Can Washington bridge its political divide? Some want to try

Already dreading the 2024 election atmosphere, a bipartisan group of community leaders and politicians are working to “disagree better.”

A picture of panelists at the Civic Health Summit in October discuss bridging political divides.

Journalist and podcaster Mónica Guzmán (second from left) leads a panel discussion with State Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal; Spokane City Council President Betsy Wilkerson; Michael Brown of the Seattle Foundation; journalist and rancher Sue Lani Madsen; and Snohomish County Council member Nate Nehring during the Civic Health Summit held in October. (Courtesy of Bryce Erlandson)

When Lt. Gov. Denny Heck brought together bipartisan focus groups of community leaders – in Port Angeles, Wenatchee, Vancouver and elsewhere – to discuss civility and deepening political polarization this year, participants were asked to rate the overall health of democracy from one to 10.

In the resulting Civic Health Summit held in Renton in October, Heck, a Democrat, described the rating system: “One is almost at civil war” and 10 is “We just join hands and sing  ‘Kumbaya’ all together all the time.”

“Far and away, the most frequently cited numbers were 2 and two-and-a-half,” Heck told those gathered.

A related report from Heck’s office cited a range of obstacles to establishing deeper trust among people, from erosion of trust in government to a rise in incivility in political campaigns, the legacy of racism, the loss of trusted media sources and the “tyranny” of social media algorithms that can make it hard for people to see different viewpoints.

The civic summit – which involved more than 200 politicians and community and business leaders for speeches and panels on democracy – served as one of several new efforts to reverse some of that bitterness and foster a better culture for political disagreements. The roundtables around the state and the one-day summit were organized by Heck in conjunction with the Henry M. Jackson Foundation, the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance and The William D. Ruckelshaus Center.

Seattle journalist Mónica Guzmán in October also launched her latest podcast, A Braver Way, which seeks to give people tools they need to foster better political conversations with each other.

Meanwhile, two Snohomish County Council members – Republican Nate Nehring and Democrat Jared Mead – earlier this week unveiled a new nonprofit organization based on their work since the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, to get youth engaged beyond the bickering. The Building Bridges Project comes out of a series of talks that the duo has given around Snohomish County in an effort to bring citizens together.

The various efforts come as America enters a presidential election year that could unleash a fresh wave of bitter divisions, potentially fueling further attacks on democratic institutions and political violence.

Washington voters are already leery of what is shaping up to be a rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, according to a Crosscut/Elway poll. The 2020 election saw attempts to overturn Biden’s election, spurred political shootings in Olympia and resulted in a protest that breached the gates of Gov. Jay Inslee’s official residence on the same day as the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In an interview, Heck emphasized the importance of bringing people together now, before election season arrives.

“We kind of do our politics ‘Northwest nice,’ where we wait for the light to change for the crosswalk, but things are so bad nationally,” Heck said. “And they’re about to get worse.”

“We need to build our defenses and inoculate ourselves,” he added.

Bridge building

It was the January 6 attacks that got Nehring and Mead to start talking about finding common ground. The two council members realized they were the same age, with kids of similar ages and wives who are both teachers.

A month after the attacks, they authored an op-ed in The Seattle Times titled “We Are Proof that Republicans and Democrats Can Work Together.” But the two political parties weren’t necessarily thrilled to hear about their new collaboration.

“When we first started, we got a lot of pushback from our local political parties about our activities,” said Nehring, a Republican. “But what we didn't expect was so many people yearning to see this type of thing.”

Mead meanwhile said he “got trashed on social media” for working with a Republican – but the duo drew invitations from teachers and civic groups asking them to come talk.

“We probably did 20 of these classroom visits, Rotary Club groups, etc,” said Mead.

A Democrat, Mead served one term in the state Legislature after being elected to the 44th Legislative District in 2018, but he said he found the partisanship in the Democratic-controlled Legislature to be too much.

“The system is set up to support black and white, you’re left, you’re right, there’s the blue team and the red team,” he said. “We need to find a way to get more curious people in office, and in leader[ship].”

In town halls in Arlington, Lynnwood, Mill Creek and elsewhere, people showed up and were genuinely interested. The two said they intend to use the Building Bridges Project to boost engagement among young people by talking about politics, government and polarization.

The project kicked off with an event Monday that featured Heck and former U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, the Republican from southwest Washington who lost her seat after voting to impeach Trump. Herrera Beutler is now running for Public Lands Commissioner.

So far, the project website includes a pledge for people to sign that calls for among other things, treating people with respect, remaining humble, giving others the benefit of the doubt and engaging people who have different viewpoints.

“The more that we can talk to each other … I think it better informs, it helps us to learn and it helps build a stronger society,” Nehring said.

Pursuing de-polarization

Many Washington voters already dread next year’s elections, according to a Crosscut/Elway poll of Washington voters released last month.

Asked to describe their feelings about the coming presidential election, those polled offered a litany of negativity: uneasy, frightened, discouraged, pessimistic, scared, unenthusiastic. Meanwhile, nearly half those polled (46%) said Trump was a danger to democracy, while a third said the same about Biden. An additional 14% of those polled described both the likely candidates as a threat to democracy.

The civic health report released by Heck’s office includes broad recommendations, such as training political candidates and elected officials in respectful dialogue, celebrating bipartisan cooperation on issues, boosting credible media sources, increasing media literacy and finding ways to diminish the harms of social media.

Heck said he is working to get members of the state Legislature involved in such efforts.

But starting small and personal is important for Guzmán, a senior fellow with the nonprofit group Braver Angels, which she describes as the largest grassroots cross-partisan organization dedicated to de-polarization. Her interest in polarization began in 2016 and led to her publishing a book, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

As a liberal and daughter of Mexican immigrants who voted for Trump, part of Guzmán’s work involves exploring family politics.

Each episode of her new podcast, A Braver Way, centers on what she calls the “driving question.” Those include: How to disagree better with someone else? How to build a bridge in a divided family? How do you handle being triggered by political issues or conversations?

“Its mission is to equip people with the tools they need to bridge the political divide in their lives,” Guzmán said.

With national politics so divided, she thinks “that a lot of folks are feeling they have no power” to change things.

“You absolutely do have power,” she said. “Even if you change one conversation with a friend or relative, you’re already doing something worthwhile.”

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