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The poor man sounded exasperated. There were a bunch of letters after his name, and he was deeply involved in local COVID vaccine efforts. “We just don’t understand it,” he said. “Such a large percentage of people not being willing to get a free, lifesaving vaccine is something none of us anticipated.”

At the time, I was driving home from Trader Joes in my Subaru, listening to NPR. Despite being a living stereotype of white middle-aged semi-affluence myself, I was surprised he was surprised. Did this fine, educated gentleman not live in the same country as me? Did he not know history, or had he missed the news for the last 30 years?

I often hear such befuddlement on the Left – not just about COVID vaccines, but about pretty much anything conservatives think or do. Despite research like Jonathan Haidt’s and books like Strangers in Their Own Land, we’re still surprised when “they” won’t do what we think is logical, sane, right, moral – or human. Naively, we still think Trump was an anomaly, and the January 6th insurrectionists were kooks.

Of course we’re not alone in our bafflement, disdain, and anger. Those of us on the Left who have been name-called, trolled, belittled, or dismissed by the Right have been pelted by these same emotions by conservatives who see us as illogical, insane, wrong, immoral – or inhuman.

It seems we all agree, especially since 2016, that we are nation divided. However, in all the many analyses offered by my fellow NPR-listening, Subaru-driving “elites” about why we’re so polarized, one important conclusion seems to be missing:

We don’t trust each other anymore.

This didn’t happen overnight, or since 2016. And we all have really good reasons not to trust “the other side.”

Trust is built and broken in society the same way it’s built and broken in one-on-one relationships. You start with a foundation of commonality and goodwill. You create agreements and rules that you both follow – even (and especially) when times get tough. You keep your word. You respect the other’s personhood even (and especially) when you’re angry, hurt, or scared. You have faith that the other has your best interests at heart, and you include the other’s best interests when making decisions. You commit to, and invest in, the relationship – through consistent actions.

We’ve done a shitty job at relationship in this country for the last several decades. I’m nearly 52, and I remember a time when there was a line that politicians didn’t cross. There were norms around decorum and respect, and violations had consequences. For most, there was a basic commitment to ideals, principles, and goals beyond one’s own self.

I realize this wasn’t true everywhere all the time. I also recognize that our nation was already starting to deteriorate by the time I was in grade school. However, I think it’s fair to say that we used to have some guard rails in place that have since been knocked off the cliff.

Just like in personal relationships, we cannot mistreat each other forever without eventual consequences. Politicians and political parties breaking rules and violating norms encourages a downward spiral of unfair behavior. Leaders lying to, stealing from, abusing, and abandoning their followers causes the populace to lose faith in institutions. Employers chronically mistreating workers leads to quiet rebellion and raucous revolt. Centuries of racial and sexual oppression leads to volcanoes of rage and tornadoes of reckoning. Decades of divestment from infrastructure, education, children, and health creates broken, sick people and crumbling roads.

What exactly did we expect? Or did we not care?

The consequences for our democracy and society are dire. We don’t trust each other anymore, therefore we will not – cannot – believe each other. We will not – cannot – hear each other. We will not – cannot – listen to each other.  This is especially true when, in our culture, the word “listen” is used as a euphemism for “obey”. Read the rest on Medium!



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