been thinking more and more -- incorporating more and more all different art forms, because they give more different opportunities for people to express and connect in different ways that, you know, suit them. And so, you know, the thing about using art, though, is that it's not just a way to express the idea. But it's actually a way to frame the conversations and creating the space in which to even have the conversation in the first place.
HUGHESArt creates like a sense of ritual around how you have those conversations. And so I would love to talk to you more about that. And, you know, I wanted to just make one more point is that I really love that you had one minute of great conversation with your father. And I think that just shows that what we need to do, though, is to have one minute this time and maybe two minutes next time and three minutes the following time. Like we have to sustain those engagements and keep building on them, because having one conversation just isn't going to be enough.
NNAMDINancy, thank you very much for your call. Calvin Blaylock, the candidate for president that you supported lost. What does that mean for you? And how will President Trump's loss affect you both personally and professionally?
BLAYLOCKYeah, Kojo, this is a wonderful question, because as you know, half of America voted for one candidate and the half of the nation voted for another. The thing that makes me really optimistic about the future of civil discourse in America is that this is an issue that is entirely within the control of the everyday American. You know, who is in the White House is extremely important. There was a lot at stake, and I hope that people turned out to vote.
BLAYLOCKBut at the end of the day, you know, when we wake up after an election day, we still have just as much opportunity to love and serve our neighbors, to be involved in our communities, to find these really grassroots ways to foster unity. And so, you know, I'm certainly disappointed about the outcome of the election, but am hopeful that people will be just as eager to personally take charge and improve the situation that we have.
NNAMDIWhat caused you unlike many Trump supporters to decide that the outcome of the election was in fact that Joe Biden won?
BLAYLOCKWell, I'm not sure. I mean, I say that now. You know, last night we saw the news that the GSA is starting the transition. And I don't really have much more to say than that.
NNAMDIOkay. You, Carolyn, host workshops for people of different political persuasions in this very difficult period. How do you guide those conversations? You know, right now we're looking at a nation that has been politically divided. So how do you get participants to wade into these hot button issues as in who won the election?
LUKENSMEYERKojo, that's a great question. And there's a principle that is essential to making these conversation work. And that is that you create a safe space in which people first meet each other as human beings. You don't start with who's for the wall and who's against the wall. You start in who are we as people and what you discover very quickly is people are very curious about each other. And when they hear their stories, when they begin to understand the other person, they discover that they have a lot more in common than they have different. I'd like to tell your leader -- excuse me, your listeners about we did this ...
NNAMDIThey are in fact my leaders. You're right. But go ahead.
LUKENSMEYERThat's true. Well said, well said. We actually created a documentary in which we brought together 12 people from around Boston of generation X and later 12 people millennials from around Chicago in which they spent a weekend together. And did exactly what I just described, met each other first as human beings. And these started out people who were very anti-Trump or very pro-Trump. And that documentary your listeners would watch at www.dividedwefalltv.org. And frankly this is now being used in thousands of classrooms for students to watch it and then have a discussion. And what's most interesting to me is after people watch this, what they're most curious about is for these 24 people that were very -- on a scale of one to 10 I'm pro-Trump or I'm anti-Trump.
LUKENSMEYERWhat they are most interested in is how did this change after you went through this workshop? How did your life change? And we've heard three things consistently. I stopped using social media as much as I was using it before. I understand I need to get the facts for a discussion. And I've understood that the relationship with people is more important than where they are on a particular issue.
NNAMDIThat is fascinating. To what extent do you think social media contributes to uncivil discourse?
LUKENSMEYERWell, I don't think there's any question whatsoever that it's a major contributor to where we are. You know, when the internet first arrived we all thought it was going to be this fantastic gift to democratizing globally. And what we discovered is -- and now social media being the most significant example, is it became a broadcast medium not an interaction medium. And once people were -- you know, how when people are broadcasting, they're very reactive.
LUKENSMEYERSo part of what we need to do is really actually curriculum in schools as young as elementary schools. How do young people learn how to understand being discriminatory about social media? There's a huge amount of work that needs to be done in this area. Another thing that I point your listeners to is the American Academy of Arts and Sciences ran a commission on Democratic citizenship in the 21st century. And one of the major recommendations is creating what we call a civic media particularly at the local level.
LUKENSMEYERHow do we have media highlight the positive things that Americans are doing that both Calvin and Philippa talked about? People are hungry to cross this divide. People know where we are about demonizing each other. It's just fundamentally wrong, and it's been taken to a level that is really frankly potentially violent and certainly un-American. So my greatest hope for the country comes from two things, how many thousands of Americans want this to be different. And I should say tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands. And that we now really have leadership that know that healing and bringing unity back to the country is part of the responsibility of elected officials at every level, local, state and national.
