Our movement is growing. Readership is booming. DividedWeFall.com now receives over 10,000 views per day! People are tuning in for bipartisan takes on national and global news. As our news platform continues to grow rapidly, we need more volunteers to participate in the work of restoring civility to our discourse. We want you to join us as we transform the news media landscape into a place that puts people before politics. Find out how you can get involved here.
We are blessed to have added two incredible new members to the team this year. Conor Donnan—doctoral candidate in History at the University of Pennsylvania, a contributor to the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and Board Member of Someone to Tell It To—has joined the team as Managing Editor. Taylor Fiscus—a graduate of the University of Exeter and the Bob Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University as well as the Obama ’08 campaign, transition team, White House, and Environmental Protection Agency—has joined as a Producer. Below, they discuss why they joined the movement and what we all can do to heal the divide in our country.
Tell us about your unique backgrounds and interests.
Conor: My political ideology and philosophy were crafted in my hometown: an impoverished neighborhood in war-torn Belfast. I obtained a B.A. in History from Ulster University in Ireland, and I worked as a peace and reconciliation volunteer for four years. Afterward, I moved to the United States, where I am currently a doctoral candidate in the History Department at the University of Pennsylvania. In America, I realized that I wanted to become involved in public policy, news media, and non-profit work. I began working with a compassionate listening non-profit called Someone to Tell It To and writing for the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Most recently, I have worked with the Democratic Party, Sinn Féin, and the Bernie Sanders for President campaign. These unique experiences created an intense devotion to compassion and dialogue that attracts me to fostering open political debate.
Taylor: I grew up religious and conservative in Texas. My first Presidential vote was for George W. Bush when I was 18. But I shed my Southern Baptist beliefs in my teens. I came to the realization that I was liberal by a simple five-question quiz: Do you believe women have the right to choose? Are you against the war in Iraq? Do you believe in the separation of church and state? Do you think gay people should be able to be married? Do you think everyone should have easy access to voting? The answer to each question was yes. It was a pivotal moment for me. I was no longer a Republican, much to my surprise. I studied journalism and psychology in college and ended up working on a Congressional race in Cincinnati (OH-1) for Councilman John Cranley in 2006, now Mayor of Cincinnati.
When Obama announced his candidacy in February of 2006, I immediately started volunteering in Dallas. I ended up working on the campaign in seven states from the primary, through the convention, to the general election. I went to D.C. the day after the election and started working for the Obama Biden Transition Team. I worked in the White House as the Associate Director of Personnel for a couple of years and at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as the Deputy White House Liaison and Special Advisor to the Regional Administrator in the Great Lakes. After all was said and done, I was one of only 350 people to work for Obama all eight years. Since then, I went back to school at the University of Exeter to study the psychology of religion and politics. I wanted to know what mix of upbringing, experience, and genetics make people believe the way they feel, how we could speak to people who disagreed with us to find common ground, and how to maintain civility while encouraging discourse.
How did you become interested in the civil discourse space?
Conor: I grew up in Belfast during a time when the British military, pro-British paramilitaries, and the IRA engaged in brutal campaigns that killed over 3,400 people. This experience shaped my understanding of discourse and political polarization. As a teenager, I began participating in cross-community peace work. I realized that a significant issue between Irish and British communities in the region was a lack of dialogue combined with biased news reports. Similarly, the United States has seen increasing political polarization due to the media and political parties encouraging a more combative approach to politics. I believe the central philosophy of politicians and the news media should be “people before parties,” but that is usually not the case.
Taylor: I became interested in civil discourse as a result of my upbringing. I grew up listening to Southern Baptist preachers, watching Fox News, and listening to Rush Limbaugh. I have since worked on LGBT issues campaigns, marched in Planned Parenthood rallies, and donated to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I went from voting for Bush in 2001 to working for Barack Obama in 2007, so it is fair to say that I know “both sides” having been a part of both myself.
What would you tell someone who doesn’t think civil discourse and bipartisanship matter?
