This is an opinion from the center.
I heard Cox speak about his “Disagree Better” initiative at the Braver Angels Convention in Gettysburg, PA (You can watch his speech here, starting at 36:20). It was the first time I can remember actually believing a politician.
Cox said, “If you turned 12 in 2015, you’re in college now, and that’s all you know,” referring to Donald Trump’s behavior. He’s right. I was 12 in 2015 and I’m in college now. Middle school was all about Hillary’s emails and Trump’s sexual assault scandals. January 6th happened in my senior year of high school and seemed unfortunately fitting after all that had happened in 2020. If Trump’s election marked the moment politics really became insane, I’ve never known a sane political environment and, in my generation, it shows. It shows in the way policy is conflated with morality and relationships are broken off over political disagreement.
Many in my generation are either married to an ideological echo chamber or disengaged from politics entirely. Yet few, like me, hold out hope that we can build a movement of people who want to talk about and work toward solving important political issues across the political divide.
The bridge-building movement tries to convince people that Democrats and Republicans are not enemies, but fellow countrymen, who also want to create a more perfect union. The trouble is, it is hard to unify Republicans and Democrats under one cause without another common enemy. While not explicit, bridge-building organizations can sometimes make their enemies out to be social media, news media, “conflict entrepreneurs”, and politicians.
As a part of the movement, I would like to think we acknowledge the nuance within these industries and do not wholly generalize them as divisive, but when Cox called Congress “imbeciles” and proposed that we should throw them out at the Braver Angels Convention, we all cheered. Then he admonished us. When he called Congress “imbeciles” in a press conference earlier this year, over not passing immigration reform, he got similar praise from all of his friends, he told us, but the next day he made a public apology because calling Congress names was not living up to his values.
Congress is made up of people trying their best — for the most part — to be an effective legislator for their constituents, not enemies.
I’ll mention another piece of Cox’s speech. He spoke about how the media covered a ban on transgender surgeries and hormones for minors in his state. What was less covered is that in the same session Utah banned conversion therapy. Originally, as Cox tells it, two conservative legislators wanted to put forward a bill to allow conversion therapy in Utah. Those legislators sat down with LGBTQ+ equality groups in a room for days on end talking about the bill, and when they emerged, they emerged with a bill to ban conversion therapy in the state of Utah, and it passed unanimously.
Most Americans have never worked in government. We are arrogant to assume that we know the discussions that go on behind closed doors or when the cameras are not on in the halls of Congress. When we see politicians tweet divisive things, or pass bills we disagree with, it is easy to point and say that is the problem. It is easy to point out bad journalism and say that is the problem.
But there are good journalists — who work to reveal the truth, without biased motives, even when it's uncomfortable — and good politicians — who govern to the best of their judgment, listen to constituents, and admit when they have misstepped, Cox among them, and I am sure we could name many more if we were in the private meeting halls of Congress or in internal newsroom meetings.
When I am older and am asked about growing up in the Trump era, I imagine I’ll say this: it was a time when we judged one another, not by the character we knew them to have, but by whether or not they showed support for someone they ultimately did not know at all.
I do not know if the governor’s “Disagree Better” initiative will drive the change we need to see in this country. I hope so! If we have a shot, it must be with members of social media companies, and news media, and academia, and local and national politicians, and any other institutions we deem broken and divisive and untrustworthy.
We are all guilty of being a little bit divisive sometimes, whether against these institutions or others. These institutions are not the enemies, they are made of people who are mostly trying their best, and collaborating with them may be just what we need to start fixing the problems of today while striving for a better tomorrow.
In the end there is no one person or political party to blame for the fracturing of trust and goodwill in America. To paraphrase Tim Urban, America is and always has been a struggle against itself, and disagreeing better begins with all of us.
Clare Ashcraft (Center bias) is the Bridging and Bias Assistant at AllSides.