Political polarization prompts efforts to bridge the gap through shared experiences

Correction: The original version of this segment included a reference to StoryCorps being a part of NPR. It is an independent organization that has a partnership with NPR. The transcript has been updated. We regret the error. 

PBS NewsHour spent much of last week trying to examine what still divides our country and the deep polarization that preceded the Jan. 6 riots. Now, Paul Solman looks at multiple efforts to bridge those major political and cultural fissures in the U.S., beginning with smaller steps forward.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    We spent much of last week trying to examine what still divides our country and the deep polarization that preceded the January 6 riot last year.

    Tonight, Paul Solman looks at multiple efforts to bridge those major political and cultural divides in the U.S., beginning with smaller steps forward.

  • Paul Solman:

    Polarization in America, the data are unreal. According to a poll just out, a projected 25 million American adults think force is at least somewhat justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency.

    In a poll before the last election, 18 percent of Democrats approved of violence if their candidate lost. And 15 percent of Republicans and 20 percent of Democrats agreed that the country would be better off if large numbers of the opposing party just died.

  • Peter Coleman, Columbia University:

    We are in a crisis.

  • Paul Solman:

    Psychologist Peter Coleman runs Columbia University's Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution.

    So, how bad is polarization in America, Peter, compared to the past?

  • Peter Coleman:

    It's bad. I mean, Jon Meacham, the historian, has compared today as being similar to where America was in the 1850s right before the U.S. Civil War.

  • Paul Solman:

    Coleman's Rx is detailed in a recent book, "The Way Out," which begins with a fatal 1994 shooting rampage at two abortion clinics outside Boston. In the wake of that tragedy, activists on both sides of the issue agreed to meet.

    Pro-life Barbara Thorpe's (ph) image of the pro-choice activists?

  • Barbara Thorpe, Pro-Life:

    Hard and harsh and angry.

  • Paul Solman:

    Pro-choice Episcopal priest Anne Fowler's (ph) image of pro-life advocates?

  • Anne Fowler, Episcopal Priest:

    Not thoughtful. Not deep.

  • Paul Solman:

    And, says Peter Coleman:

  • Peter Coleman:

    They still remain opposed to one another on the issue of abortion, on pro-life, pro-choice, but they developed affection for one another in relationships that were thick and important. And, ultimately, they changed the probabilities around violence in America on this issue.

  • Paul Solman:

    No changed minds, however.

    Does that in some sense mean that the experience was a net negative?

  • Anne Fowler:

    No, it was an absolute net positive. It was one of the best — hardest and best things I have ever done. It changed me. I mean, it changed all of us irrevocably.

  • Paul Solman:

    They have been friends for 28 years.

  • Peter Coleman:

    We at my center study deeply divided societies that at some point stop and pivot and choose to change course.

  • Paul Solman:

    And pivoting, many Americans now are, through a host of bridging efforts.

  • Nealin Parker, Princeton University:

    There are 7,000 organizations and individuals that we have put on a map.

  • Paul Solman:

    Princeton's Nealin Parker tracks efforts to come together.

  • Nealin Parker:

    But if you're asking the question of how many people across the country are interested in participating in bridging organizations, that is just the tip of the iceberg.

  • Paul Solman:

    Organizations like Resetting the Table, Braver Angels, the Greater Good Science Center, which recorded this bridging encounter.

    Liberal Isaac was shown conservative Christin's bio. He didn't know she was watching in the next room.

  • Isaac J. Conner, Liberal:

    Trump supporters, I mean, it's just — there's no way around it. Like, they're mentally deranged. You're not right in the head.

  • Christin Ball, Conservative:

    Because I like Trump, right away, he says I'm mentally deranged. He don't know me. You know what I'm saying? And that — I mean, that's wrong, you know? That's prejudice, to me.

  • Paul Solman:

    But they then learned that each had experienced great loss. Christin's sister died when she was 16. Aunt and grandparents who raised her died in quick succession. Isaac lost his mother, his grandfather, his cat.

  • Isaac J. Conner:

    Kitters, my cat, I found her headless carcass on the road. She got run over by a car. And, like, it was just too much.

  • Paul Solman:

    By the time they met in person…

  • Man:

    This is Isaac.

