By Michael Cooper
We call ourselves the United States of America, but we’re anything but united these days.
The divisions aren’t about the issues. Instead, we’re sorting ourselves by culture, education level, negative partisanship, and the choice to associate only with those whom we agree with. That’s 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 the 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 Scholar in 2020 and joined a cohort of midcareer professionals who hone their skills through interactions with former presidents, administration officials, academics, and business and civic leaders.
There were 60 of us from all across the country: San Francisco; Boston; Milwaukee; Atlanta; Pittsburgh; Eugene, Oregon; Berea, Ohio; North Bay Village, Florida; North Wilkesboro, North Carolina; Cut Off, Louisiana. We were Black, White, gay, straight, Republicans, Democrats, doctors, scientists, educators, entrepreneurs, Navy officers, 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.
Getting to know the other Scholars was truly a lifechanging experience.
On one of the first nights of the program, a group of us gathered in the hotel restaurant for dinner. Someone posed the question, “Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the country?” Since it was an election year, the answers got political. Voices were raised. Things got tense. I worried that some Scholars might quit the program. In the end, things calmed down, and the dinner ended in hugs. But I wondered, in this environment, could 60 strangers still become friends?
The program’s structure helped. During each session our name cards were moved to a different table, forcing us to speak to someone new. One of the icebreakers required us to greet one of the other Scholars like a long-lost friend at the airport. These kinds of conversations cleared the air and eventually led to trust. In a way, COVID-19 helped too.
Like everything else, PLS was put on hold. Fearing that it would get cancelled, we went out of our way to stay in touch. We had happy hours on Zoom, plus a murder mystery game and a virtual baking session to make caramel cake using the recipe from one Scholar’s mother.
When things opened up, we visited each other. There were trips to Hollywood, Nashville, and Yellowstone. Once, I joined a line dance at a block party in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. As a small-town defense attorney, I’d seen little of the country before PLS. The experience brought the country to life. It led to lifelong friendships with Scholars like Adam Gilbertson, an Army veteran from Montana, and Sameer Vohra, a doctor from Illinois. And it helped me to see the country through their eyes.
To this day our cohort has a running text thread of life updates, family photos, and reunion plans. But I’ve noticed something about it. On the worst days in America, when there’s something controversial in the news, the thread goes silent. Because we pause to reflect.
Because we’re all so different, we can’t assume to 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 may be received.
It’s the opposite of social media, and it leads to a more thoughtful and constructive dialogue. We’re a diverse group, but by appreciating those differences, we can have conversations that build each other up, instead of tearing each other down.
At the same time, 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, far better than the echo chambers we’re creating for ourselves. That wouldn’t have happened without these connections. And there are lessons to be learned from this experience.
By surrounding ourselves with people who are different, our own stories become unique and more interesting. By listening to people who aren’t like us, we begin to understand where they’re coming from.
By getting 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 story. That led to cooperation and social trust.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said recently that polarization is the greatest threat facing the United States. That should be a wakeup call.
If anything, the American experiment is a test of whether a multiracial, multiethnic democracy can survive, endure, and thrive. To do that, we’re going to have to learn to live together. In a Nation of over 330 million, it won’t be easy. But I’m hopeful.
I’ve been thinking about that question posed at that dinner back in 2020. My answer now is that I’m optimistic about America because I’ve seen it work myself.
Our fellowship concluded with one 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 words to the ’90s pop song “Closing Time.” Arms around each other’s shoulders, we came together, the embodiment of America’s motto, E pluribus unum. Out of many, we were one.
Michael Cooper is a journalist, attorney, Senior Director of Advocacy at NC Child, and a 2020 Presidential Leadership Scholar.