I was traveling on the train from Boston to New York recently when something worth mentioning happened. At the start of the journey, the conductor came through the cabin to check tickets, but that was not all he was doing.
He was in full flow about President Trump. This being Boston, one can easily imagine how the banter went. It started with a joke about the arrest of Donald Trump Jr. (he has not been arrested) and progressed through revulsion at the president’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord into full-on mockery. He might have been auditioning for “Saturday Night Live.” And, this being Boston, he might have thought he had a fully sympathetic audience.
Except, he didn’t. Across the aisle from me was a man who was visibly agitated. He kept glancing over his shoulder at the conductor and rubbing his hands as though steeling himself. When the conductor finally arrived at his seat, the man at first said nothing. Then, at the last moment, he said, “Can I talk to you about something?
“The way you were speaking about our president was completely inappropriate,” he said. “I’m a Republican, and it’s completely inappropriate for you to be saying things like that in your position.” Perhaps he was thinking about the fact that, as an Amtrak employee, the conductor would likely be out of a job without government funding.
Quellingly, the conductor said, “OK, OK, OK,” and walked off, obviously not interested in a conversation. But then something fascinating happened. About five minutes later, the conductor returned, bent over the man, and apologized, saying he was right.
Political scientists tell us that the division we see in Washington is just a mirror of the division that exists in the country. “On key characteristics – especially race and ethnicity and religious affiliation – the two parties look less alike today than at any point over the last quarter-century,” according to a Pew Research Center report last year.
That has led to misunderstanding and even fear because Republicans and Democrats understand each other less and less.
“For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. And today, sizable shares of both Democrats and Republicans say the other party stirs feelings of not just frustration, but fear and anger,” says another Pew report.
And yet, there was this conductor and that Republican. Between two people who in all likelihood had wildly different views of what is good for America, there was a moment of grace and humility.
Does it matter? Actually, it could hardly matter more. Democracy is not about forcing one side to surrender to the other side. That’s tyranny. But it is about forcing us to acknowledge that together we must care for this country. It forces us, sometimes under duress, to see our fellow citizens as neighbors.
This is the genius of democracy. It works best when we are our best selves. And a brief scene on a train suggests that is no impossible task.