NNAMDIWe have a lot of callers on the line and as you pointed out the listeners are my leaders. So, we will get to them after this short break. We got an email from Frank in Washington who said, "How can any responsible person even think about having a Thanksgiving dinner this year? The only moral and ethical response is to stay home." We'll discuss that after we come back from the break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about how to have civil discourse during these divisive political times. And before we went to that break, I read an email from Frank, who felt that the only moral and ethical response to the pandemic is to stay home, instead of having a Thanksgiving dinner.
NNAMDIBut, Frank, you should know that, yes, people should not be traveling and not having Thanksgiving with extended family unless they can be outdoors and physically distanced. But you know what? They are, so that's why we're having this discussion, and why we think it is worth it. Let me move now, since so many people are interested in joining the conversation, to Lucia, in Petworth. Lucia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LUCIAHi, there. Thank you for taking my call. The guests mentioned that their goal is to bring together people across the aisle to get to know each other, (unintelligible) and I think some members of some marginalized populations would view it as a privilege to sort of forego talking about politics and the policies that may negatively affect them. I wonder if you could respond to that.
NNAMDIAbout how people in marginalized populations -- could you repeat that? What do you think people in marginalized populations want?
LUCIAI'm putting forward whether some people who are negatively affected by certain policies would view foregoing conversations about politics to be an extreme privilege. And I'm wondering if the guests can respond to that.
HUGHESSure. I mean, I get that question a lot and, you know, I mean, I'm going to make a little bit of an assumption about what you mean by that. But, you know, nobody is requiring anybody to have the conversation or not to have the conversation. What we're talking about here is if you choose to have the conversation, here are some ideas on how to proceed. But -- and so I think that if you are in a marginalized community and you want to have this conversation, here are some ideas.
HUGHESBut I also recognize that, you know, the project that I work on, the underlying policy that we're talking about is immigration policy. And so, oftentimes, you know, we want to have actual immigrant stories at the table. And that sometimes means marginalized people, but, you know, it's really important to have those voices and those stories told. But, at the same time, I recognize that it can be very harmful to you, as a marginalized person. And so, if, obviously, you're invited, but you're not required to -- you're never required to have that conversation if you don't feel that you're able to. And it's completely understandable.
NNAMDISame question to our other panelists. Calvin Blaylock, is it more difficult to have those conversations when marginalized people -- let's talk about poor people, let's talk about people with disabilities, let's talk about black people or other people of color. Is it more difficult to have those conversations when, quote-unquote, "marginalized" people are involved in them?
BLAYLOCKWell, Kojo, this is a wonderful question. And when I first started engaging in these types of bipartisan conversations across the aisle, I came across this assumption a lot that bipartisan cooperation means watering down our beliefs. It means laying aside the, you know, perceptions that we have of injustice in our community and glossing over things that are genuinely wrong in our society. And, thankfully, what I found is that that couldn't be farther from the truth.
BLAYLOCKThrough these bipartisan conversations, that doesn't mean that we have to water down our beliefs, you know, take a weaker position, acquiesce to what the other side wants. People who see injustices happening in our community can come to the table and err those grievances well. I think it's important to keep in mind that the problem in politics isn't that we disagree. It's just that we don't know how to disagree with each other well.
BLAYLOCKAnd so, finding forums where people can openly share the things that they think are wrong in society, but sharing the truth in love, doing it respectfully and cordially with the aim of seeking the common good together, I think it's totally possible to do that. So, it is difficult to have a conversation between, you know, a population in power and a marginalized community. But from what I've seen, it's absolutely possible.
NNAMDICarolyn Lukensmeyer, this may be relevant. Mark emailed us this quote from Bill Knight: "Everyone you meet knows something you don't, so talk and listen." Carolyn, care to comment?
LUKENSMEYERWell, it's very interesting, Kojo, because when we're doing these workshops that you asked me about before, one of the primary things that we teach is that we can change the quality of our conversation if everyone just commits to more time listening and less time talking. And that, again, to get over these huge divides, we start from a position of, you listen for understanding. Why has this person's life experience brought them to hold the view they hold about whether or not we should build a wall? Or whatever the topic may be.
LUKENSMEYERAnd the goal in these conversations is, something you say about that will trigger me, but I just ask another question rather than arguing with you, until I come to the place that I actually understand. And then you listen to me for exactly the same reason. And we have found pretty amazing things happen for pairs of people. Let's say a very liberal Episcopalian and a very conservative Southern Baptist start from a position of believing they have nothing in common either theologically or politically.
