BEDFORD, Pennsylvania—From across the curved chestnut bar in the sprawling lobby of the Bedford Springs Hotel in this central Pennsylvania town, it was hard not to be drawn into the conversation between Christopher Ege, JoAnn Harrison and her husband, Dan. Given their animation and laughter, one might have assumed all three had known each other for years and clearly shared a lot in common.
As they discussed trips they had made to Kentucky to visit the iconic Bourbon Trail while contemplating the bourbons on hand, the discussion went from the history of the Buffalo Trace distillery to politics. It became clear that the Harrisons’ views were clearly progressive, JoAnn much more than Dan, whereas Ege was solidly conservative.
Then something that would be considered remarkable or perhaps even unheard of in today’s news coverage of political polarization happened: nothing. Even after politics had entered the conversation, they kept on laughing, kept on discussing their differences. The Harrisons voted for Biden, Ege voted for Trump—and they kept on having a grand old time.
In short, they had a rational conversation about polarizing issues and behaved with grace and humor—something our cultural elite assures us does not exist.
Two things stood out after meeting Ege and the Harrisons and eventually joining them. First, they weren’t lifelong friends as I assumed; they had only met 15 minutes before I sat at the bar—and because they had gotten on so well, it took some convincing from them that they had truly just met.
And second, despite wildly different points of view being discussed between the three of them—on contentious issues such as guns and abortion — no one stomped off in a tiff, no one raised their voice with expletives, nor was anyone offended.
So, I asked why.
JoAnn smiled at the observation. “I don’t share much in common with Chris when it comes to politics, but there is no reason for any of us to not enjoy each other’s company and even enjoy learning about our differences,” she said. “It makes no sense to not engage with people you disagree with.”
Her husband Dan added that their two adult daughters are split in their politics. “So, I guess we’ve just always been this way—one daughter is progressive, the other is conservative,” he said.
Ege, the most gregarious of the three, smiled broadly and put his arm around both. “Ha, I don’t agree with any of their politics, but I like them; this has been a great afternoon,” he said. He added that his wife had been enjoying a spa treatment while he’d been enjoying the sights in the historic lobby.
Since the presidential election of 1800 between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, politically active Americans have viewed the opposing party and its adherents in a negative light. In short, normal partisan polarization has been a part of American life for centuries.
What splintered us from normal partisan politics to this sense that we cannot live on the same street as someone who thinks differently began with the advent of 24-hour cable news, followed by social media—two platforms that saturate everything we do with partisan politics. You can’t pick up your phone, go to an NBA game, buy a Budweiser, turn on a news channel, or attend a concert without some corporation, device, athlete, influencer, or entertainer injecting politics into it. We are all led and encouraged to believe that people who think differently than we do are evil, stupid, or a generous mix of both.
It’s not just traditional news coverage that is the problem; nearly everything we do seems to tell us only part of a story, or only one point of view, distorting how we see the world or how we see each other.
The question is, are we who we are when we log on to social media and spout off something hateful to someone we disagree with? Or are we Ege and the Harrisons? Are we becoming a society that looks like the ladies of “The View,” where anchors and guests engage in scathing, divisive comments such that they often have to go to a commercial break to bring down the temperature? Or are we better than that?
I’d argue that it’s the latter. In my travels across the country—at gas stations, diners, churches, barbershops, and roadside barbeques—most Americans resist relentless negativity and aspire for interactions that enrich their lives; we strive for hope and shrink from hate.
In other words, I believe that there are more Ege and Harrison conversations going on out there than we realize. People find ideals that bond them together, and when they find differences, they handle them with honor.
“There is dignity in treating each other with grace,” said JoAnn, as all three hugged each other goodbye to enjoy the rest of their night. They left, and everyone who had interacted with them was a better person for it.
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