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The biggest challenge ahead: Bridging our divisions

President Joe Biden likes to say there’s nothing (“and I mean nothing” he adds when he wants to underscore the point) that we can’t do in this country if we really put our minds to it. When it comes to the challenges facing Oregon, I’m pretty sure we need more than that. We need to think differently about people who don’t agree with us.

As a 35-year participant in Oregon politics, back through the spotted owl wars, I know a little about political strife. Some years back I thought we were as polarized as we could possibly get. I was wrong. Over the course of the four-year term I’m now completing in the State Senate, the tone of a significant portion of incoming mail shifted from irritated agitation to a toxic contempt that shades toward hatred for the “other side.” That doesn’t apply to the majority of people who write my office, but there are enough to leave me stunned and deeply concerned about where Oregon and the nation may be heading.

The fury wraps around several predictable issues, but one has stood out above the others. Senate District 3 (Medford, Ashland, Phoenix, Talent, Jacksonville, Ruch and surrounding areas) has been ferociously divided on COVID policy. “Why won’t you just do the right thing by (1) making sure everyone’s vaccinated, or (2) exposing the lies around this ridiculous vaccine?” people were writing nearly every day. “Why aren’t you representing us?”

Representing you, I sometimes responded, is a little more complicated than that, since I’m also obliged to represent a lot of people who disagree with you fiercely. What I sometimes hear back at that point amounts to No, you shouldn’t represent them, because they’re internet-addled morons (or pawns of the Fauci-run Deep State). I’m exaggerating here to make the point, but not by much.

That’s a big step beyond the garden-variety polarization of recent times. It’s not hard to understand, because there are nonsensical and malicious messages all over the place, every one of them with believers. It sometimes gets hard to to steer clear of contempt for people who spread them. And letting them go unchallenged in the name of “tolerance” has proven to be destructive, especially on issues like election denial.

I don’t have a remedy for straightening all this out. I doubt that anyone does. But I know a question that needs serious reflection, no matter what your views or the passion with which you hold them: Where is the path of canceling political and cultural opponents, of giving in to our contempt (revved up by the media sector that’s adopted the business model of making people angrier and more resentful) likely to take us?

Some talk about civil war — strong words, without much clarity on what they mean. There are less dramatic possible outcomes, none very pretty. If those of us headed for the 2023 legislative session expect to make progress on Oregon’s serious problems we’ll have to turn the tiller at least a few degrees away from the scorched-earth rhetoric, the demonizing and walk-outs of recent sessions. Rebuilding bridges while standing firm for your core values and priorities is a difficult dance. But what’s more difficult — what’s probably impossible — is finding some other path that leads to the kind of Oregon we want to leave to coming generations. Oregonians, and Americans generally, are on the verge of ripping each other apart. We have to do something other than watch it happen.

By now it has to be clear that we elected leaders have no special wisdom for healing the civic wounds. But there are some smart, dedicated citizens working on it. Two of their worthwhile offerings are at https://livingroomconversations.org and https://braverangels.org. If you’ve run across any helpful suggestions or insights, I’d like to know what they are. And thanks sincerely for giving me the opportunity to take this challenge on for a second four-year term.

State Sen. Jeff Golden represents District 3, Medford and much of Jackson County, in the Oregon State Senate. Reach him at sen.jeffgolden@oregonlegislature.gov or 503-986-1703.