Conor: I often hear people say that we should not engage in discourse with the “other side,” but I have been down that road. I have seen people get shot, witnessed houses set on fire, and watched my community engage in riots. I believe that we should be open to dialogue. My training in History has shown me that in most cases, change does not happen without discussion. At the same time, I think we have to be realistic about civil discourse and bipartisanship. Politics does not transform overnight, so we have to understand that it is a long-term process. However, the long-term benefits will create a system that is more representative of and responsive to the people.
Taylor: The health of our democracy relies on civic participation, self-education, political literacy, and civility so people can discuss issues freely without being shamed. I would ask someone who doesn’t agree with this premise whether or not they are happy with the current state of our politics or our news industry. The goals of our elected officials have shifted from making the world a better place to simply making sure their party holds power. They have mastered the art of manipulating the American people to view those with different points of view as an animalistic, unreasonable, “Other.” We need to return to a thoughtful, reasoned approach because if we don’t combat divisiveness, the American Experiment will fail.
What do you think is the biggest misperception about civil discourse or political polarization?
Conor: I think that the biggest misperception about civil discourse is that it is not ideologically “pure.” Some people believe engaging in a discussion means you do not have strong convictions. I disagree. I do not think that a willingness to engage in dialogue makes you feeble. For example, I firmly believe that Ireland should be united as an independent republic. Nonetheless, I talk to people from pro-British backgrounds and watch BBC News all the time. These conversations do not mean that I am trying to convert people; it means I am willing to hear the opinions of people whom I disagree with. You may decide to incorporate some of their concerns into your agenda, or you may find common ground, or you may decide that you still disagree. I believe all those outcomes are productive.
Taylor: I think the biggest misperception is that people can’t change their minds. It’s okay—perhaps even healthy—to give a little to the “other side,” particularly after mulling over a subject for some time and from a different moral framework. For example, in my opinion, the environment should not be political. Mother Earth is not a Democrat nor a Republican. Conservatives who believe in conservation of the planet, do so often from an entirely consistent perspective and in alignment with their moral framework.
What makes you cynical about discourse and polarization? What makes you optimistic?
Conor: I often feel cynical about discourse and polarization because the trend seems to be getting worse, not better. The Republicans and Democrats have gotten more polarized in the last four years, and the media has fed into this lack of civil discourse. Despite this, I believe that this polarization does not reflect the views of the American people in general. I am optimistic because, despite all the noise, many organizations are helping people to understand what civil discourse can mean. It is not a compromise, but it is a community-building experience.
Taylor: I get cynical about political polarization after any given political conversation I’ve had on social media. Even when one concedes something or tries to set a positive tone, those efforts are usually not reciprocated. I fear the Internet is exacerbating our problems. I feel more optimistic when I think of the conversations I’ve had in private, sometimes with people who have seen those contentious online debates and who say that they are glad that I am trying to discuss the issues civilly. These people give me hope and remind me that there is a demand for civil discourse.
What is something we can all do to improve discourse and politics in our country?
Conor: I think we can improve discourse and politics through three pillars: compassion, humility, and community. Firstly, I believe that we have to treat people and political parties with compassion and demand the same from others. We should be empathic to people even if we disagree with them. Secondly, I think we should all try to show humility in our discussions with others. I have met people with great ideas and solid plans, but they do not get off the ground because they spend too much time letting you know where they got their degree. People can be equals regardless of their background. We all deserve the same level of respect. Lastly, we should understand that we are all part of a global community. I may not agree with someone’s views in America or Europe, but I should be able to treat them as if they are part of our community. We should strive to include as many people as possible in our communities by treating them with compassion and acting with humility.
Taylor: I think one thing that can be done to improve American political discourse is to move our civil conversations in private out into the open. Don’t be afraid to admit what you don’t know or to ask a question. I think it is helpful to acknowledge and identify which parts of our conversations are facts and which are beliefs. But we should go deeper than that, too. Try to understand what kinds of morals and assumptions those beliefs are based on and think about the implications. If we do these things, I think we’ll be well on the way to a more reasoned approach to combating partisanship.
If you enjoyed this conversation, read more “spirited discussions” and other news from Divided We Fall here.