I love America and democracy like I love beer and fried chicken—but I hate what happens to America during election cycles. As someone who is politically “moderate,” election season is a particularly stressful and discouraging time. Candidates use emotionally charged issues to slice and dice Americans into measurable voting populations and pit us against each other. They want us to think that anyone on the other side of a given issue is a fool and our enemy so they can just get our vote. It has gotten so polarized that there seems to be no such thing as a “moderate” anymore.
Politicians have become like the overly sensationalized media in that they have to be extreme to be noticed. Reasonable moderates are boring and therefore not getting attention. As a result, the rhetoric has become so divisive that compromise is out of the question for anybody, which is why we hear about a possible “government shutdown” every few months. Government shutdown? Who are we?? Some third-world, pop-up country that won’t exist in a few years and cause a bunch of grade school social studies books to be reprinted?? No we are not. We are America dammit—but we’re not acting like it.
Regardless of your opinion on issues of immigration, marriage rights, guns, abortion, or health care, someone is there to call you an absolute asshole for having that opinion. You are either a bigoted hate monger, Hitler-loving communist, a selfish, capitalist pig, or a tree hugging hippie. Fortunately there’s a solution—everyone just needs to chill the hell out and learn to communicate again. The hard part: This involves both speaking AND listening.
Step one: Lose the “all or nothing” way of thinking, America.
I’m getting tired of hearing the following empty threat: “If (insert candidate) gets elected, “I’m gonna move to Canada!” NO YOU ARE NOT—because it’s really friggin’ cold there, they talk funny, and their police dress like cartoons. Also they probably wouldn’t have you because their immigration laws are tougher than ours. And don’t forget that all of those famous Canadian celebrities that you love so much (Mike Myers, Michael J. Fox, Ryan Gosling) had to come to America before they could become awesome.
So instead, just be smarter than the people (media, pundits, lobbyist, etc.) that are telling you to be outraged all the time. They want you to be outraged and living in fear so you keep watching in order to keep their ratings high and sell advertisements. The next time you read/watch/listen to information about the upcoming election, ask yourself, “Am I being given information or am I being told how to feel about information?” I assure you, it’s the latter 90% of the time.
This time around, I’m not playing that game. In the end I will probably have to choose a candidate that is too far from the middle for my tastes, but I don’t have to like it. To illustrate what I’m getting at here, I want to tell you about three of my friends that are very different from me—so different, in fact, that my social media feed and the fact that I tend to vote slightly right of center would indicate that I could not possibly be friends with them: a Kurdish refugee, a Mexican that attempted to come to America illegally, and a gay liberal activist. These people all love America and contribute greatly to the fabric of our society. Their stories are a healthy reminder to us all that America is awesome and you should want to have people like this in your life—not slam the door on them for being different from you.
A Kurdish, Muslim refugee from northern Iraq opens up our Christian church doors every week.
First, there is Fazil. If you saw the CNN interview I did after my “Dear Muslims” letter went viral, you are familiar with this story. Fazil is a Kurdish man that works as a janitor at the elementary school where my church meets (we are a small church and we borrow the school’s cafeteria each Sunday for worship). Fazil is a Muslim and came to the U.S. as a refugee after barely escaping genocide perpetrated by Saddam Hussein’s regime in the late 80’s. After seeing many of his family and friends murdered, he fled to Turkey where he lived in horrible conditions for three years in a refugee camp. After years of trying to get out of this refugee camp and into any country that would take him, his name finally came up on a list. The American list. The day he found out the U.S. State Department had accepted him to go live here, he said he felt like he’d won the lottery. In fact, none of his other friends in the camp believed him. Now, 25 years later, as the head janitor of this school, he unlocks the building for us every Sunday and helps us set up chairs so we can worship Jesus. Fazil, the Muslim, does that.
The Sunday after the CNN interview, Fazil’s wife made a gigantic tray of baklava for the whole church to snack on after the service. It was delicious. Take this away from his story: Despite what you hear on the news or see on Facebook, Muslims are not inherently bad. In fact, far more Muslims have been killed by “radical Islamic terrorism” than Westerners.
Furthermore, it is the Muslim community itself that has been the most crucial component of the intelligence effort to discover who the radicalized people are among them. So Muslims not only fear these extremists just like you and I, but because of ignorant rhetoric, they now have to fear their neighbors that are profiling them. I hear a lot of people say, “Well, if Muslims don’t agree with ‘radical Islamism’, then why don’t they speak out against it?!?” My only response is that you probably just don’t know any Muslims. Because some of the most visceral and guttural words of aversion to ‘radical Islam’ that I’ve ever heard have come from guys like Fazil and his friends. Once Fazil told me that after the attacks of September 11th, 2001, he felt like his home had been attacked. You see, he feels more American than Kurdish now. It hurt him deeply that someone would have so little regard for innocent human life and attack this country that has literally given him a chance at a new life. Can you imagine feeling the way you did on 9/11, and then having someone liken you to the people that were behind those attacks? I can’t. Fazil is a friend, a public servant, and contributes greatly to my community.
