‘Melting Mountains’ and the art of diplomacy: A reflection on crossing political divides from Sherman County, Oregon

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It’s been a long winter for the Pacific Northwest. And for America. The ice is just melting, metaphorically speaking.

Last weekend I attended a discussion that comprised, presumably, liberals from Seattle and conservatives from rural Oregon. Our small county was chosen based on the numbers – King County voted 74 percent for Hillary Clinton, Sherman County voted 74 percent for Donald Trump. A group of curious and courageous voters from Seattle decided to reach out and host a discussion, aiming to bridge the Great Divide. Or at least, begin to.

Melting Mountains was the overarching theme. As the snow melts, the water recharges the soil and provides what we need to grow. It was a fitting start to our conversation.

People all over the room told stories of family members who had not spoken since the election, of holiday dinners that were canceled, of relationships that have been under great strain. The political landscape has become incredibly divided, and it’s begun to affect families and longtime friendships.

With all of our geographical differences, and political differences, we perhaps went into this discussion a little tense, expecting great philosophical differences. We expected the same harsh rhetoric we all see online, and hoped no one would storm out in anger. We did a few quick exercises to see where we stand on the issues.

And as it turns out, despite our disagreements, we really aren’t that different at all.

I consider myself to be a classical liberal. I believe in unabashed personal freedoms, free speech and free expression. I am pro-choice, I’m for gay marriage, I’m against the death penalty. I support a social safety net, public schools and real single-payer health care. I’m also a supporter of the 2nd Amendment, and an even bigger supporter of the 4th Amendment. And I’m in favor of individual rights over collective rights, equal opportunity but not equal outcome. I recognize people are vastly different in their interests and ideologies, and in their skills, too.

I’ve always been a liberal, and in the past I’ve been a rather progressive liberal. I went to a liberal university, majored in political science and journalism and took women’s studies. I was even a feminist for awhile. I spent ten years working in newspapers around the Northwest before getting married, having twins and moving back to my family farm.

Suddenly surrounded by ultra-conservative rural voters, I was forced to redefine my own positions on many issues. My views haven’t changed much. But the way I relate to my friends and neighbors has changed. And what I’ve come to discover is exactly what I heard repeated last weekend: At the end of the day, we all want the same things for our families. We want a great place to live, to be safe, for our kids to become who they want to become. We just have different ideas of how we’re gonna get there, and we need to respect that.

In many ways my own liberal friends have become hardliners, quick to silence and dismiss anyone who disagrees. Some of the issues I have with the Left, with my own people, were put at ease last weekend. I had some really incredible conversations. I found some of my concerns were actually shared by these Seattle urbanites, giving me renewed hope about the open exchange of ideas and criticisms. If we can’t come together on policy discussions over hateful soundbites, we will all lose – left, right and center.

I spoke with two people who both mentioned the importance of discussions like this, because without hearing the other sides, we won’t know what we stand for. Being challenged on our views will either change them or strengthen them, and it’s this growth we all strive for.

So in a way, Melting Mountains was in fact the perfect metaphor for the beginning of this conversation. As the political climate thaws a little, we can finally come together for calm discussions. We can listen to understand, and not simply to respond. We can spend a moment in another person’s shoes, and consider these stories when we are working on compromise. And with each season, we can grow in our understanding of what makes America great, from one another’s perspectives.

The art of diplomacy is lost in America. The two sides have become so polarized, and both seem to be ramping up for a showdown. We need a new center in American politics, and it all begins with a good conversation.

Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler is a former copy editor who writes endless political diatribes from her family wheat farm in rural eastern Oregon. She studied journalism and political science at University of Oregon and today spends a lot of time gardening and raising twins. Find her at [email protected] or www.wheelerderfer.com.