It has been a year of political division and racial reckoning, when partisan vitriol has seemingly replaced civic virtue, and pandering for political gain has overtaken courage and honesty in public discourse. And yet, it is my fellow Americans — Pennsylvanians, to be exact — who give me hope that our nation’s brightest days are ahead.
I am not alone in my faith. In a 2020 September survey, the Pew Research Center found that despite a grim national mood and mounting concerns, a majority of Americans (57%) believe that “we can always find ways to solve our problems and get what we want.” The real stunner: the number of Americans who believe this is true has increased since the poll was conducted last year.
This idealistic belief may seem confounding, but it isn’t new. In his biography of George Washington, author Ron Chernow cites a letter from a British soldier departing America after losing the War of Independence. “The Americans are a curious, original people,” the soldier observes, after spending nearly seven years trying to impose British order. “They know how to govern themselves, but nobody can govern them.” In other words, the defeated British assumed Americans would turn on each other and descend into chaos. But our communities, over time, have told a different story.
I witnessed this firsthand in Pennsylvania. For nearly a decade, my public policy work has taken me to every corner of the state. Just this year, I’ve traveled deep into rural counties, losing cell service and myself in the sweeping beauty of mountains, rivers, and fields. I’ve also traversed Philadelphia and its collar counties — my familiar stomping ground. 2020 is a year of surprises — none more so than my realization, driving throughout the state, that finding commonality and kindness is a way of life for many of us.
Take Walter Palmer, a University of Pennsylvania professor and founder of The Center on American Racism and Social Justice. Earlier this year, Palmer, a former Philadelphia Black Power leader, contacted me after reading my Inquirer piece on expanding school choice for lower income children. The reason: he wanted to work together to help children. We did and still do.
Indeed, in recent months, Walter and I have engaged in hours of conversation on race, Black power, and white privilege. It makes for lively debates, but it’s always a discourse. Walter rejects cancel culture. He has counseled me to speak to and debate anyone — even those pushing ideas I may abhor and find offensive. Walter welcomes anyone to the table for debate — even those with the most extremist, even racist views. He assures me debating those people is how we defeat their ideas.
Then, a few hours northwest in Northumberland County, there’s the tiny, blonde spitfire, Peggy O’Neill. She and her husband run Parcel Plus, a local shop selling stamps and guns in Shamokin, on the western end of the anthracite coal region. Peggy loves Donald Trump and her hometown, once a hub of industry and commerce.
She also challenges the perception of the aggrieved Rust Belt voter, one who resents demographic change, and therefore supports Trump. In fact, Peggy is proud that Shamokin now brims with newly arrived immigrants and New York transplants. She’s happy to welcome all to her town—even those who dislike the president. “I absolutely love it—all these new people,” Peggy told me. “People’s personal opinions don’t bother me. I would vote for a Democrat if I thought he was better than the president.”
Peggy is proud of Shamokin, where renewal efforts are under way. Though the coal jobs are gone, you won’t find many looking wistfully back. A local entrepreneur, for example, has opened a new center where tradesmen and crafters can ply their trade and teach it to the next generation. Meanwhile, scientists explore rare earth elements in the old coal banks around the town. And for Peggy, business is booming, thanks, in large part, to Shamokin’s recent arrivals.
Peggy exemplifies what the Pew survey found: almost 90% of Americans responded that they’re hopeful that their neighbors can fix things. As the researchers noted, several Americans pointed to their local communities as “laboratories for trust-building to confront partisan tensions and overcome tribal divisions.”
The British soldier was right—only we can govern ourselves, but Walter and Peggy give hope that this American approach works. This election week, we should follow their lead, treating those with whom we disagree as we wish our leaders would during this tension-filled time.
Jennifer Stefano is the Chief Innovation Officer and Vice President at the Commonwealth Foundation.