Editorial: Calling on our better angels to build bridges

Countywide forums will seek to use civil discourse to mend political divisions in our communities.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Denny Heck, during his decades in politics has served in Washington’s state Legislature and in Congress. Now, as the state’s lieutenant governor, he presides over the state Senate. There’s a noticeable difference, he said, between the legislative bodies in Washington, D.C., and in Olympia.

“To put it succinctly,” he said, “D.C. bad, Olympia good.”

Speaking with a gathering of newspaper and broadcast journalists this week in Olympia, Heck reflected on the tenor of discourse at the state and federal legislative branches, and what it means for attending to the people’s business.

“There is no comparison; that’s a toxic, political pit back there,” he said, referring to Congress. In contrast, watch a day of floor debate at the state Legislature and “take note of the largely respectful manner in which they disagree, even when they strongly disagree.”

Yet, even the discourse at the state level and down to the local level of government, of late, is not immune to rancorous exchanges and a rejection of compromise.

“We’ve become so strident in our partisan identities, so wrapped up in our partisan identification, and it renders us unable to get things done,” Heck said.

Creeping incivility: That uncivil discourse that has been a constant in the nation’s capital has crept into political engagement at all levels locally; in particular at meetings and the daily work of county and city councils and at school boards and more. And just as it gums up the works in Congress, it’s now slowing the gears of local decision-making, frustrating residents and officials alike.

With Jan. 6, 2021, and the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol to stop Congress’ validation of the presidential election, that incivility — at national and local levels — rang alarms for two members of the Snohomish County Council, Republican Nate Nehring and Democrat Jared Mead.

In the hours after the uprising Mead and Nehring — both fathers of young children concerned for what was being left behind for them — exchanged messages and calls and talked about their concerns. Within days those discussions became a jointly written commentary, published in The Herald, that sought a bipartisan path forward.

Both drew some criticism from party stalwarts on their own sides, but also praise and interest from the larger community. That turned into invitations to speak together at schools and civic groups, Mead said, sharing a message that — while they still disagree often on policy decisions — they are committed to working together collaboratively and in search of common values and goals. They are continuing that work in that fashion, Mead as council chair and Nehring as vice-chair.

Nehring and Mead now plan to continue those conversations and explorations on an even larger scale with a series of four forums this year throughout the county, beginning with the first from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday at a Mill Creek location.

“We want to hear from people about what they think the root causes of polarization are, and what can we do about it,” Nehring said during a recent conversation with the editorial board. “What can electeds do about it and what can we do as a community to overcome that and begin building a better local community.”

Mead said he hoped the forums can help shift the region into a new era of local politics.

Roundtable civics: Mead and Nehring aren’t the only ones thinking along these lines. Independent of their effort, during the last two years, a group of Edmonds residents has organized monthly discussions, delving into issues common for cities, such as law enforcement, planning, housing and more, but with an emphasis on a civil, respectful sharing of ideas.

The Edmonds Civic Roundtable, said organizer Tom Mesaros, a former city council member, is focused on gathering facts and ideas that can be shared with members, local officials, voters and residents. The group’s January meeting broke off into smaller roundtable discussions, he said, to ask three questions: What’s good about Edmonds? What are its challenges? And what is the city as a whole is not addressing that it should?

That meeting, said fellow member and former mayor Dave Earling, included 75 Edmonds residents in person and online and, more importantly, a positive energy, even where there was disagreement regarding responses.

“There’s potential in a movement of people to gather like this and center around a discussion on the city,” Earling said. And even more potential, he said, for people to understand how those city-level exchanges can then contribute to a regional and county-level discussion of issues.

Mesaros and Earling said they hope to see other cities use this model to begin civic roundtable groups of their own.

Calling all angels: Those discussions — whether at a city or county level — can’t develop into proposals and actions without a full understanding of each other’s perspective and concerns. And that can’t happen without an accurate understanding of each other, said Elizabeth Doll, who will lead the Building Bridges Forums with Nehring and Mead and works with a group called Braver Angels, a nod to the “better angels of our nature,” that President Lincoln called upon in his first inaugural address.

“We bring polarized people together and help them understand each other,” Doll said.

Doll sees a growing realization among citizens that politicization and tribal partisanship has driven people away from civic participation. But that may be starting to change.

“What I call the exhausted majority is starting to check back in. They were never super politically active; they were just sick of the rancor and tired of people shouting at each other, and so they checked out, as you do when you’re frustrated,” Doll said. “It’s exactly the opposite of what should happen. Some are recognizing that and leaning back in and wanting to talk to each other more than the noisy voices we have let speak for us.”

There are ground rules for the Building Bridges forums, Doll said, including listening to understand others and speaking to explain one’s own views, not speaking for anyone else or any group.

“We’re allowing space for an exchange, not trying to get people to change their minds. We want to show you can hear multiple perspectives and find a point of commonality on values and concerns, and move toward pluralism not necessarily toward centrism,” she said.

Some of those ground rules might sound familiar to those who have participated in marriage or family counseling. There’s a reason, Doll said; Braver Angels was founded largely by marriage and family therapists and its workshops are built on that model of finding common ground, accurately understanding each other and listening to understand rather than listening to respond.

That civic counseling is clearly necessary.

“We’re losing community and we’re losing trust, both in institutions and each other. How do we restore that?” Doll said. “It has to happen on an individual level and has to happen on both sides so that no one can claim that this is a Republican effort or a Democratic effort. It has to be seen as something mutual. It has to be a citizen-led thing.”

Building Bridges Tour

The Building Bridges Tour forums are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 in Mill Creek, May 30 in Arlington, Sept. 12 in Lynnwood and Dec. 5 in Everett. For more information and to register for a forum, go to Tickets are free, but registration is required. Location information will be emailed to participants.

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