We’re staring down the most consequential election in decades — and all indicators point toward a narrow margin of victory that could take weeks, even months, to decide.
When the dust settles, where will that leave an America bogged down in division and dysfunction? Will the right result end racial injustice, inequality of opportunity, and the crushing of Main Street by a ruthless corporate capitalism?
While elections are a zero-sum game — one party wins, another loses — progress on these defining issues is not. We will only begin to turn the tide when a diverse majority of Americans sees itself as part of change, not victims of it. If our national discourse mirrors last week’s “debate,” we don’t stand a chance — no matter who emerges victorious.
After the election, building those majorities will require us to explore perspectives outside of our own experiences, and to have uncomfortable conversations that produce empathy. That includes speaking with people who espouse political beliefs we find abhorrent, especially if their preferred candidate has lost.
Unfortunately, a media environment saturated by political combat has led many Americans to falsely believe that the road to progress mirrors only the road to electoral victory. Destroying our opponents is the way to win. Engaging with the other side is a waste of time.
The hardships of 2020 have exposed people all over the country to a constant reality for minority communities: This country can beat you up. Things don’t get better unless you organize, bringing other people to your side. And those other people, by definition, don’t share your background or experiences.
The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s brought in workers motivated by economic fairness, Jewish Americans inspired by faith, and white liberals driven by old-fashioned morality. More recently, marriage equality became the law of the land because LGBTQ people used a message based on love to rally a “durable majority” of Americans.
But this isn’t just about history. We’ve seen firsthand how hard but genuine conversations can create unexpected coalitions and reduce what psychologists call social distance — the gap in understanding between people from different walks of life. That blunts our tendency to ignore “other” people. It brings us closer to the biblical commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In 2017, one of us, Hawk, brought a group of black counter-protesters to the “Mother of All Rallies,” a right-wing gathering on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The nation was barely a month removed from racial terror in Charlottesville, Virginia. As they marched closer to the mall, people shouted the N-word. Then, something unexpected happened: An organizer asked if Hawk wanted to go onstage.
At first, Hawk felt he was directly opposed to everything the crowd believed. But then he started talking. “The beauty of America,” he said, “is that when you see something broken in your country, you can mobilize to fix it.” They began to applaud — cautiously, but in genuine agreement.
It wasn’t a stunt; it was organic. By appealing to shared ideals, face-to-face, Hawk created the space for progress that day.
Science backs up his experience. A 2018 Harvard study, for example, found that increased interaction with people from different backgrounds led to an increase in empathy. The power of empathy to cure our country’s epidemic of hate became the subject of a new documentary, Stars and Strife, that David wrote and directed.
We are at a moment when almost every demographic group in America — from white evangelicals to Latinx immigrants — feels threatened. When people feel threatened, they retreat further into tribalism. Progress becomes impossible.
Despite frequent setbacks and this venomous election season, we believe that we’re closer than ever to making the promise of our nation’s founding a reality. But we need more empathy, not less. As former President Barack Obama said in his eulogy for the great John Lewis, we will get there “not from turning on each other, but by turning toward one another.”
If we give up on these hard conversations, we give up on the future that Americans — particularly Americans of color — have long fought for, and that immigrants from around the world continue to believe in.
Silence, not civility, is the real enemy of our progress.
Hawk Newsome is chairperson of the Greater New York Chapter of Black Lives Matter. He stars in the recently released documentary, Stars and Strife, which is now available on STARZ. David Smick, who wrote and directed Stars and Strife, is a global financial strategist and author of the best-selling book “The World is Curved.”
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