How a Zigzag, Small-Town, Cross-Country Trip Revived Hope for a United America
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How a Zigzag, Small-Town, Cross-Country Trip Revived Hope for a United America

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How a Zigzag, Small-Town, Cross-Country Trip Revived Hope for a United America

Francis Barry is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and member of the editorial board covering national affairs. He served as chief speechwriter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg during the 2020 presidential campaign and in New York’s City Hall, where he also helped lead a variety of government and election reform initiatives. He is the author of The Scandal of Reform and holds degrees from the University of Notre Dame and New York University.

Below, Francis shares five key insights from his new book, Back Roads and Better Angels: A Journey into the Heart of American Democracy. Listen to the audio version—read by Francis himself—in the Next Big Idea App.

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1. There is power in humility.

The Lincoln Highway begins in Manhattan not far from where Lincoln delivered the speech that launched him to the White House in 1860. That speech, which opposed the spread of slavery, is most remembered for its closing words: “Let us have faith that right makes might.” But the rest of that sentence is just as important. Lincoln continued, “And in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

Those last few words—as we understand it—reflected Lincoln’s awareness of his own fallibility. He knew he might be wrong – and he was willing to say so.

Throughout his life—and especially during the Civil War—Lincoln refused to engage in self-righteousness. Even though he believed slavery to be a moral abomination, he recognized that white Southern support for it was tied up in self-interest. And he said of white slaveholders: They are just what we would be in their situation.

Now, think of the political arguments we hear today. How often do we try to understand where the other side is coming from—and publicly acknowledge that if we were in their shoes, we might feel and even act the same way? How often do we end our comments with the phrase “as I understand it”—or recognize in some other way that we might be wrong or at least not entirely right?

Not very often. Instead, we hear a lot of righteous anger and moral judgment. And when that happens people on the other side of the aisle go from being opponents to being enemies—evil enemies.

In his first inaugural address, Lincoln said: “We are not enemies but friends—we must not be enemies.” And what does friendship require? Listening. Patience. Understanding. And, maybe most of all, an awareness that when we have disagreements with friends we are not always 100 percent in the right. That awareness, that little bit of humility, can go a long way toward bridging divides and strengthening national unity.

2. America is in a permanent state of adolescence.

In Utah, I visited the Museum of Art at Brigham Young University to see an exhibit called “Becoming America.” The curator explained that the inspiration for the exhibit was the idea that, as he said, “America is always in the process of becoming something new—so that every day, every generation, America is becoming itself.”

I thought his phrase—becoming itself—was so perfect because it reflects the fact that America and our identity as Americans have never been fixed. We were the first country in the world to be founded not based on an ethnicity or a religion or the divine right of a king but on an idea: that all people are created equal. Lincoln calls that idea “the electric cord” that connects all Americans whether they arrived here yesterday or their ancestors came on the Mayflower.

But what does it mean to be equal? And what does equality require? And who does it apply to? And how should it be legislated? These questions have defined much of American history, and the struggles over them lie at the heart of the American experience – not just in the past but today, too.

We are still wrestling with equality, and that’s healthy because it’s part of who we are, it’s part of our evolution, our growth. And sometimes, the struggle isn’t even about the future. It’s about the past.

“We were the first country in the world to be founded not based on an ethnicity or a religion or the divine right of a king but on an idea: that all people are created equal.”

All along our trip we saw monuments and statues that have become controversial—not just Confederate monuments either. The fights over them are the latest examples of our growing pains as a country. Which statues should stay and which should go – and how should we decide?

These are important conversations because monuments are more than history. They are celebrations of values. And part of becoming America means that our perspective on those values isn’t set in stone. It shifts as we change and grow.

Now not every case is clear-cut. That’s why insight number one, humility, is so important. But the more we see America as an adolescent always growing and coming into its own with an uncertain but promising future, the better we can accept that change isn’t a threat. It’s part of who we are.

3. Threats to democracy can come from both the right and the left.

Both parties seem to think the other one is on the verge of destroying the country but the fact of the matter is: threats lurk in both parties.