  • Christin Ball:

    Hi. I'm mentally deranged.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Paul Solman:

    … political differences were becoming a humorous footnote.

  • Isaac J. Conner:

    You and I see certain things similar. You and I have had similar experiences with loss.

  • Christin Ball:

    Yes.

  • Isaac J. Conner:

    This experience we're sharing is going to color my interactions going forward with other people.

  • Christin Ball:

    Because you never know what someone might be going through in their life or what's the problems they have. So just don't be quick to get angry.

  • Paul Solman:

    And then there's One Small Step, an offshoot of StoryCorps.

    In 2016, Amina Amdeen attended an anti-Trump rally in Texas. Counterprotester Joseph Weidknecht wore a MAGA hat. They came to StoryCorps to remember the moment.

  • Amina Amdeen, Attended Anti-Trump Rally:

    And I noticed you were surrounded by some people. And I noticed that they were being kind of threatening.

    And then somebody snatched the hat off your head. And that's the point where I — something kind of snapped inside me, because I wear a Muslim hijab. And I have been in situations where people have tried to snatch it off my head.

  • Joseph Weidknecht, Counterprotester:

    Wow.

    I don't think we could be any further apart as people. And yet it was just kind of like this common "That's not OK" moment. You are genuinely the only Muslim person I know.

  • Dave Isay, StoryCorps Creator:

    It's hard to hate up close.

  • Paul Solman:

    Dave Isay created StoryCorps. And his experience there has taught him people like to get up close. Moreover:

  • Dave Isay:

    There's an organization called More in Common that talks about the exhausted majority. And that's 93 percent of the country; 93 percent of the country are exhausted by the divides and want to find a way out.

  • Paul Solman:

    Like the name of Peter Coleman's book.

    And even Congress has several bridging efforts, including the devoutly bipartisan Veterans Caucus For Country.

  • Rep. Van Taylor (R-TX):

    Veterans get things done. And that's what they learn in the service. And they set aside personal differences and political differences, and they dig the foxhole.

  • Paul Solman:

    Conservative Texas Republican Van Taylor, who served in Iraq, and Virginia Democrat Elaine Luria.

  • Narrator:

    Commanding officer, businesswoman, mom.

  • Rep. Elaine Luria (D-VA):

    There's rules within the caucus that say 75 percent of the members of the caucus have to agree on this for the caucus to endorse it. And so that requires working together, coming to the table, making tradeoffs.

  • Paul Solman:

    Finally, an effort I have worked on, the American Exchange Project, a domestic foreign exchange program for high school seniors, based on the underlying principle of coming together, overcoming stereotypes.

  • Sam Bueker, Student:

    There's definitely a stereotype about the South being poor and uneducated.

  • Paul Solman:

    Sam Bueker was a high school senior in Wellesley, Massachusetts, Leticia Vallejo, in Kilgore, Texas. When she first met kids like Sam online…

  • Leticia Vallejo, Student:

    They were more privileged than us. Like, you could tell by, like, their education and everything, like the way they talked. I was scared that, since I didn't have that education or anything, like, we were more underprivileged.

  • Paul Solman:

    For two years, in online hangouts featuring everything from pushup contests to sibling squat challenges, debates over the Confederate Flag to, is a hot dog a sandwich, high schoolers North and South have connected, and, this July, hit the road to see each other's America.

  • Student:

    I'm about to go on the T train station for the first time.

  • Student:

    Are you excited?

  • Paul Solman:

    For Allonah Allsworth (ph) from Lake Charles, Louisiana, her very first trip away from home or on a subway.

    But back to "The Way Out" author for the key question.

    What are the odds that America is going to actually achieve anything like reconciliation and bridging any time soon?

  • Peter Coleman:

    The odds are good, but the work is hard. There are not simple fixes to this. We're going to have to recognize, like addiction, that this is a long-term problem that has been gaining steam for decades.

    But we can do it. And I think the urgency of certainly violence that we see on the streets is something that will motivate us.

  • Paul Solman:

    And as they said goodbye after two weeks, the kids in the American Exchange Project at least had taken the first small step.

  • Student:

    End of blog.

  • Student:

    End of blog.

  • Paul Solman:

    They'd made friends and recorded it in a blog to share back home.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," Paul Solman.

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