I know a former illegal immigrant who probably does more for this country than you.
Next there’s my friend Juan, a soldier of mine when I was the commander of his Army National Guard unit. Juan was born and spent most of his childhood in Mexico. Juan tried several times to come to the U.S. illegally. As much as I believe we need stronger border security, you can’t really blame any of them for trying. When it’s a matter of survival, humans will try just about anything to escape a terrible situation. Mexico has a corrupt government that is ill-equipped to properly care for its citizens because it is largely controlled by drug cartels—cartels that have a great deal of power and money because of America’s addiction to their products. Besides, there is no shortage of businesses in America looking for cheap, hardworking laborors. So early on Juan was in search of a better life—a life where hard work and integrity are rewarded with freedom and peace of mind. Unfortunately, getting to America legally was a long and bureaucratic process that seemed totally unnavigable. So he first tried the way that seemed to produce a much higher chance of success at the time. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), on every attempt to get into the U.S., Juan was caught and deported. Finally he was able to come in the legal way and was eventually given a green card. Then, after 20 years of bureaucracy, he was finally granted citizenship.
On the day of his naturalization, the judge asked him if he wanted to retain dual-citizenship with Mexico. Juan emphatically replied, “Thanks, but no thanks! America is my home now. This is where I belong.” Now Juan is a Blackhawk helicopter crew chief in the National Guard and a train engine mechanic for CSX, a large rail transportation company. Juan is truly one of the most positive and hard-working soldiers I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. No matter what the task, he’s full speed ahead with a smile on his face. Not to mention he can out run most soldiers that are half his age. Every time I see him working on the aircraft, I think to myself, “Now there is a guy that takes nothing for granted.” He embodies the true American spirit and his service makes this country a better place.
My favorite person to argue with.
Lastly, my friend Matt. Matt’s an old college buddy of mine. He lives out on the west coast to satisfy his National Parks-obsessed, junkie-level addiction to the outdoors. He’s gay and a Christian—and one of the most liberally minded people I know. He is also probably one of the most well-informed voters I have ever met. I’ve gotten into countless debates with him over the years. In fact, I’ve even invited him to lunch just so I could argue with him even more outside of our Facebook feeds. One thing I always realize when talking with Matt is that once we get through all the emotional rhetoric that surrounds certain issues, we really aren’t that far apart in the way that we think. Ultimately, we just want laws and policies that support a free, just, and prosperous America that is equitable to its citizens.
I’d rather converse with people like Matt that intelligently disagree with me on how to accomplish that than an ignorant person that happens to vote the same way as me for all the wrong reasons. Matt knows what he believes in and can support it with facts, numbers, and studies. You have to be on your game to debate with him—which is, at least, part of the reason I do it. He keeps me motivated to dig deeper into the problems of this country and be educated on my voting decisions. Side note: It’s important to have people challenge you in your beliefs and ideals. If you get complacent in your voting habits, you stand the risk of being taken advantage of by your elected representatives because “you always vote republican” or because you are a “life-long democrat.”
What these people from three very different parts of the world have in common, besides being my friend, is that they all love America, and want it to be a wonderful and safe place to live life and pursue happiness. We may have different ideas on how to accomplish that from time to time, we may have different ideas about religion, guns, or a number of other hot button issues. And there may be aspects of their stories that I may not always vote directly in support of. But my life is enriched by knowing them and listening to their perspective.
Start with a conversation.
If you are feeling this regular political whiplash or wondering why America seems to be a constantly oscillating pendulum, swinging violently from one political spectrum to another, it’s because nobody is willing to meet in the middle anymore. Hell, nobody is willing to even talk about meeting in the middle. This dynamic is unhealthy and not what our founding fathers had in mind. Don’t get me wrong—I’m well aware that there are many places in the world where national leaders only change after a violent civil war, genocide, or military coup. I’m grateful for our relatively good record for peaceful transitions of power. However, the dialogue leading up to these transitions is getting less civil and more divisive and I fear violence could grow out of the underlying anger.
The solution to this problem is not easy but starts with a conversation between you and someone that disagrees with you or is just flat out different than you. We cannot be spring loaded to just dig our heels into our own positions every time someone on the “other side” opens their mouth. It is possible that people different from you have good ideas. It is also possible, even likely, that you don’t like everything about the front running candidate of the political party you traditionally vote for. So sit down, get some coffee, and talk. More importantly, listen. And bring the sanity back to “the middle” where the answers to most of the world’s problems actually exist.