‘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.

  • Imelda Dulcich

    This represents what I’ve been most conscious of in the last few months. I remind myself that each person passionately believes that they are making choices and holding opinions to represent what’s best for their loved ones. And, I work very hard to see their point of view. It can be hard to lessen the hold on “My way is the only/right way.”

    Someone who follows me on Twitter asked my husband recently “When did your wife become such a liberal?” After getting upset that they didn’t ask me directly, I smiled. Listening to and learning from opinions shared on social media has allowed me to bend my own opinions – and yes; I have become more liberal.

    “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.”

    And also, nice piece, fellow Oregon Duck.

  • Happy Coconuts Travel Blog

    Very well written, I loved reading this. A refreshing thing to read after all the hate that is being spread. OneLove! 🙂

  • Kathleen Klein

    Thanks for writing this, Jessica, and for helping to organize the visitation. I heartily agree that we need a new center in politics. This polarization has gone on too long. It starts with listening to each other, and working together where we can. Some issues we wont’ be able to compromise (rights of gay people) but some can. Let’s start there.

    • Jessica Richelderfer Wheeler

      Thank you for the kind words! I actually didn’t help organize this at all, I simply learned of it through our local county officials and decided to sign up. I’ve been toying with ideas for a book on this for months, and it struck me before this meeting, what better place to get an upclose look at the political climate than the Pacific Northwest? It is quite literally divided by a massive mountain range. I look forward to interviewing people all over the region, and it was indeed this project that gave my idea some direction. I love what Monica and Anika have started here and I look forward to participating in future discussions!

      As for gay rights and disagreements, that’s always a tough one — how two people with such starkly different views can get along in daily life. Something I heard a conservative pundit say recently, talking to a gay colleague, was basically this: “Sure, as a religious person, I don’t believe in gay marriage. But here’s the wonderful thing about America: You don’t have to care what I think. I’m just some guy, and as long your views don’t infringe on my freedoms, I don’t have a problem with it.” Honestly, I think that’s a brilliant response. Some minds you will never change. And I don’t necessarily thing there’s anything wrong with that, it’s freedom of expression to believe what you want to believe, no matter how foreign it may be to some, so long as you’re not hurting anyone. It’s a fascinating one to talk about in terms of free speech and diversity of opinion. Conservatives are arguing that we can’t expect to control the way everyone thinks, and I can respect that.

      • Kathleen Klein

        Yes, what people believe is one thing. Trying to control other’s peaceful behavior is another. What a tough thing. Best to you with your twins- I’m a twin and I love it.

      • Charlie Pluckhahn

        As a Seattle short-timer who was married to his same-sex partner in The Dalles on July 4, 2015, I have generally found there to be more tolerance for that particular bit of diversity on the dry side than I’ve seen in Seattle when it comes to dissent from various progressive schemes.

        I fully realize that everything has been in flux, and I give liberals plenty of credit on the same-sex issues over the years. It took a lot of doing to get “the other side” to more or less throw in the towel, but they’ve done it. Everywhere and everyone? Of course not. But we’re not North Korea, and the day that I ever join anyone’s thought police will be the day that I hope someone — figuratively speaking — takes me out behind the barn and shoots me.

        Here in Seattle, by contrast, what was 20 years ago a relaxed, live-and-let-live city has, bit by bit, become an ideologically rigid burg whose progressives increasingly seek to regulate the smallest details of daily life. And God help you if you don’t agree with every single line item on the agenda. I see no significant willingness on the western side of the mountains to seriously listen to anything or anyone from the dry side, much less seek any genuine, meaningful compromises on anything.

        It’s fine and good for these listening tours, so to speak, to take place, but my Inner Cynic, developed from 21 years of watching Seattle’s progressives pretend to care what anyone else thinks — always politely, which is at times even more aggravating than the alternative — before ramming their plans through and then coming back for more, does not fill me with much hope for the future. I think the progressives of both Seattle and Portland basically want to turn both states into California, from onerous tax structures to radical environmentalism to radical gun control, and more.

        I’d very much like to be wrong about this, but I doubt I will be. All that said, as someone married to his same-sex partner, I honestly wish that progressives would at least quit using this as a cudgel. From where I stand, that particular cultural and legal fight is a done deal. I see no good cause for what increasingly amounts to little more than taunting dry siders over the issue. Take “yes” for an answer, even if it’s grudging from some folks. I have.