Following a wildly partisan presidential campaign and election, civil discourse between friends, family and colleagues seemed to all but disappear.
Instead, heated arguments, social media blocking and namecalling became a shockingly pervasive trend.
Yet a solution, or at least a conversation about finding the solution, looms on Northeast Pennsylvania’s horizon. The Gathering, a three-day, annual symposium now in its 11th year, is set for Friday, July 14, through Sunday, July 16, at Keystone College, La Plume, with a theme aimed at improving relations between people who disagree.
“Finding the Better Angels of Our Nature” relies on a weekend of lectures, discussions and workshops that will look for paths to common ground among bitter rivals. For this year’s event, The Gathering brings in a trio of speakers fluent in political rhetoric and dissection, including journalist Mara Liasson, the political correspondent for National Public Radio and a contributor to Fox News; poet, historian, essayist and commentator Jennifer Michael Hecht and author Steve McIntosh, who also is president of the Institute for Cultural Evolution.
Liasson has covered seven presidential elections during her career and appears regularly on NPR programs “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition,” for which she analyzes trends across the country and policies coming out of the White House and Capitol Hill.
During a recent phone interview, Liasson admitted that the most recent election was unlike any she had ever seen, and that many are still trying to find their footing following a highly divisive race for the new term of office.
“It was completely different. It broke all the rules, and everything we thought we knew was wrong,” she said. “All the things Donald Trump did and said, according to what we know about politics, were supposed to disqualify him, and they didn’t.
“I’ll talk about what’s going on in politics at the moment — because that’s what I do, that’s what I cover — then I’ll also talk about the kind of challenges to democracy, the democratic norms and why all those norms are important to uphold,” Liasson continued. “If you don’t (uphold them), then you can’t have civil disagreement, and then our democratic institutions fray and disappear and you don’t have democracy anymore.”
During her appearance at The Gathering, Liasson plans to offer real-world solutions — plus a few tongue-in-cheek suggestions — to those in attendance on how to re-establish patience, respect and peaceful conversations in their own lives.
“I actually have five or six practical things to suggest. I have a whole bunch of specific things,” she promised.
Tapping into empathy and rediscovering ways to study politics and the news without turning to anger is necessary for everyone, regardless of whether they have interest in those topics or not, Liasson explained. As Americans, it’s the only way to ensure continued freedoms.
“We’re at a point where Western democracy, globally, in general, is under threat. Ideals that we hold like reason and science are also under threat,” Liasson said. “It’s a very scary, consequential time to be a citizen let alone journalist. It’s certainly more fraught. Politics are more tribal. That means there’s less reasoned debate. There’s a lot of apocalyptic thinking: “If the other guy gets elected, it’ll be the end of the world.
“I think it’s been a kind of steady deterioration in that direction, for a lot of different reasons, and I guess I’ll be talking about some them when I go to (The Gathering),” she said.
— patrice wilding
Mara Liasson’s insights about President Trump
“When I started (covering him) in January (following the inauguration), the way I thought about it was, is Donald Trump different in degree or kind? In other words, is he just rougher, ruder and cruder than other presidents, or is he really something completely different? And I thought he was a stress test for democratic institutions, and so I’ve been watching to see how they hold up — the judiciary, press, Congress, federal bureaucracy, citizens, etc.
“I would say at first he was maybe certainly more hostile to the press in certain ways, in scary ways — the violent rhetoric at his rallies. But when he got to the White House, he didn’t kick journalists out of the West Wing. He continued to have briefings. He was actually, in a kind of weird way, the most accessible president we’ve ever had, because we know what he’s thinking the minute he thinks it — because he tweets it without any filter. His psyche is incredibly accessible, even though his administration operates in incredible secrecy in many other aspects.
“Lately they’ve been toying with the briefings, which we’ll be watching very carefully. This White House is also super leaky, in a chaotic way. Those are all things that we’re dealing with as journalists. We’re just trying to do our job. The hostility that he directs toward us and encourages his supporters to feel is extreme. The partisan outrage machine has gone too far — how do we reign it in?”
If you go
What: The Gathering featuring journalist Mara Liasson and others
When: Friday, July 14 through Sunday, July 16; panel times vary
Where: Evans Hall, Hibbard Campus Center, Keystone College, La Plume
Details: For a complete list of speakers and schedule of events or to register, visit www.the gatheringatkeystone.org or call 570-945-8510.