Across the Great Divide
By Martin Davis
The desk phone rang, and the caller-ID flashed a number and name I didn’t recognize.
As an opinion writer, I learned early to be leery of taking calls from people I don’t know. But it was early in the day, my coffee was still too hot to drink, and I’d yet to start on the next day’s column, so I rolled the dice and lifted the receiver.
“This is Martin Davis,” I began.
“Are you the opinion editor?” asked a rather deep voice on the other end.
“Yes, I am. What can I do for you?”
There was a pause. I heard the speaker audibly draw in air, then begin speaking: “You can stop writing your woke socialist propaganda, you son of a bitch. You hate America, and you’re destroying our local paper.”
It wasn’t the first time I had heard such a message, but there was something in the tone of the caller that unsettled me. He continued to rant for four or five minutes.
I lowered the volume on the phone, closed my office door, and switched the call to speaker phone and began answering emails while he vented.
When he finally calmed down, I did what I often do with combative readers. Thanked him for his comments and for being a reader, hung up the phone, and went on with my day.
I learned a lot in the year that I was privileged to hold the position of opinion editor at the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star before I was unceremoniously terminated in a recent corporate reshuffling.
The most important lesson I came away with was this: We’re not as divided as simple anecdotes like the one I just told you would have us believe.
But we are in trouble. Calls like this one seem to be increasingly common. The question becomes, Why?
As with any social issue, there is no one answer. But in my time as opinion editor, I came to appreciate a connection between those who lash out like the above-mentioned caller, and people who choose to see the world primarily through the lens of national politics.
How We Consume the News
Over the past two decades, the way Americans consume news has changed dramatically. And the victim has been local news—not just the business of local news, but the frequency and rhythms with which people engage it.
Harvard’s Joshua Benton reported last year on a sophisticated study conducted by the Nieman Lab that looked at not only how people consume news, but how our life habits bend to that consumption.
The most interesting finding was that people participating in the study found it “harder to identify the daily rhythms of their local news consumption than for national and international news.”
Another way to look at this—and I’m extrapolating here—is to say that local news no longer shapes our life; national and international news does.
That people stay atop of national news is important, but bending ourselves to the cycles of local news may be more important.
I would contend that when we are engaged with local news, we are more civil to one another. The players and events within local news, after all, are our neighbors. We see them on the street, work with them; our children go to school together, and more. And because of that, it becomes harder to see people and events as all good or all bad. It’s easier for us to grasp the nuances driving the news local journalists cover.
But when national news is what shapes the way we view reality, our default mode is placing stories and ideas in binary categories—good/bad; liberal/conservative; right/wrong; American/un-American. And this, in turn, makes it easier for us to dehumanize those with whom we disagree.
The Limiting Lens of National News
To appreciate how limiting this national lens can be, ponder for a moment the life of Emily Dickinson.
One of the best poets of the 19th century rarely traveled far from her childhood home in Amherst, Massachusetts. Yet, while she benefitted from an exceptional education and the advantages of being born into a well-to-do family, her ignorance of the larger world did nothing to diminish her understanding of the human condition.
Further, many wrongly understand her to have been a recluse. In fact, Dickinson was social and well-liked for much of her life. Even during the final quarter of her life, when she rarely saw other people besides immediate family, she maintained a robust correspondence and spoke with people from outside her home, albeit usually with a closed door between her and her guest.
From this limited experience of the world, Dickinson was able to appreciate not just the humanity of the people around her, but she also found grounds for hope. She captured that beautifully in the following poem.
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,
And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.
The optimism almost jumps off the page. Hope never stops. It sings in the coldest lands, on the most foreign seas. And asks nothing in return.
For a person consumed with death, as Dickinson was, such faith in hope demands an answer to its source. Her many relationships with neighbors offer a clue. And, if I may be so bold, suggests that we only can truly appreciate our fellow human citizens when we focus on those closest to us in our community.
With that in mind, let’s return to the aforementioned call.
That conversation, as were several others I’ve had with people who believed as this caller did, was framed from the beginning not by any understanding of me, or even the ideas and arguments I made daily in the paper’s pages.
Instead, the first statement—calling me and my work “woke socialist propaganda”—was based on a national debate completely divorced from me as an individual.
In framing our discussion this way, the caller made several things clear.
I am woke. The word has become a profanity, devoid of any real meaning (what, exactly, is a “woke” person?). It’s a term that conveys animus against the person at whom it is hurled. Its usage announces that the speaker has already determined that the subject of the term is probably brainwashed, certainly unserious, and not worthy of respect.
I am a socialist. Another term that has become a profanity. Socialism itself is an enormously complicated philosophy of government that defies simple explanation. Americans wrongly consider countries like Norway as “socialist” because it supports a large welfare state. (It’s worth noting here that Norwegians are usually ranked as some of the happiest people on earth.) But there’s nothing prototypical about Norway’s government, where this welfare state exists alongside a robust capitalist economy. That’s a far cry from a nation like China, which is closer to what political scientists recognize as socialism.
