Alan Keck

Every time I open my news feed, the ground shakes.

I scroll. And I see us. We’ve planted ourselves firmly, anxiously awaiting the next tremor. The next issue that will divide us. The next comment that will enrage us. A crack has formed in our foundation and as we stand on either side of it, our anxiety builds to a level that often makes us cover our eyes in fear. 

We know the earthquake is coming, and yet we’re so afraid to miss what happens next that we peek through our fingers and continue to scroll. The crack in the Earth widens with every swipe. Our anger builds with every reaction.

The divide is tearing our country apart.

Every day now it seems, I hear from constituents who are concerned about our country. Racial tension, political division and class warfare fuel the earthquake — and while they are undoubtedly important issues we must as a country address, it often feels as though we’re trying to fix them through the Gorilla Glass of our phone screen.

It only serves to divide us further. As I watch the crack widen, I wonder: What are we doing to make a difference? What will stop the tremors, the division between us that threatens to destroy the very fabric of our democracy? 

I have a passion for presidential politics. I fell in love with the election process during the George W. Bush and Al Gore race in 2000 and have been enamored since. I’ve studied some of our most influential presidents — FDR, Eisenhower, Reagan — to attempt to understand what it takes to achieve the country’s highest rank and lead it effectively. I’ve carried these lessons with me through my own foray into local politics, my love of country being what inspired me to run for mayor of Somerset. 

But as much as I enjoy the Iowa caucus, Super Tuesday and the subsequent debates that engage candidates and citizens in what we can only hope is constructive conversation, if I’m honest, I know these events do not directly affect my hometown or my state. So I’ve tried to channel my love for national politics into better leadership at home — to make changes that improve my community from a perspective of unity. Because I believe it is at home where we can make the biggest difference. It’s at home that we can begin to bridge the divide.

Many of us cannot change the course of national conversation from our station in life, and maybe that’s one reason we feel compelled to contribute to it on social media. And yet far too many of us can name our U.S. Senator but not our state senator. We can name our congressmen and women but not our city councilors or commissioners. We will debate a U.S. Supreme Court nominee but cannot name a member on our local bench. 

What would happen if we changed that? If reengaged as citizens at the local level?

We could become better neighbors, for one. And being a better neighbor starts with being informed. What if we turned off the national news, put down our phones and supported our local radio stations and newspapers so we know what’s happening around us? What if we moved from our armchairs to the seats of our city council chambers to help fix problems in our backyard? The government closest to the people is the most responsive. Let’s turn our attention to our home and begin to bridge the divide. This is how we build a stronger democratic republic. Our country is a collection of communities and states that can unite to lead and model the way for change one local project at a time. There’s so much beauty, and power, in that.

Being a good neighbor also means we must begin listening to understand, not to respond. We live in an age of technology where immediate response is expected — often demanded — but that leads us to respond emotionally before we think critically. It causes the ground to shake, creating a permanent divide we may never be able to repair if we don’t start now.

That is not to say that we shouldn’t be passionate about and take strong positions on issues we care about. Having an opinion — so many of us do, myself included — and being able to voice it is what makes this country, and this political system, so beautiful. We should be encouraged to share our opinions and celebrate them. But we have to stop allowing anger and hate to fuel our discussion. I implore you: Listen to understand. Take time before you respond. Choose front-porch chats over comment thread wars. We have to bring respect and constructive debate back into the conversation or it could be detrimental to the greatest social experiment in the world — American democracy.

Our country hasn’t been this divided since the Civil War, a bloody struggle that cost hundreds of thousands of American lives, and it saddens me deeply. But I am encouraged by this fact: Even after all the bloodshed of the Civil War, we found a way to rebuild. I believe we can find one again by reengaging in our communities. 

We are not destined to stay divided. The ground may shake, the Earth may move. But in the end, I have to believe we will reach out for one another’s hand to pull our country back together. It’s who we are. Dreamers. Visionaries. Patriots. Helpers.

Americans. May we once again be a beacon of light to the entire world.

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