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It's Time to Come Together, and Rise Above It

September 24, 2018

It's Time to Come Together, and Rise Above It

By Governor Phil Scott

In his farewell to the nation, Senator John McCain reminded us of the exceptional capacity of American optimism and challenged us to recognize that “we weaken our greatness when we confuse our patriotism with tribal rivalries that have sown resentment and hatred and violence in all the corners of the globe.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Political polarization – what Senator McCain called “tribal rivalries” – is one of the greatest threats we face as a country. We are a weaker nation when we stop listening and learning from each other; and when we can't debate the issues and then find common ground. It erodes our core values when we refuse to consider another person’s point of view or insist one party, or politician, is always right or always wrong. Adversaries like Russia, who are trying to divide us further, see it as clearly as the politicians who exploit it.

Vigorous debate is a good thing. It ensures the tough questions are asked, ideas are tested, and different perspectives are heard. Unfortunately, we've reached a potentially dangerous tipping point, where political debates and activism have turned intensely personal. Sometimes downright hateful. Insults, slurs and angry online exchanges between people who've never met are far too common. People say things through social media they'd never say face to face. So-called “experts” on cable news channels talk over each other, unwilling to acknowledge the point of view of others, much less learn from it. All in the pursuit of better ratings or making a name for themselves.

Words like "assault" and "attack" are frequently used around issues like budget choices or tax policy. Debates are described as "battles” with proposals that will "destroy" jobs, schools, our way of life, or America itself.  When legitimate policy debates are characterized in the terms of violence and war, we immediately become defensive and further divided. The opportunity for real discussion, understanding and compromise slips away. Frustrations grow, the divide deepens, and the destructive cycle of polarization repeats.

Worse yet, this divisiveness fuels violence and hate. We’ve even had recent incidents locally we all should find unacceptable. A camp for transracial families subjected to racial slurs. An African American state representative choosing not to run again because she and her family have been harassed. And a transgender candidate has received death threats.

This is not, and cannot become, who we are. 

Dr. Martin Luther King reminded us only light can drive out darkness and only love can drive out hate.

About a century before Dr. King’s words, President Lincoln famously said, "a house divided cannot stand." And before that, our nation’s founders created the world’s greatest governing document, charging us with the obligation to work toward a more perfect Union – challenging us to work to be a better nation, better citizens and better neighbors.   

To achieve the vision of unity described by these great leaders, we cannot let our differences and disagreements divide us. We must lead by example: Show our youth how to engage in important, complex debates with both conviction and civility; prove that the strength of our nation is in its diversity of people and opinion; that America is a global beacon of personal and economic freedom and opportunity; and that listening to, and learning from, each other is how we continue to build on our foundation as a nation.

If we follow this path, we will rise above the polarization weakening our nation and extinguish those embers of hate and division, because – together – we’ll deny them the fuel they need to grow.  

As Senator McCain said, we should always believe “in the promise and greatness of America, because nothing is inevitable here."

Let’s do our part to keep it that way.