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The Politics of US series: Bridging divides

Understanding each other

Ninth in a 10-part weekly series. The Politics of US looks at polarizing topics to help deepen understanding of the issues – and respect for those with differing views. This installment looks at pockets of America where civility is prevailing.

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    Employees Lottie Penick, left, and Melissa Hodnett iron stars onto a United States flag at Annin Flagmakers in South Boston, Va., on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Ask the workers at the factory to name life's most important things and family, work and faith are repeated. Presented the chance to live in a foreign land, the idea is uniformly rejected, with each saying America can't be beat. And nudged to sum up what this country's people share, they invoke their handiwork and what it stands for: freedom, opportunity and pride.
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Subscribe to the whole series via our free weekly Politics newsletter and follow us on Twitter @CSM_politics. Review the previous eight installments, from guns to health care, here.
In this week's edition:
  1. Cover story: A memo to the next president 
  2. By the numbers: See how Congress's productivity has dropped off over the last 40 years
  3. Civics 101: 'Son of a half-breed Indian squaw' & other insults wielded by the Founding Fathers
  4. List: Meet the 5 most bipartisan lawmakers in Congress
  5. Photo gallery: Republicans and Democrats give their own take on bumper-sticker slogans
  6. Guest column: America divided? Not in these hundreds of communities. 
  7. Engage: How schools can bring civility to politics
  8. Our picks: 'Politics isn't broken' – and more 

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Memo to the next president

By Colin Woodard, Contributor

As the 2016 election campaign has turned increasingly bizarre, I’ve been traveling the United States, writing about cities that have managed to pull off amazing things. From New Hampshire to Utah, North Carolina to Ohio, the successes of the disparate communities I’ve written about turned out to have something in common: an ability for business executives, elected officials, and nonprofit leaders to cooperate to provide a common good none of them could create on their own. 

In more than 150 interviews and 50,000 published words, party affiliations never came up, even though many of the individuals clearly checked different boxes in federal elections during civic efforts that typically took 20 to 30 years to execute.

It’s enough to renew my faith in Americans’ ability to get things done, and it’s unexpectedly squared with the ideas I’ve put forward in a recent book on how to heal our political culture at the federal level at a time when the republic itself can seem in peril. Our history offers sound counsel in how to restore faith in our democratic institutions. The cities I’ve visited – which Washington-style gridlock and rancor have yet to reach – offer real-world evidence that it can be done.

Read more

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BY THE NUMBERS

Jacob Turcotte and Story Hinckley/Staff
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Also see Business Insider’s amazing 60-second animation on how divided Congress has become over the past 60 years – one of the best illustrations we've seen – and Pew's interactive graphic on political polarization among the American public.

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CIVICS 101: 'Son of a half-breed Indian squaw' & other insults wielded by the Founding Fathers

The election of 1800, in which incumbent President John Adams faced off against Thomas Jefferson, featured no small degree of partisanship – as this excerpt from PBS reveals. But the two rivals reconciled later in life.

"Jefferson, who had lost in 1796, paid the editor of the Richmond Examiner to print anti-Federalist articles and to praise the efforts of Jefferson's Party. His supporters accused the incumbent president Adams of having a "hideous hermaphroditical character, which has neither the force and firmness of a man, nor the gentleness and sensibility of a woman." In response, a leaflet by Adams' team called Jefferson "a mean-spirited, low-lived fellow, the son of a half-breed Indian squaw, sired by a Virginia mulatto father." 

Read more

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LIST: Meet the most bipartisan lawmakers in Congress

By Story Hinckley, Staff writer

Rep. Pete King, R-N.Y. greets customers during a stop at Lino's restaurant, Monday, Aug. 5, 2013 in Wakefield, N.H. Jim Cole/AP

#2: Representative Pete King (R) of New York

Rep. King, who has served in Congress since 1993, was elected to his 12th term in November 2014 with 68.5 percent of the vote in his district.

In March 2015, he and Rep. Mike Thompson (D) of California introduced a bipartisan bill to strengthen background checks for gun purchases – a similar version of which they had introduced in the their previous term.

The King-Thompson bill, like companion legislation proposed by senators Joe Manchin (D) of West Virginia and Pat Toomey (R) of Pennsylvania, would have expanded the background-check system to cover all commercial firearm sales. It would also incentivize states to improve the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).

Although gun control is often considered a liberal issue, King included a conservative caveat in his proposed legislation: the law explicitly bans the federal government from creating a registry of gun owners in the US. 

Though the legislation did not pass, Newsday praised King as a “stand up guy who isn’t shy about tangling with the powerful, even those in his own party. King has become a national figure who delivers for the region and his district.”

Read more

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GALLERIES: Republicans and Democrats give their own take on bumper-sticker slogans

Political slogans seem to say much – and nothing – at the same time.

That's why we had our photographers roam the convention floors in Cleveland and Philadelphia and ask participants about their views on the prominent themes.

Their methodology was simple, if hardly scientific: collect a diverse array of people (gender, race, age, etc.) who were willing to talk to them. The goal was to illuminate some of the thinking behind the "bumper sticker" slogans.

Voices from the Republican National Convention: What does a 'great America' look like?

Daniel Garza is president of the LIBRE Initiative in Virginia and 4 time RNC attendant. Ann Hermes/Staff

View the full gallery

Voices from the Democratic National Convention: What would bring America together? 

Will Cheek is a Tennessee delegate. Neal Menschel

View the full gallery

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GUEST COLUMN: America divided? Not in these hundreds of communities.

