We’re All in This Together
How some friends from different parts of the world view America’s present political turbulence - and what can be done about it
Sometimes it seems like our friends know us better than we know ourselves. With America careening towards what looks to be another paralyzing stalemate in the country’s divided politics, I found myself thousands of miles away talking with a friend who knows America well – but who also has the unique perspective gained from years of reporting and storytelling all around the world.
Broken politics without borders
Journalist and best-selling author Kim Ghattas talked with me over lunch on a sunny day on a patio in the Middle East at the conclusion of a foreign policy conference this weekend. Born and raised in Lebanon, Kim spent twenty years as a journalist with BBC, including several years in America covering U.S. foreign policy. Before and since, she’s had a wide range of experiences across the Middle East and other parts of the world that gives her the comparative perspective that helps change the way people think about things.
America’s midterm elections were on my mind this particular afternoon, as well as the sense of dread and foreboding many people around the world have about America’s political divisions and what might happen in the after the elections.
“When you look at America’s politics these days, what stands out for you, what comes to mind?” I asked her.
“First, I have a strong sense of familiarity with this situation,” Ghattas said, drawing comparisons between what’s unfolding in America and what she’s seen for years in parts of the Middle East: the polarization, the name-calling, and the threats of violence. She referred to “Campaign 2016 Has the Worst of Middle Eastern Politics,” an article she wrote in the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign that discussed a “faint echo” of what she has seen in the Middle East:
“…From the displays of demagoguery, television shouting matches, invocations of God’s greatness, to the disaffected working class who feel they have no control over their fate, here are the ways that this American election cycle reminds me of the politics in the dysfunctional region from which I hail.”
Published more than 6 years ago, the piece was ahead of the curve and perceptively pinpointed problems with America’s politics that have only grown worse over time.
In a more recent article on the eve of the U.S. presidential election in 2020, Ghattas warned that America’s future may look a lot like that of her homeland Lebanon. She returned there to live in 2019 and noted that she often couldn’t tell whether some headlines were talking about events in America or Lebanon. She describes how a country’s social fabric unravels over time and predicted it would be harder to address the longer it goes on:
“What will be harder to roll back are the more subtle changes: the shifts in social norms; the rise in intolerant attitudes; the spread of dangerous conspiracy theories (many emanating from the right); sharp, uncivil exchanges; the unleashing of violent militias (mostly from the right); the deep polarization and obstructionist politics; and the extent to which each side sees the other as an existential threat to itself and its tribe. Some of these shifts started before Trump came to power, but all of them have been exacerbated or encouraged by his presidency. They will not disappear if he is voted out of office. They are the kind of changes that give rise to the question: What happened to us?”
Other observers like the writer George Packer captured this trend even earlier in his prescient 2013 book, The Unwinding, published years before Donald Trump appeared on the scene.
Ghattas is precise thinker and writer, and she’s careful to note the differences as well as the parallels between particular circumstances. America hasn’t (yet?) descended into the type of outright political violence the way that her own homeland of Lebanon and several countries in the Middle East like Syria, Iraq, Yemen have over recent decades.
These days, a main concern for many of us involved in politics and policy involves helping people understand how the views of people from the same country can be so different from our own. That’s a global challenge, not just an American one. Ghattas has been thinking about how people from different countries and parts of the world can learn from each other in order to move away from polarization and extremism that could lead to more violence.
Where do we go from here?
Last week, President Joe Biden issued another warning about possible “chaos” that could result if candidates don’t accept the results of this week’s election. What’s more, assessments by federal security agencies raised the red flag about possible politically-motivated violent acts in the post-election period. Nearly 9 in 10 Americans share concerns about increased risks for politically motivated violence.
America is at a tense and divided moment right now, and the next few weeks will serve as a stress test of our democratic political system. Much of it depends on how our current and would-be political leaders operate. But there’s a lot we can all do as citizens to shape things for the better in our own way, as John Halpin reminded us earlier this year.
Kim Ghattas told me that despite some differences between countries,
“we’re all trying to grapple with the same problems when it comes to the political atmosphere, and how we can all deal with big problems we’re facing together like pandemics, inflation, climate change, a reversal of women’s rights including reproductive rights, and a number of other challenges we’re all facing.”
Ghattas has no simple remedies to offer, but she thinks an approach that focuses on building conversations among people facing similar struggles is a key part of the solution. Instead of a tit-for-tat attitude that says “see, your situation is just as bad or even worse than what we’ve got in our country,” she thinks an approach that involves active listening with humility and trying to learn from each other is a key to the pathway forward. “What can I learn from you, and what can you learn from me?” is a key part of her formula, an effort to re-introduce true discourse and exchange of views.
To contribute to this effort, Ghattas recently launched “People Like Us,” a podcast that connects the Middle East to the world and finds the connections that can bring people together. A key audience of hers is in the Middle East itself, but she hopes the conversations that she’s having will help people from different parts of the world see the common challenges we’re facing. I see it also an effort to counter what I’ve called neo-Orientalism, the phenomenon of using countries in the Middle East and their people as props in U.S. domestic politics and advocacy-driven debates that masquerade as policy discussions.
Recent episodes in this podcast include a discussion among women of the Middle East about abortion, sex education, and their reaction to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade earlier this year and why the West focuses on Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine while shrugging off the same crimes for years in Syria.
I hope she continues expanding this forum to include more voices and topics. There’s much more to discuss, ranging from the challenges virtually every society faces in confronting inflation to moving to cleaner energy sources while ensuring all citizens get a fair shake from their country’s economy. That will likely require an abundance or prosperity agenda of one sort or another, an effort to focus on the economic rights and well-being of all people. The precise contours will undoubtedly differ from one nation to another.
These discussions won’t offer an immediate solution to these big challenges, of course. But the goal here is to offer a forum where people can listen with humility and learn from the experiences of others.
Whatever happens during America’s midterm elections and their aftermath, the simple idea of talking with each other and listening deeply to each other is powerful. It is an idea that might help America address some of its many social and political problems that won’t go away after the votes are counted.
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