Printed in The Tallahassee Democrat:
“You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.” So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the epic HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.” Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll. They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Theirs was an audacious idea, one never before attempted: They believed that ordinary people — armed with reason and knowledge — could self-govern. The humble town square would become the seat of power in this new country of theirs.
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus — and ours — the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and many of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. Like them, we have deep disagreement with — and sometimes little tolerance for — one another.
Our challenge in resolving these inherently messy differences of opinion may be even more daunting than theirs was, given demographic trends evident in America since the mid 1960s. According to Bill Bishop author of “The Big Sort,” we’ve been unknowingly sorting ourselves into like-minded communities in almost every facet our lives.
Unlike our founding generation who had to roll up their sleeves and do the uncomfortable work of dealing with disagreement face-to-face, we’re having fewer conversations of substance with people who don’t see it our way. That makes it easier for us vilify them.
Bishop explains: “We live in a giant feedback loop, hearing our own thoughts bounced back to us by the television shows we watch, the newspapers and books we read, the blogs we visit, the sermons we hear, and the neighborhoods we live in.”
One hundred years of social psychology tells us what happens to people in like-minded groups: They grow more extreme in their thinking, even to the point of denying factual reality.
We’ve grown too comfortable in a civic environment that foments extremism, led by talking heads who make seven-digit salaries demonizing one half of the American body politic or the other.
Our national political leaders are more likely to surf this wave of hostility toward re-election than stand against it. And while clearly someone who is mentally ill was responsible for the shootings in Arizona, it would be foolish to ignore the potential this shrillness has to go to seed in the form of violence. Indeed, documented threats of political violence have been on the rise in the past two years.
Thomas Jefferson and John Adams ultimately died as friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.
Acknowledging the hard work to be done in this century, The Village Square is inviting Tallahassee to join us in a challenge issued by historian Patricia Nelson Limerick to “let friendship redeem the Republic” by asking a conservative friend to lunch if you’re a Democrat and a liberal friend to lunch if you’re a Republican. And, like Jefferson and Adams before you, explain yourselves to each other. We think it’s a profound act of citizenship rising to the high bar set by our founders.
“Whether you or I were right,” Adams wrote to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.” And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Liz Joyner is the executive director of The Village Square, which is unapologetically optimistic that it’s neighbors like us in hometowns like ours who can change everything. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org Information on Bill Bishop events available HERE.