LUKENSMEYERAnd yet, when they tell their life stories and they really hear, how come I hold this belief so close to my heart, a whole different realm opens up with how they can connect. So, I believe that Mark is really onto something very important. A hugely important skill in a democracy is the capacity to listen across our differences.
NNAMDIHere now is Matthew in Alexandria, Virginia. Matthew, your turn.
MATTHEWYes. Thank you, Kojo. Thanks for this great show, as always, and to your guests. Thank you. I wanted to call in just to lend my own observations from running a small nonprofit here in Alexandria called Discourse for Democracy that I ran for, oh I don't know, about two-and-a-half years, where I would select topics that are germane to the political health of the nation, but also usually typically quite emotive, ones that typically could indeed fracture people.
MATTHEWAnd I'd then have people from across the political spectrum to my house, where I serve food and drink, provided a safe space. I did my best to ensure psychological safety. And typically, typically what I found after, even some heated exchange, is that by the end of the night, most people, while they might not actually come to agreement, they usually recognize the validity of other's perspectives. Which is, I think, similar to some of the observations that you've had doing your excellent work. So, I just wanted to share that with you. It's discoursefordemocracy.org, and it's right here in Alexandria, Virginia.
MATTHEWI'll go offline and listen for your response.
NNAMDIThank you very much for sharing that with us, Matthew. The food and drink will get me every time, and I suspect a lot of people are like that, too. Calvin Blaylock, working across the aisle is, these days, a rare thing on Capitol Hill, but there are some examples of it. Can you talk about some of the members of Congress who try to bridge the divide?
BLAYLOCKYes, absolutely. As Carolyn has brought out, and Philippa, as well, we've seen a good amount of progress at the grassroots level. But I've also particularly been encouraged by the example that a lot of our political leaders in Washington have set. I'll give you a couple of examples.
BLAYLOCKBack when we saw the first wave of black lives matter and all these emerging conversations about racial justice and racial reconciliation, Senators Tim Scott and James Lankford were quick to start what they called Solution Sundays, where they would personally sit down with a lot of community leaders and just listen. You know, not trying to be argumentative or convince people of their view, but just listen to what their constituents had to say on these issues. A very productive series of conversations.
BLAYLOCKA gentleman across the aisle from me -- Senator King, from Maine -- has started this initiative where he'll invite about five or six senators over to his house every six weeks or so for Kenny's barbecue, a great barbecue place on the Hill. And they'll just enjoy ribs together while talking about each other's lives. Again, not talking about politics, but just building those good relationships with each other that make the political process work so much smoothly. So, that's another good example.
BLAYLOCKSenator Sasse has been a thought leader on this issue, as well, doing things to strengthen our civic foundation so that we can have healthy political disagreements. I know he'll talk fondly about his friends across the aisle who point out things in his blind spots that, you know, help cover his weaknesses, and whose weaknesses he can cover with his strengths. So, there have definitely been some good individual examples.
BLAYLOCKI would also point out the Problem Solvers Caucus, which, I think, came up in 2017. It's a group of 48 members of the House across the aisle who are committed to working together for progress. And things like this give me hope that there are people in Washington who have seen the political vitriol and are actively working for solutions.
NNAMDIMolly on Capitol Hill emailed us: I've been trying to bridge civil discourse with my mother these past few weeks. We've been politically divided since I was 16 years old, and we had a semi-civil conversation about values last week after I saw that she responded to a tweet calling all Biden voters ignorant, anti-Christian and anti-American.
NNAMDII used Braver Angels to help guide our discussion. My question for the panel is, how do we move past the idea of wanting to win a political discourse? I got the sense my mother understands my desire for civil discourse, but will still walk away thinking she has won the debate. Carolyn, how important is that to people, thinking that they need to win the debate?
LUKENSMEYERWell, Molly's example is right at the heart of the matter. As long as a person stays in the emotional cognitive space of wanting to win the debate, their capacity to really get back in touch with what it means to engage with a human being who holds a different value is limited. So, that's why it's so important to get to a place where both parties -- at least for a very short period of time, if we go all the way back to the 93-year-old Nancy's dad who did it just for a minute -- where it is not about winning the debate. It is literally about listening to understand.
LUKENSMEYERAnd I want to actually, if I may, Kojo, go back to Matthew with his discourse for democracy.
