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Colin Campbell: How can we reverse political tribalism?

By Colin Campbell

Writing a weekly, nonpartisan opinion column on North Carolina politics for the past two years has given me a front-row seat to our hyperpartisan, polarized political environment.

The political middle can be a lonely place these days. Most of the loudest voices in state politics are partisan activists or paid political operatives, so intellectual honesty and nuanced debate is hard to come by.

When I’ve criticized Democrats over questionable governance, a lack of transparency, or other issues, Republicans are quick to pounce, while voices on the left either stay silent or attack the messenger. When I’ve criticized Republicans for the same issues, then it’s conservatives who have no comment or seek to deflect the critique.

We’re at a point where politics is a team sport with the most bitter rivalries imaginable. Loyalty to party leaders often takes precedence over reasoned political debate, and it’s common for people to view their political opponents as evil rather than simply misguided.

On social media — where the goal is often to show off to like-minded individuals in pursuit of “likes” — civil debate quickly gives way to insults and name-calling. I’ve had to block or mute dozens of accounts (most of them anonymous) on Twitter because they can’t behave like adults.

The increasingly toxic nature of politics has caused many people to tune out. And for those still engaged in the democratic process, the soap opera dramas of Washington, D.C., suck up so much attention that many people end up ignoring the actions of state and local governments that have a bigger direct impact on their lives. It doesn’t help that local media is shrinking, with fewer reporters to keep tabs on the legislature and city councils.

If these trends continue, we risk getting to a point where it becomes socially acceptable to physically assault your political adversaries in the street. A point where state and local elected officials operate in darkness — their watchdogs having been laid off — allowing deep-pocketed interest groups to run the government to their advantage.

That’s a depressing vision of the future, but we can each take small steps to keep it from coming true.

To bridge the political divide, we need to get off Facebook and Twitter and start talking face-to-face with people who don’t share our political views. Make an effort to spend time with a family member, friend or acquaintance from the other side of the aisle.

When you do, avoid debating an emotional, hot-button issue where you’ll never agree.

Instead, try to listen and find common ground: What does an ideal healthcare or education system look like to each of you? Do you both support reforming the criminal justice system or ending gerrymandering?

Failing that, just talk about your family or your hobbies. You probably have more in common than you think. And if the partisan politicians at the state legislature can work together to unanimously pass dozens of non-controversial bills every month, you can stomach an hour with a Trump supporter or a liberal Democrat.

Another solution is to shift your focus to the state and local level, where you can truly make a difference, and to change where and how you get news and information.

Switch off the cable news networks and pick up (and subscribe to) your local newspaper. Follow a niche news outlet that covers a topic you care about in detail, such as Education NC, North Carolina Health News or Coastal Review Online.

Use that information to lobby your state and local officials, many of whom legitimately want to hear from you.

That’s my parting advice to you as I hang up my opinion columnist hat in order to focus on other journalism projects at the NC Insider. I hope I’ve been able to play a small part in keeping you informed and cutting through the noise of today’s politics.

Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service.

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