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Bridging the divide

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When I hear about people talking about the partisan divide in the country, I feel like the conversation often drifts to thoughts of Alabama vs. California or hoping Colorado will turn all red or all blue in a presidential election year. But in 2016, even ol’ liberal California had a significant number of red counties, and Alabama had 13 blue.

There is often a very strong correlation of population density or urban vs. rural and blue vs. red on an electoral map. In Colorado it becomes striking when you start thinking about how much contrast there can be in a district, county, or region.

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According to the U.S. Census, the smallest congressional district in the US is New York’s district 15. It covers 14.54 square miles with 100 percent listed as urban. A congressperson should be able to walk this district corner to corner in a day if they really put their mind to it.

On the other hand, Colorado’s third district takes up 49,731 square miles and 29 counties ranging from the most wealthy in Colorado — Pitkin — to one of the poorest — Costilla —, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The census lists 0.5 percent as urban and 99.5 percent as rural. Even just Garfield County is 2,956 square miles and, aside from Carbondale and the Interstate 70 corridor, is very rural with low population density. As is common in many areas, the rural parts of the map tend to be more red, while the higher population density areas tend to be more blue.

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What can we do to try to bridge this divide? To be a united community working for the betterment of itself, the state, and the country? I wish I had more definitive answers to this question, but I have some thoughts, I have some ideas, and I think it’s something important that we should all be thinking about.

One thing we can be sure of is that the vast majority of people want many of the same things. Most people want a better world for future generations. Most people want a good degree of freedom, happiness, success, and free time. Most people want the resources and ability to contribute to their families’ good life, the development of children, and all those basic things. So why is there such a divide, and how do we go about uniting to more effectively accomplish those things? How can we use a better understanding of human nature and behavior to try to bring these worlds together?

People are social creatures — or what is often called tribal in this context. It is human nature for our beliefs to be based very much off those of our tribe. If your tribe holds a certain belief, it is extremely likely you will as well.

We can train ourselves to be less this way. Things like science, empiricism, critical thinking, etc. can help us be more able to want to rely on things like evidence, but that’s not really human nature. The definition of tribe is also somewhat flexible, and things like first impressions and conversations can have a lot to do with whether you are perceived as part of the tribe or not.

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Oftentimes a lot of it is about random chance. If two middle-aged farmers from Iowa, who both drive Fords and New Holland Tractors but have very strong and differing opinions on livestock feed, start up a conversation at the bar about the things they have in common, like trucks and tractors, and then transition to the more disputed topic of feed, they would be much more likely to value the opinion of the other and use that to question or modify their own beliefs. On the other hand, if their first impression was over something they disagreed on, they would start to place that person outside their tribe and have lower trust of them. They would be much more resistant to the other person’s beliefs influencing their own.

This is one of numerous reasons why social media arguments can be so fruitless most of the time, and it is also why local debate or confrontation type scenarios can feel much the same. If you have a local forum with the intention of bringing Democrats and Republicans together to connect, it may be better than them not talking at all, but it automatically creates an us vs. them dynamic. It creates two different tribes with some sense of a battle of words. In these situations, people tend to entrench in their beliefs and fight for them.

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By contrast, a gathering that tries to bring people together and create one tribe can do far more to get people to be more open to different beliefs and views. For example, instead of Democrats vs. Republicans, creating a forum called something like, “District 3 Citizens to Unite Colorado,” with a primary focus on finding common ground, common goals, and a common path forward can unite instead of escalating division. Even politically we should be able to find common ground to unite on – such as gerrymandering, corruption in politics, or the fact that at this point how much public support an idea gets has zero impact on policies implemented by our representatives.

We should be working on ways to bring our communities together around things that we agree on. Things that unite us. Things that are non-political and things that are politically uniting.

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Other ideas could include trying to create more events or reasons that bring our communities together. This is hard with rural areas because of the distance, but maybe it’s worth working to overcome that right now. Arguing about it on Facebook obviously isn’t working, but applying some of these thoughts to social media could help there as well. Perhaps hosting events in the bigger towns that incentivize people in rural areas to attend, or vice versa, may help a “unifying of the tribes.”

Try not to start with the areas you disagree. There are likely many areas where you do agree.

One thing I can be certain of. We can sit around and wish things were different as long as we want but if we want things to change at some point we are going to have to go out and put in the effort to make a change.

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