LUKENSMEYERActually, Calvin said this earlier, but one of the things that we found at NICD, where we were working in many states since the 2016 election, ordinary Americans all across the country are starting ways to do these conversations on their own. A guy named Craig Freshley in Maine has started Make Shift Coffee Houses. Look at his website. Every Friday night, they go to a different coffeehouse in a town in the state of Maine. Megan Anderson, a 28-year-old in Cleveland, Ohio, started craft beer conversations, where every Friday night they go to a craft beer bar.
LUKENSMEYERSo, this is what gives me hope. Americans know it's wrong, and they want to do something about it. A tool for people who really were focused on what to do this Thanksgiving, look at our website called engagingdifferences.org. We put up a series of questions for family members who know they have a crazy relative that will turn it into a political fight. And it allows you to ask a whole bunch of questions just about us as a family.
LUKENSMEYERIt might be the values question about what you care most about about our democracy, but it might be something fun. Who around the table's best suited to run for public office, and why? Who's least likely to be an elected official, and why? Or what are one or two of the most important qualities you look for before you vote for someone? So, you can stay in the territory of politics, but get intrigued how members of your own family would actually be in this arena themselves.
NNAMDIOn, now, to Nancy on Capitol Hill. Nancy, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NANCYThank you, Kojo. And thank you for this show and all your shows. I'm calling because I don't think you touched on this -- you and your guests touched on this part of the topic, which is, it's one thing to come together and listen to each other and understand each other's beliefs and opinions. But what do we do about the fact that people can't agree even on the facts these days, that there's no common understanding of facts on the ground?
NNAMDIWhat do you say about that, Calvin Blaylock?
BLAYLOCKYes. Well, this is a really important question. There was a good speech that Senator Sasse gave during the Amy Coney Barrett confirmation process about the importance of a strong civic foundation to support a lot of the political disagreements that we have. And, unfortunately, a lot of our civics are eroding. I mean, we're now to a point where people on both sides of the aisle have very different views about the equality of human life and the separation of powers and, you know, allowing people to live out their genuinely and sincerely held religious convictions and free speech and things like this.
BLAYLOCKI think it's extremely important that we work to protect those as a way to protect the ability to have civil dialogue with each other. And it's difficult. It really is. I think that we need to start by finding common ground with each other, however broad we need to go to do that. And Carolyn's right, I mean, sometimes it's, you know, sports, arts, entertainment, whatever it takes, but starting with why. What is the driver behind the policies and the politicians that we support? Starting at the top of the funnel, and then working our way from there.
BLAYLOCKBut you're absolutely right, those need to be concerns on the mind of the American people, a strong civics education, strong level of civic engagement in our communities and actively seeking out these opportunities for civil dialogue instead of pulling back.
NNAMDII got to tell you, Philippa Hughes, I have been involved in the news media or news-related media for almost 50 years. And we find ourselves in a state of shock when people believe that what's known as the mainstream news media actually goes around making stuff up, as opposed to what we really do, which is trying to check and report on the facts as we see them. How do you deal with that?
HUGHESIt's really hard, and this is one of the things that has actually, I think, changed since the last time we talked, is that we've become less -- we agree even less on what the facts are. And so, you know, I've been thinking a lot about what I've been calling the polarization industrial complex, in which there are people -- you know, there are entities out there who profit from keeping us polarized and by disseminating this information, by causing us to actually question one another's integrity. And we have to, as we said earlier from a grassroots level, question why we're allowing ourselves to be used in this way.
HUGHESAnd so, it does depend on us to question, you know, what the information that we're getting, in the sense that is it being used to polarize me? Is it being used to divide me from others who think differently from me? And so, I think that it's really, really hard for us right now to, you know, deal with this alternate sets of facts that everybody's putting out there. But we also have to be really cognizant that this is happening and always be very conscious and always looking at that and wondering and trying to find where the common sets of facts are.
NNAMDISame question to you, Carolyn. Despite the fact that a pizza restaurant on Connecticut Avenue in Washington called Comet Ping Pong was frequented by a lot of people, and that the news media looked at allegations that were being made against it, there were people who nevertheless believed that there was some kind of child sex ring that was going on in the basement of this hotel, causing somebody to drive all the way from North Carolina to there with a gun and start shooting up the place. How do we deal with these, quote-unquote, "alternative facts"?
LUKENSMEYERWell, I'm really glad Nancy asked this question, Kojo, because, in many ways, as we look forward, where we've come to around this notion of fake news and alternative facts is probably the most serious threat to our democracy. Just take two things that we're right now experiencing. We should be celebrating the 2020 election. It is the largest voter turnout in more than 100 years, and by numbers, the largest ever. And yet instead of taking a moment on this most sacred duty of our democracy, we've just been barraged for more than two weeks about, was it legitimate or not legitimate?
