How is political polarization affecting you?

Letter from the Editor

As we head toward the November election, we’re seeing a political divide unlike anything we’ve witnessed in generations.

People are angry.

It’s not just about party politics. It’s a racial divide. A gender divide. An economic divide. Divides made clearer by a rising pandemic death toll and a recession-level unemployment rate even as the stock market soars and home values in elite coastal communities set new records. A divide deepened by a summer’s protests over racial injustices rooted in hundreds of years of American history.

It’s a divide that is playing out in communities, among families and friends, on social media. And it will play out at the polls in November. Some say our country and its principles of democracy are being tested. Some say the anger is giving birth to a new level of activism that may revive it. 

Our goal, in our coverage between now and the election and in the days and months that follow, is to report this political story from your perspective. How do you feel about the direction in which our country is headed? How is the polarization affecting you? Your neighbors? Your community? How is it affecting your decisions, at the polls, and in your daily life?

We’d like to help tell your stories. Let us know what they are.

Thanks.

Sally Eisele

Chief Content Officer

The Public’s Radio

Linda Cunningham: "I will not give in to intimidation"

I’m a former US Army officer, a Cold Warrior rather than a combat veteran. Originally from St. Louis, I am a recent transplant to lovely Bristol, RI and am currently working at a retail store in East Providence. 

I am also a military widow.  My late husband served 27 years as an Army officer and was the Academic Dean at the US Army War College in Carlisle, PA when he died. Our daughter was only 8 when he passed and has just turned 26. I am very fortunate to have met another terrific man, and we married six years ago.  My three stepsons are also Army veterans. In addition to my military service, I served for several years as president of my church’s governing council.  

As you might infer from my background, I am deeply patriotic, have a strong sense of service, and also try very hard to live by the Golden Rule of treating others as I would like to be treated. And as a citizen in a democracy I believe that voting is not only a right, but a privilege and a duty. I vote… always.  

For most of my life I have been an independent and have never placed a political sign in my yard or any sort of bumper sticker on my car, until now, until this President. This President has praised our adversaries and has repeatedly insulted my gender, insulted my fellow veterans and intelligence professionals, and has called our fallen heroes “losers.”  

For this, and for many other reasons, my car has a sign in the rear window, “Veterans for Biden.”  

Last week, driving on Rt 6 on my way home from work, a black pickup truck pulled up so close behind me that I thought he would hit me.  He suddenly swerved into the lane next to me, just inches from my car, brandishing a blue “TRUMP” hat in his hand towards his open window. Once I realized he was not going to hit my car, I became angry but resisted the urge to return a hand gesture. After a moment, he sped off. The incident lasted only a few seconds. 

When I arrived home, I told my husband about the encounter and I wondered if I should remove the Biden sign to avoid any other incidents. While I believe we all have the right to express our political opinions, this man was clearly trying to bully and intimidate me. I am angry that our President encourages this type of behavior. 

I am proud that I, and four members of my immediate family, have served our country. I proudly display my “veteran” license plate. I will not give in to intimidation; the “Veterans for Biden” sign will remain on my car.

Alec Beckett

It’s a strange thing to watch someone get radicalized before your eyes. 

We had been Facebook “friends” for years. He didn’t post much, and when he did it was pictures of his grandkids or stories about sports from the good old days.

Suddenly, a few months ago I noticed he was showing up in my news feed a lot. And his posts weren’t cute kids and old-time hockey players any more. Now it was non-stop right-wing memes and screenshots of angry screeds from accounts with names like “True American Values”. Five or six posts a day.

I found it so jarring that I actually DM’ed him and asked if he was OK. He responded that he was fine. He had had surgery and had several weeks of convalescing which, it appears, he spent on Facebook getting sucked into the right-wing meme-o-sphere.

There is a quality about Facebook that most of us never really think about. Namely that your Facebook page (or Instagram or LinkedIn or Twitter) is completely unique. No one else on Earth sees the combination of content that you do.

This is the result of the innocuous attempt to make you enjoy the platform. Basically the algorithm is designed to “give the people what they want,” so if you start reacting positively to Blue Lives Matter posts or Bernie Sanders videos, it notices and starts feeding you more of the same.

The two grand, not-so-innocuous consequences of this are:

We all get pulled towards homogenous content that tends to reinforce the feelings and beliefs we already have. We are all getting “radicalized” to some extent whether we realize it or not. 

And because our newsfeeds are each uniquely tailored to us, we as a community don’t share as much common ground as we used to. So those on the other side seem more alien and dangerous to us.

I will be voting for Joe Biden because I know Trump is a threat to every institution that holds our democracy together. But ultimately what holds the democracy together is us, “We the people.” 

And as I see my friend—an otherwise decent person—publicly proclaiming that Hillary Clinton should be charged with treason or Joe Biden is a pedophile, I realize that “we the people” are being ripped apart in ways that may be impossible to heal.

There is a part of me that would love my friend to read this and perhaps begin to get a sense of how he has been manipulated. But I sincerely doubt an article like this would ever make it past his algorithmic guardians.

Alec Beckett, 54, is a creative partner at Nail Communications. He is originally from New Hampshire, and has lived in Providence for 20 years.

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