A recipe for better politics

The fact is, America is as politically divided as it has been for at least a century. Is a broader sense of shared purpose even possible anymore?

Ben Nelms/Reuters
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (back to camera) addresses a diverse crowd of supporters in British Colombia Feb. 10.

During the past few years, many readers have shared with me their dismay about the state of American politics. The sentiment is hardly unique to Monitor readers. No small amount of media punditry bemoans a broken, hyperpolarized Washington.

On some levels, I find that odd. A democratic republic has no magical powers to override the will of its voters. And the fact is, America is as politically divided as it has been for at least a century. Generally speaking, Americans in blue states have significantly different views on race, immigration, and religion from those in red states. That makes it natural – and in a way, even good – that Washington is divided. America has to work through these differences, and, short of resorting to violence or autocracy, that will be hard.

The question then becomes: Is a broader sense of shared purpose even possible anymore? This is the question addressed in this week’s cover story about Canada’s lack of populist anger. One tendency might be to see the story as lauding Canada and criticizing other Western nations, which are in greater political turmoil. To me, though, it points to how different choices and priorities lead to different outcomes. That equips us to understand how we can change outcomes, and at what cost.

Three things jump out at me from Sara Miller Llana’s story:

• Canada’s founding principles are rooted in anti-
revolutionary values such as “peace, order and good governance,” Sara writes. Those lead to a calmer political discourse than America’s revolutionary fervor for individual liberties.

• Canada’s biggest cultural divide – between English- and French-speakers – nearly led to the breakup of the nation. The country avoided that prospect only recently, and only through aggressive accommodation and compromise, so that spirit lingers.

• Canada’s immigration is tightly controlled. There’s very little sense that the government does not have a handle on illegal immigration.

None of these observations reveal a “right way” or “wrong way.” For instance, tighter controls on illegal immigration might help tamp down populist worries, but they could also change a nation’s identity as a haven for those facing oppression and hardship. The immigration debate today is about where countries want to place themselves on that spectrum. And the two extremes of that spectrum have very different opinions.

But here’s a thought. In the toxic wasteland of umbrage that is the comment section of many websites, there is one shining beacon. The website of The New York Times’s Cooking page is famous for its remarkable and at times oddly uplifting comments section. That’s because of one thing: “The call to action was to leave a note on the recipe that helps make it better,” editor Sam Sifton tells The Ringer website. “That’s very different from ‘Leave a comment on a recipe.’ ”

Every country is a constantly changing recipe, infused with new ideas and ingredients. No one person can control the recipe of their country. But everyone can contribute to making it better. As one Canadian mayor tells Sara: “This moment is calling for the best of us.”

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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