LUKENSMEYEROr than look at COVID, the numbers of people in the United States of America who still believe COVID is a hoax. Listening to medical professionals talk about being in beds in hospitals where people who have COVID still think it's a hoax and believe they only have the flu or a cold. This could not be any more serious.
LUKENSMEYERWhat I do know from, again, the experiences we've had in these workshops, is that on policy issues where people first rejected having access to independent facts on two issues, immigration, climate change. Once they've gone through conversations and had respect for a view different than their others, they then asked for the facts. They then acknowledged that they didn't really know where the American public's ideas were about what should happen with DACA or with immigration on that topic.
LUKENSMEYERSo, this is very serious, and I think the news media has begun to say, in the last weeks, you're, as a profession, going to have to be thinking about, how can we now break through what our almost cult-like beliefs about things that are just -- anyone would have access to know? This was a phenomenal election, whether your guy won or not. And people are dying every day of COVID, whether you believe or not.
NNAMDIHere is Doug in Washington, D.C. Doug, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DOUGYes, sir. Thank you for taking my call. So, I wanted to pose a question that is more fundamental. And that is, I'm really of the firm belief that we, historically, as a species, have been in conflict since the dawn of mankind. And I was wondering if anybody's ever looked into the genetic components of this. Because if you look at history, our history is marked by conflict. It's marked by wars. Everything that you look at in history is all about conflict. And I was just wondering if maybe that there's some type of research going on that gets to the root cause of this. Because I think it's less behavioral and more genetic. And thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Well, everything we look at in history is not necessarily marked by conflict, but conflict does dominate a lot of historical accounts of how the species has evolved. But, Philippa Hughes, what would you say to that?
HUGHESYou know, I have not done the genetic study, but, you know, I did read a really great book called "Humankind." And it talks about how whether we are genetically geared toward violence or not. And, you know, it lands on the idea that we choose violence. We aren't genetically engineered that way. And so, in my sort of sunny outlook and optimistic outlook, I think that that's right. We can choose a different way.
HUGHESAnd, in terms of conflict in these conversations, I mean, what we're saying is the conflicts do arise, but how do you manage the conflicts? How do you incorporate these kinds of guidelines on having better conflicts, is really what we're trying to talk about.
NNAMDICalvin Blaylock, what would you think the Founding Fathers think of where we are, as a country, right now?
BLAYLOCKYes, Kojo. This is a fantastic question, because this issue of bipartisanship and civil discourse is something that our Founding Fathers cared deeply about. I mean, one of my favorite speeches of all time is President George Washington's farewell address. It's his last major public opportunity to impart advice to our young nation. And what topic does he choose? Well, you guessed it, civil discourse and national unity.
BLAYLOCKHis advice was really to avoid a hyper-partisan spirit of politics. He said that it, quote, "agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another and foments occasionally riot and insurrection." Now, I don't know about you, but I think that's pretty prescient in a 2020 that's been filled with exactly these things. I mean, widespread political distrust, enmity with people that disagree and civil unrest in our communities.
BLAYLOCKAnd our Founding Fathers really understood that the future of our nation depends so heavily on people's ability to transcend party politics for the good of our nation. This is a spirit that I think, unfortunately, we've lost. I mean, political leaders today see unity as only a secondary goal, something that you throw in as an extra add-in. So, I think our mission today needs to be to reclaim the spirit that our founders had, this understanding of how vital is it that we preserve civil discourse, because the future of our nation depends on it.
NNAMDIHave less than a minute, Carolyn, but President-Elect Biden ran on and continues to say that he'll be the president of all Americans, not just Democrats. Given how deeply divided we are, can Joe Biden bring this country together, in 30 seconds or less? (laugh)
LUKENSMEYERWell, Kojo, one of the things that really stands out to me is we had the largest demonstration of political activism on both ends of the spectrum than we have seen in a presidential campaign. That political activism now needs to turn into what I would call citizen leadership and governance. Joe Biden cannot do this on his own. We, the public, have to be there.
NNAMDIThat's all the time we have. Philippa Hughes, Calvin Blaylock, Carolyn Lukensmeyer, thank you all for joining us. Today's show on navigating the holidays with civility was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Coming up tomorrow, when Walter Reed Army Medical Center moved to Bethesda, the District inherited the historic buildings and the land. It's now become The Parks at Walter Reed, home to condos, a Whole Foods and two schools.
NNAMDIPlus, we speak with author Danielle Evans about her latest story collection, "The Office of Historical Corrections," which confronts race, grief and belonging. That all starts tomorrow, at noon. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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