I am a propagandist. Based largely on the caller’s assumptions of me as woke and socialist, he was then able to easily categorize my work as propaganda, and therefore me as a person unworthy of respect in the public square.
By framing me from the outset through a national lens, he dismissed what I had to say, depriving him of any real understanding of me and my writing, but also depriving himself of hope. Because to his way of thinking, unless people like me can be stopped, there can be no hope for him and the life he wishes to live.
The Growing Divide
Polling data does a good job of capturing the despair that viewing life through a national lens creates. Pew Research has been chronicling the liberal-conservative divide for several decades, and its findings should alarm us.
- The share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades, from 10 percent to 21 percent.
- Partisan antipathy has risen. The share of Republicans who have very unfavorable opinions of the Democratic Party has jumped from 17 percent to 43 percent in the last 20 years. Similarly, the share of Democrats with very negative opinions of the Republican Party also has more than doubled, from 16 percent to 38 percent.
- “Ideological silos” are now common on the right and, to a lesser extent, the left.
In short, not only are we more likely to define ourselves and others through a national lens, but we’re building walls around our group of like-minded friends so that we never encounter “the other,” except as a combatant.
This mindset has deepened our mistrust in one another, but fortunately it has not entirely cleaved us apart. At least, not yet.
As it turns out, there is hope for us yet. And that hope rests in the restoration of local news.
While readers rightly pegged my politics as left of center, what so many of them missed were the strong connections I have with those on right.
When I left the Free Lance-Star, I took with me my list of sources, which ran to more than 600 names. As I scrolled through that list over the weekend after being let go, I was struck by the number of people on it who self-identified as conservative, or were conservative in their political orientations.
I’m not great at math, but I estimate that of the people in my source list, up to 70 percent of them were conservatives.
In short, this liberal-oriented opinion editor spent the vast majority of his time not with those who thought like me, but in the company of those with whom I disagreed.
Moving Beyond the National Lens
Chris Yakabouski sits on the Board of Supervisors in Spotsylvania County and is one of the names on my source list. I’ve found him to be an honest broker, someone I could count on to give me a straight assessment of the situation on the ground as he saw it.
Over breakfast one morning, we discussed the left-right rift, and Yakabouski talked about his frustration with that divide.
A self-described conservative, Yakabouski pegged the problem of viewing everything through the lens of national politics this way.
“There’s not a Republican or Democrat way to build a road,” he said. You just roll up your sleeves “and build the road.”
His approach to governing is driven not by some nationalistic ideological lens, but by an approach to problem-solving grounded in finding solutions.
Repeatedly, I found in my interactions with readers that so long as we could focus on solutions, we could keep our conversations not only civil, but moving forward.
To be sure, this approach works better with things like roads and building sewage plants than it does with hot-button issues like abortion and controversial books. On some issues, Americans are always going to be split.
But even with controversial topics like abortion, a solutions-oriented approach can help. My friend Shaun Kenney, a former chair of the Republican Party of Virginia, is not going to see the issue of abortion the same way that I do. But I can appreciate the animating philosophy that drives his worldview—that everyone has a right to exist.
Further, he can appreciate my position that key to a woman’s right to exist is agency over her own body.
The problem, of course, comes when we talk about the unborn. Does the woman’s right to agency trump a fetus’s right to exist?
This is fundamentally a philosophical problem, not a political one. And it’s a philosophical problem that we can agree to disagree on.
Of course, the political battles are real over this issue. But notice that if we approach abortion from a solutions-oriented approach, it could change the way that we tackle issues like abortion.
In my time as opinion editor, I found it encouraging that many of the conservatives I interacted with were more solutions-oriented. And it would be fair to say that conversely, they were heartened to meet a progressive like me who shared that perspective.
The key to moving us away from the national-centered conversations that poison our relationships may well be the recovery of robust local news around which we primarily bend our lives.
Without it, there’s no check on those who place calls like the one I answered last year and wrote about above.
There’s much work to do, and I’m glad to say that there are people in our community who are doing it. After my dismissal, I launched a SubStack site to continue reporting local news. That site in just over a week is growing at a clip that has surprised everybody. The success has sparked conversations about what to do from here.
In coming weeks, I will have much more to say about that, but for now, my principal advice is to keep bending yourself to local news.
It has been the basis of our body politic from the beginning; it must be central to our body politic going forward.
*** Martin Davis is a journalist who has written for a range of national and local publications. He may also prove to the last of the Free Lance-Star’s opinion editors, as no replacement is currently planned. Today he runs F2S, a locally-focused news site. Read its founding principles and subscribe here.