Michael Cooper is a journalist, attorney, senior director of advocacy at NC Child, and a 2020 Presidential Leadership Fellow.
We call ourselves the United United States of America, but we are anything but united these days.
The divisions have nothing to do with the problems. Instead, we categorize ourselves by culture, education level, negative partisanship, and the option to only partner with those with whom we agree. That is not healthy for our democracy or sustainable.
But we can reconnect as a country. It won’t be easy, but I’ve seen it work firsthand through Presidential Leadership Scholars, a program organized by the George W. Bush Presidential Center, the Clinton Presidential Center, the George & Barbara Bush Foundation, and the LBJ Foundation..
I was selected as a 2020 fellow and joined a cohort of mid-career professionals honing their skills through interactions with former presidents, administration officials, academics, and business and civic leaders.
We were 60 from all over the country: San Francisco; Boston; milwaukee; Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Eugene, Oregon; Berea, Ohio; North Bay Town, Florida; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Cut off, Louisiana. We were black, white, gay, straight, Republican, Democrat, doctor, scientist, educator, businessperson, Navy officer, and Marines. Each of us loved our country and wanted to make it better, but we saw America in different ways. That was the challenge.
Meeting the other fellows was truly a life-changing experience for me.
On one of the first nights of the program, a group of us met at the hotel restaurant for dinner. Someone raised the question: “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the country?” Since it was an election year, the responses turned political. Voices were raised. Things got tense. I was concerned that some fellows would drop out of the program. In the end, things calmed down and dinner ended in hugs. But I was wondering, in this environment, could 60 strangers still be friends?
We did it.
The structure of the program helped. During each session, our name cards were moved to a different table, forcing us to speak to someone new. One of the icebreakers forced us to greet one of the other fellows like an old friend at the airport. These types of conversations cleared the air and eventually led to trust. In a way, COVID-19 also helped.
Like everything else, PLS was put on hold. Fearing it might be cancelled, we did our best to keep in touch. We had happy hours on Zoom, plus a murder mystery game and a virtual bake session to make a caramel cake from a student’s mom’s recipe.
When things opened up, we visited each other. There were trips to Hollywood, Nashville and Yellowstone. Once, I joined a line dance at a party in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As a small-town defense attorney, I had seen little of the country before PLS. The experience brought the country to life. He led to lifelong friendships with academics such as Adam Gilbertson, an Army veteran from Montana, and Sameer Vohra, a physician from Illinois. And he helped me see the country through his eyes.
To this day, our cohort has a continuous text thread of life updates, family photos, and reunion plans. But I have noticed something about it. On the worst days in America, when there’s something controversial on the news, the thread goes silent. Because we pause to reflect.
Because we are all so different, we cannot assume that we know how others will react. So instead of rushing to respond, we take a moment to think about what to say and how our words might be received.
It is the opposite of social media and leads to a more thoughtful and constructive dialogue. We are a diverse group, but by appreciating those differences, we can have conversations that build each other up, instead of tearing us down.
At the same time, the conversations I’ve had with Scholars have led me to question some of my own views in recent years, and that’s a good thing, much better than the echo chambers we’re creating for ourselves. That would not have happened without these connections. And there are lessons to be learned from this experience.
By surrounding ourselves with different people, our own stories become unique and more interesting. By listening to people who are not like us, we begin to understand where they come from.
Going out and seeing the country, we discovered that America is bigger than our neighborhoods and political tribes, and we realized that we share this national history. That led to cooperation and social trust.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently said that Polarization is the greatest threat facing the United States.. That should be a wake up call.
If anything, the American experiment is a test of whether a multiracial and multiethnic democracy can survive, endure and thrive. To do that, we’re going to have to learn to live together. In a Nation of more than 330 million, it will not be easy. But I am hopeful.
I’ve been thinking about that question that was posed at that dinner in 2020. My answer now is that I’m optimistic about America because I’ve seen it work myself.
Our fellowship concluded with an epic night of karaoke at the Clinton Presidential Library in May 2022. There we were, in a room that looked like America, in a giant circle singing the lyrics to the ’90s pop song “Closing Time.” Arms around each other’s shoulders, we come together, the embodiment of America’s motto, E pluribus unum. Of many, we were one.