Healing America

by Joe Benning, State Senator, Caledonia District

LYNDON – On my first full day as a Vermont State Senator, the Senate broke for lunch. Veteran lawmakers went off to wherever they’d learned to go, but as a newbie I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. Another newbie remained right in front of me as the chamber emptied out. He suddenly noticed I was behind him. I was surprised when he unexpectedly said: “Hey, want to do lunch?”

Although I’d never met Philip Baruth before, I’d heard of him. I knew him as an urban Democrat/Progressive from the state’s most populous county, a liberal blog writer and commentator on Vermont Public Radio. He was, and is, a very good writer. As a Republican from one of the most rural parts of Vermont, I knew we were very different politically. His question thus caught me off guard. But at that moment I had no idea what to do with myself until the senate reconvened. Any hesitancy on my part evaporated when he said: “I’ll treat.”

That lunch in January of 2011 turned out to be a wonderful education for both of us. Prior to COVID-19, we’d endeavored to lunch together once a week during sessions, even when debating against each other on bills that brought much emotion. Press reporters did double takes when they’d see us chatting and laughing together in Montpelier’s restaurants, having just witnessed those debates. Our friendly banter didn’t compute.

Our wives once joined us on a trip to Miami for a national legislative conference when Philip was majority leader and I was minority leader. Former Governor Jim Douglas was one of the conference speakers. Philip had picked on Governor Douglas in his previous media life, so I was a little nervous when the Governor asked to have dinner with us fellow Vermonters, but it turned out to be a wonderful time.

The above stories are why I remain optimistic that, with work, we can heal this divided America. Each of us must first recognize the work begins with a hard look in the mirror. As a Republican who believes in a limited and frugal government protecting our constitutional freedoms, I see these concepts as critical to any legislative debate seeking to solve problems. But for me to achieve connection with a debate audience, that audience must first believe I come from a moral high ground.

At present, my party’s uncomfortable image is clouding their view. To clear that view, my party must absolutely divorce itself from those promoting intolerance, conspiracy theories, bigotry and hate. The extremist mentality which led to the unfortunate events of January 6 cannot go unchecked.

Conservative ideas will fall on deaf ears if that image remains. Republican leaders must erase it.

At the same time, I hope my friend Philip and his liberal colleagues recognize a growing image problem on the left. Coordinated extremists shouting down speakers they dislike, physically breaking up rally-goers gathered for a cause they disagree with and randomly destroying property are not petty concerns. They are harbingers of the very same “ends-justifies-the-means” intolerant mindset now infecting extremists on the right. Democrat/Progressive leaders must recognize that liberal ideas will also fall on deaf ears if that image continues to grow. Liberal leaders must erase it.

The best antidote to division in America is the isolation and suppression of extremists within. Violence and destruction, whether conducted by those frustrated by a lack of government attention or those frustrated with an overreach of government attention, cannot be tolerated or excused. Extremism, whose objective is complete annihilation of the other side, will never heal America. Downplaying your own side’s sins by pointing to the other side’s sins is a defense tactic that scuttles any ability to move forward. Finally, each side’s leaders must drill home the fact that consensus is not treason. Indeed, it is the only intelligent way to solve human-made problems.

We are not the first generation to face a divided America. We will not be the last. It will take strength and courage from leaders on both sides to bridge the current divide, but it can, and will, be done. Maybe we should all start with a good lunch.