I traveled to all 50 states to find solutions to America’s political division: Here’s what I learned on the ground
Bernsten is a graduate of Northwestern University and Oxford University's Creative Writing Master's program. He has written for The Oxford Political Review, USA Today, The Infatuation, and The Trevor Project, where he currently serves as Senior Managing Editor. His book 50 States of Mind: A Journey to Rediscover American Democracy is available for pre-order and the audiobook is available worldwide. He is kicking off his book tour and celebrating National Week of Conversation at an event on April 17th with American Public Square in Kansas City.
“I see your point” is one of the most under-utilized phrases in politics today. In a polarized America, conceding that you could have something to learn beyond your own worldview is difficult — even debating unimportant topics seemingly forces people to question their entire identity and value system.
Healthy debate is crucial to maintaining a strong democracy, and we need to be strong enough to be self-critical about our beliefs and interface with opposing points of view that challenge them. I did just this while traveling 23,000 miles across the United States for my book 50 States of Mind: A Journey to Rediscover American Democracy. Hoping to overcome my preconceived notions, I wanted to understand what other Americans’ worldviews could teach me. Even in our hyper-polarized, self-assured society, leading with the desire to listen taught me that there is good news in America.
In 2019, I read Democracy in America in graduate school, found inspiration in Alexis de Tocqueville’s travels, and decided to follow in his footsteps nearly 180 years after his book’s publication. I hit the road to talk to Americans of all stripes; with a grant from my graduate program at the University of Oxford, I drove to visit over 150 cities, towns, and villages in all 50 states. I wanted to find answers to the defining questions of the era. Does American democracy still work? Can we still coexist peacefully?
After the 2016 election, I wanted to understand the complicated country I lived in and where I fit into it. The question of what it means to be an American has always been difficult in a nation so full of various cultures and viewpoints, let alone during such a polarized time. To accurately portray America’s staggering diversity, I pushed myself to meet people from all walks of life. I stayed in the homes of people across the country who opened their doors to me. In turn, I responded with an open mind and a generous ear. This mindset also gave me space to learn what I didn’t know about the diverse perspectives across our country. I found a surprising amount of common ground, and it became my belief that building bridges—even with those with whom we initially seem to disagree—could be our last line of defense against a quickly radicalizing society.
The late great Secretary of State Madeleine Albright crystalized the dangers of our political environment in her book Fascism: A Warning: “At many levels, contempt has become a defining characteristic of American politics. It makes us unwilling to listen to what others say—unwilling, in some cases, even to allow them to speak. This stops the learning process cold and creates a ready-made audience for demagogues who know how to bring diverse groups of the aggrieved together in righteous opposition to everyone else.” With her words in mind, I consciously tried to rid myself of any vestige of self-righteousness or contempt as I allowed my preconceived notions to be challenged by my fellow Americans.
When we respond to those on the other side with knee-jerk opposition, it only increases the belief that we cannot possibly find constructive ways to have a conversation. The National Week of Conversation is a great opportunity to practice what I was able to hone over my travels across all 50 states.
We live in a country of incredible diversity; our upbringings and experiences define our opinions on politics, policies, and the country we want to live in. We have a tremendous amount to learn from each other. Unfortunately, prominent politicians and news outlets profit off dividing us across cultural lines. Political parties raise money off painting the policies of the other side of the aisle as a plot to turn America into an apocalyptic hellscape. The manufactured outrage, cultural division, and social media-incited breakdown in constructive dialogue make America seem irreparably divided. It may sound naive to say this, but we agree on more than it appears. Yes, we must point out the misinformation and lies that have made their way into our public square, but being prudent and prioritizing what we choose to find common ground on and what we must confront, allows the impact of selective disagreement to hold more weight.
My trip across the country did not yield a political consensus on the most divisive issues of the day. However, on the ground, I found that people were receptive to listening when you approached them in good faith. I found a common hunger to be listened to and understood – a yearning for recognition that one’s political perspectives are as multi-dimensional as one’s lived experiences.
It was through honest conversation that I was able to cut through the political rhetoric, and connect with many on a more human level – where candor and vulnerability yield nuance and an empathetic understanding. Telling and listening to stories is the most powerful political asset we have today to change hearts and minds. One of the great shames of this era is the rupturing of friendships and family relationships over this political moment. During my travels, I heard stories from many who gave up on uncles, best friends, or parents as lost causes. Since politics has become synonymous with values, we see people as unreachable, unteachable, and even irredeemable. Use your time during the National Week of Conversation to reach out to those with whom you may have become estranged. Build a bridge, lead with humility, and see if there is any common ground over which you can swallow your pride and say “I see your point.”