The second half of our trip unfolded against the backdrop of the Stop the Steal movement. We all know how that ended—in disgraceful violence on January 6th. But threats to democracy aren’t just about elections, and some of the places we visited along the way helped make that clear.

In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, for instance, we saw shops that had had their windows smashed out after a police protest had turned violent. When an angry mob takes the law into its own hands, and people substitute their own passions for the rule of law, injustices are bound to occur, and democratic rights are bound to get trampled.

“When an online mob decides to try to silence—or cancel—someone, that’s a threat to democracy.”

And mobs aren’t just physical anymore, either. When an online mob decides to try to silence—or cancel—someone, that’s a threat to democracy too because it makes other people fearful of speaking their minds.

Lincoln hated mobs and spoke out against them at a time when it was politically risky to do so. He said that when mobs are allowed to riot and run roughshod over the rule of law, “this government cannot last.”

Threats to democracy take many shapes, and the challenge for all of us is: Can we recognize a threat when it emerges from our own side, and are we willing to speak out against it as Lincoln did even when other members of our party are not?

The survival of democracy depends on people who understand that, as John F. Kennedy said, “Sometimes party loyalty asks too much.”

4. Extreme partisanship isn’t just a problem; it’s a problem we can overcome.

Full disclosure: I’ve been a Democrat all my life, but I’ve also worked for a Republican mayor, and like most Americans, I don’t believe that either party has a monopoly on good ideas. Too many elected officials in both parties pander to extremes, so very little gets done.

I heard that from many people on our trip, including a Sheriff in an Arizona border town. He was deeply frustrated with both parties over the failure to fix our immigration system. The vast majority of Americans agree with the sheriff that we need both better enforcement and more legal immigration. But how do we get there?

A big part of the answer lies, naturally enough, in Lincoln, Nebraska, where I spent some time with a young state senator. Nebraska is the country’s only state with a nonpartisan election system and a nonpartisan legislature. What does that mean? Well, it means that there are no party primaries, so candidates have to appeal to voters who are Democrats, Republicans, and independents, not just the most extreme members of their party.

“But the truth is: We get the government we design.”

It also means that legislators don’t choose committee assignments based on their party membership once they’re elected. They choose them based on merit—and trust. As a result, members of the minority party still chair committees, and they work across the aisle to pass bills. The state senator I spoke with was in the minority party, but he was able to pass bills because the system promotes collaboration and cooperation instead of conflict.

Now, some people – cynics, I think – say that we get the government we deserve. But the truth is: We get the government we design. And right now, Congress is designed for gridlock. But if we redesign the system to look more like Nebraska’s we’d have a lot less partisanship and more progress.

5. Hope lies in relationships.

In Illinois, I talked with a man who’d spent much of his life in local Republican Party politics. He told me he’d recently been out for a beer with a friend who spent most of his life in local Democratic Politics. And the friend told him: “You know it’s just not fun anymore. You can’t have conversations without someone walking away angry.”

I heard similar things from many other people who are frustrated by the anger and division in the country. But I also heard a way out of it.

In South Bend, Indiana, I spoke with a volunteer at an abortion clinic, April Lidinsky. She’s passionately pro-choice, but she also recognizes that the two sides mostly talk past each other. And so she decided to invite a group of pro-life women to her home for conversation.

Now, some of April’s friends and allies criticized her for sitting down with the other side—the enemy. That was painful for her to hear, but when the group met, they learned something important: They weren’t going to change each other’s minds, but they liked each other! And they continued meeting. They even decided to write an essay for the local newspaper about their experience and the value of meeting face-to-face and listening.

They wrote: “This activism involves personal risk; it requires openness to admitting gaps in our knowledge and our need for self-education. However it can benefit every area of politics. We recommend this work which is full of pleasure and rich with possibility.”

In other words, when we put personal relationships above political righteousness, we treat each other more civilly—and instead of weakening or losing friendships, we strengthen them. April and her group represent what we need more of in American politics: the better angels of our nature, as Lincoln said. And our trip left me more convinced than ever that those angels are within all of us.

To listen to the audio version read by author Francis Barry, download the Next Big Idea App today:

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