By Mark Gerzon, Contributor 

People in the crowd hold up homemade signs at the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington Saturday, Oct. 30, 2010. The "sanity" rally, blending laughs and political activism, drew thousands to the National Mall Saturday, with comedians Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert casting themselves as the unlikely maestros of moderation and civility in polarized times. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

After enduring a toxic year-long mudslinging contest, it is all too easy to conclude that civility is dead.

It certainly seems that America is divided. Not only have the two major parties pulled further apart, but our culture as a whole — media, business, universities, you name it — seems to be increasingly polarized.

Television networks such as Fox News and MSNBC are clearly politically aligned, and the Internet has given each of us the opportunity to surround ourselves with news that fits our opinion. Research confirms that corporate boards of directors are overwhelmingly “red” (by an almost 2-1 ratio). By contrast, university faculties are overwhelmingly blue (almost two-thirds identify as “far left” or “liberal”).

Given this polarization, it is natural to feel disheartened and to fear that America is becoming completely politically segregated. But the good news is that hundreds of communities across the country are going in just the opposite direction. They are becoming vibrant places where citizens from across the political spectrum are working together to strengthen the civic fabric and revitalize democracy.

Read more

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ENGAGE: How schools can bring civility to politics

By John Gable, Contributor

With all the divisive rhetoric, sensationalist journalism, and inflamed passions during this election cycle, schools can be one of our saving graces. 

But only if teachers aren’t terrified about discussing elections.

Teachers recognize the need to discuss politics in order to prepare their students for their adult lives. But how can you do that without creating divisions within your classroom or introducing your own biases? Any false step, real or imagined, could lead to repercussions in the class, from parents and the administration. 

Unsurprisingly, 40 percent of teachers are hesitant to teach about the election. And with that reluctance, it is no wonder that some college students feel unprepared to vote in elections. 

That is why a friend and I, along with help from dozens of educators and mediation professionals ranging from the far left to the far right politically, launched AllSidesForSchools.org and its “Elections and Relationships” program and lesson plans.

Here is the basic idea. 

Read more

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OUR PICKS: Recommended reading and viewing

1. "How American Politics Went Insane," The Atlantic

Populism, individualism, and a skeptical attitude toward politics are all healthy up to a point, but America has passed that point. Political professionals and parties have many shortcomings to answer for—including, primarily on the Republican side, their self-mutilating embrace of anti-establishment rhetoric—but relentlessly bashing them is no solution. You haven’t heard anyone say this, but it’s time someone did: Our most pressing political problem today is that the country abandoned the establishment, not the other way around.

2. "Politics Isn't Broken," US News and World Report

The system isn't broken. We are merely experiencing another period of public restlessness. Representative government means elected officials are tasked with representing – giving voice and acting on – their constituents' concerns. Hence, the problem is not who is serving as a representative, but who they're representing. Said another way, Washington only seems broken because we, the people, don't agree on either what ails us or how best to fix it. Further, about the only thing we do agree on is that Washington is not to be trusted.

3. "Why are so many Republicans and Democrats pretending to be independents?" The Washington Post

People 'go undercover' — or hide their partisanship behind the label 'independent' — because they are too embarrassed to admit their partisanship. Being embarrassed to admit your partisanship leads you to avoid behaviors that are overtly partisan. This is a big problem for democratic politics, since overtly partisan behaviors are often the behaviors that have the most political 'voice.'

4. "American politics needs more civility, not less," The Boston Globe

We have reached a point where politicians fear to commit themselves to even the mildest standard of civility. In 2009, two prominent political activists, Republican Mark DeMoss and Democrat Lanny Davis, launched a campaign to try and soften the nation’s harsh public tone. They wrote to all 535 members of Congress and the 50 governors, asking each to sign a simple Civility Pledge: 'I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior. I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them. I will stand against incivility when I see it.' For months the bipartisan duo promoted their civility campaign. But in the end, of the 585 elected officials to whom they sent the pledge, only three — three — were willing to sign.

5. "Sen. Susan Collins upon receiving Javitz Prize for Bipartisanship"

Even in this highly charged political environment, it is still possible to find members in both parties who understand that compromise is not a dirty word, that it does not mean betraying one’s principles. Rather, compromise is a means of accomplishment, of understanding and respecting and honoring differences of opinion in order to achieve real solutions… Unyielding adherence to an extreme position is easy. It is compromise, good faith, and the hard work of bringing people together that requires determination, intellect and courage.

Also be sure to check out some of the Monitor's in-depth coverage on partisanship and compromise in US politics.

1. "Why swing voters are vanishing from US politics," by Peter Grier, Staff writer

Here’s a prediction about the 2016 presidential election that’s almost certain to come true: Generally speaking, swing voters won’t. Swing, that is. Float. Change their preference. Vote for the Republican if they voted for President Obama in 2012. Vote for the Democrat if they pulled the lever for Mitt Romney last time out.

That’s because the United States is becoming a country where no one changes his or her mind about presidential politics. Voters are increasingly divided into reliably partisan camps. Those swing voters pundits love to talk about? They’re mythical creatures, unicorns, nothing but a flash of white in the forest at dusk. New research shows they’re now about  5 percent of the US electorate – the lowest percentage ever recorded.

2. "Susan Collins, a Republican armed for compromise," by Francine Kiefer, Staff writer

Every senator knew that the four gun-control measures brought up post-Orlando were going down in a partisan duel on the Senate floor on Monday. So Susan Collins, the moderate Republican from Maine, came armed for compromise.

3. "Between red and blue, 'cranberry' voters carve an unlikely niche," by Story Hinckley, Staff writer

Because of their shrinking numbers, swing voters have largely lost their moderating influence on presidential candidates, who appeal to their party’s most committed members – now generally located on the ideological extremes. But they are not extinct. They just exist in unexpected places, and on smaller geographical scales. 

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