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Thanksgiving And Politics: How To Navigate The Holidays Amid Trump Impeachment Inquiry

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Political scientist Darrell West of the Brookings Institution discusses his new book, “Divided Politics Divided Nation,” which explores polarization in America through his own family history.

Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 Some members of the house intelligence committee will be working through the Thanksgiving holiday to review the testimony in last week's impeachment hearings. And many of us may feel we're also reviewing that testimony as discussions and arguments come up during our Thanksgiving holiday. It's been said that the political polarization in America now is more intense than it's been since the civil war. So how did it get this way and is there a way back? Journey me is Darryl West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings institution. His new book is titled divided politics, divided nation, hyper conflict in the Trump era. And Daryl West, welcome to the program.

Speaker 2: 00:44 Thank you. It's nice to be with you.

Speaker 1: 00:46 Given today's polarization, do you think political discussions should simply be off limits when families with divided politics get together over the holidays?

Speaker 2: 00:56 Well, this Thanksgiving certainly is going to be a challenge for many families because in the course of doing my research for divided politics, I found many families across America are divided by Trump as certainly now by the impeachment of proceedings and, and just the lead up to the 2020 election. So people face lots of different options. One option is just simply avoid the topic. Uh, we all know sometimes little good comes out of political conversations when people feel intensely about a subject. And so avoidance is the classic way to deal with it. That kind of polarization.

Speaker 1: 01:33 No, your book is part memoir, part analysis. You come from a family that's divided along party lines. Tell us more about your background because you say it's sort of a microcosm of the nation.

Speaker 2: 01:46 It is a microcosm of a, a polarized America because I grew up in a, uh, rural Ohio community. Uh, it was very conservative in terms of its, uh, leanings. Uh, my two sisters still live there. They married local farmers. Uh, they are Christian fundamentalists and Trump supporters. Uh, my brother is a liberal, uh, and like myself, uh, we're not big Trump fans. Uh, but our family has been divided for 40 years on politics, even going back to the Reagan era. So we agreed a long time ago to agree to disagree. And so we actually do talk a lot about politics, but we don't do so with the aim of persuading the other person. Uh, we've given up on the hope of converting, uh, uh, our siblings to our own, uh, point of view. And that actually makes conversations easier.

Speaker 1: 02:36 And you also make an important point there. You write that today's hyperpolarization predates president Trump. How did the country get to this point?

Speaker 2: 02:46 It certainly is right that a Trump is not the cause of it, although he probably has made the polarization worse than it was before. But if you look at the 40 year history from Reagan to Trump, you can see that the polarization got more extreme almost with every presidency. I mean, at the time I thought Reagan was a polarizing figure, but yet, you know, he supported a pathway to citizenship. Uh, as part of the immigration reform bill that passed during his administration. He, uh, agreed to raise taxes as a way to balance the budget. But the country has changed dramatically since then as and as we went through the Clinton presidency of Bush, Obama and now Trump, the hatred of each side seemed to grow more intense. Today we've reached a point where people define their political adversaries as enemies, people to be beaten. Uh, and so we've kind of lost the hope that you can actually sit down and talk with other people who have a different point of view, somehow negotiate the differences. Uh, that seems no longer possible in America.

Speaker 1: 03:53 Well, are there those, some solutions to this divisiveness that could make a difference or be effective?

Speaker 2: 04:00 I think there are solutions that would make a difference. Uh, in my divided politics book, I actually end with an optimistic note by basically arguing that to reduce conflict, we have to address the root causes of polarization, which in my book is a combination of geography and economics. The geography component is much of the American economy today is based on the East coast and the West coast, uh, with not as much economic activity taking place, uh, in the Heartland of between the coast. The people who live there, uh, feel left behind. Uh, they feel like the system is rigged against them and they have grown really resentful and they are the people who helped, uh, elect Donald Trump, uh, president. Uh, and so the combination of geography and economics and if we can deal with that in the sense of having an economy that works for everyone that is more inclusive in nature, regardless of where you live or what you're doing or what your background is, if we can bring more people into the economy, people will feel better. They will not be looking for scapegoats to blame for their poor economic fortunes.

Speaker 1: 05:11 Now, as Americans prepare to come together this week, uh, you say that in your family, you've tried not to convince each other anymore. You know that your poles apart when it comes to politics. And that's just the way it is. Is that the advice you would have for other families who face the same situation?

Speaker 2: 05:31 Well, if people can do that, I think that actually is a great outcome because in a polarized world, I do think it's important for people to understand the opposite point of view. And as a political analyst, I've actually found it very helpful to talk to my sisters over a long period of time just to understand where they're coming from.

Speaker 1: 05:51 So the best we can hope for now is just to try to listen and learn.

Speaker 2: 05:55 We can do that. But you may also get lucky in your family in the sense that there are 10% of Americans who actually are undecided about Donald Trump. And you know, going into the 2020 election, this 10% although it's a very small number, these are the most politically powerful people in America right now because they're going to decide who wins that upcoming presidential election. So if you're fortunate enough in your family dinners to actually find someone who is ambivalent about Trump, has it quite made up his or her mind on how they're going to vote? Are they going to support Trump? Are they not going to support him? You should actually really engage with that person and try and put facts on the table. Tell stories, explain your point of view, because if you can actually persuade that person that it could be a major benefit down the road.

Speaker 1: 06:49 I've been speaking with Daryl West vice president, director of governance studies at the Brookings institution. His new book is titled a divided politics, divided nation, hyper conflict in the Trump era, and thank you so much. Thank you very much.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.