Stop the spread of America's red-vs.-blue political stain

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When I work with community leaders, organizations, and citizens across the nation, I must confess that I never meet people with red or blue faces. Nor have I found people walking down the street in two single files - one red, the other blue.

The conventional story line of politics today, though, is that Americans are deeply divided - geographically - along red (Republican) and blue (Democrat) lines. Weekly news magazines have done major spreads on this story. Political pundits peddle this division as accepted wisdom. Research shows that different communities do, indeed, favor different political parties. And that Americans are separating geographically, based on specific demographic and lifestyle factors. There is even research that suggests that Republicans and Democrats buy different kinds of books.

But is America destined to be a nation divided by red and blue states?

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I urge you to try the following experiment. Pick any community you know in the US. Next, suppose you were to visit ordinary people there, both Republicans and Democrats. You ask them about their concerns and hopes for their families and town. They tell you about their frustrations with politics and whom they trust as leaders.

The people you engage come from all walks of life - old, young, wealthy, and struggling - and from all ethnicities.

Upon completion of your trip, how different do you really believe you would find people to be? Would their concerns on public schools, safety, healthcare, even the war in Iraq be all that different?

Further, ask yourself if you think these people - as individuals - would take any of the following actions, if they could, because of the differences that do exist among them:

• Start a radio network so that they could pummel each other every minute of the day over their differences.

• Call into question each other's love of country and their commitment to keep it safe from its enemies.

• Raise millions of dollars to buy advertisements so they could deliberately distort, even destroy, each other's identity.

• Propose ideas to address public concerns that they know would not garner broad-based popular support, and may not even work in practice, and do it all with a straight face.

The majority of people would be enormously troubled if their fellow Americans pursued such strategies. These actions fail to embody the kind of politics and community life people say they want in this nation.

And yet, these are the very approaches partisans and their consultants have been taking each day - all in the name of the red vs. blue state competition. Their plan is to anger, incite, scare, and prod people to take a side - their side - at almost any cost. And the cost is high.

A dangerous shorthand emerges in the nation about the views between Republicans and Democrats, which often leads to stereotyping and false debate. There is a knee-jerk dismissal of opposing arguments before any exchange of real ideas ever takes place. People are given the message that they share little in common, making worse the differences that do exist.

Consider just how much attention and money and time goes into creating and deepening this division.

As there have always been, there are indeed real differences in this country, and there are still many people who feel a strong allegiance to their political party. But go into any community and you will soon discover that the possibility for uniting people far outweighs that for dividing them.

Bringing people together is always the more difficult path to take. The partisans who insist on divvying up America should do a gut check. If they were to genuinely listen to various communities, they would hear people speak about the kind of nation they seek. They would see that while their tactics may help them win an election, they leave an ugly red and blue stain on the fabric of the nation.

Richard C. Harwood is founder and president of the nonprofit, nonpartisan Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.

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