Jennifer Fuentes wants people to take down their yard signs, talk about issues instead of ideologies, learn to listen. She wants to eat Thanksgiving dinner with her extended family — even the Republicans.
Billy Overcast wants people to keep waving Trump flags, hold rallies, refuse to surrender. He wants to eat Thanksgiving dinner with all his kids — even the Democrats.
A week after Joe Biden was elected the next U.S. president, the country remains fiercely red and blue. Friends and families still are fractured. People from both parties feel angry and afraid.
They argue over who’s to blame, why we got here, how to fix it.
Political science professors, psychologists and therapists across Tampa Bay say the nation is suffering from deep wounds — which will leave scars. Change will be slow, they said, and require compromise.
But there are things we can do. Things politicians should do. Ways to open dialogue.
“Because of the pandemic, people aren’t getting to interact with other people who have different viewpoints. We’re not going to school, church or the gym,” said Sara Hofmann, a former therapist who now teaches psychology at Eckerd College.
“We have a lot more time to spend in our own heads, so we’re not thinking as clearly.”
Fuentes, 30, is a social worker, a Tampa Democrat whose mom came from Cuba. Politics, she said, should bring people together. “It’s going to be difficult to heal, but I have hope,” she said. “We have to humanize people. Once we eliminate the US v. THEM language … we’ll start to see each other, and become one country again.”
Overcast, a 73-year-old St. Petersburg Republican who served in Vietnam, doesn’t think the election is over. But he also wants the country to start coming together. “I hope -- but don’t think -- we can bridge this divide,” said Overcast, who retired from manufacturing pacemakers. “And whatever side you’re on, don’t gloat over the outcome. That will only make things worse.” Maybe it’s too soon. Emotions are raw. Lawsuits are looming.
Still, “we need to remember: We’re all on the same team here. We’re all U.S. citizens,” said Jacquelyn Flood, a psychologist at the University of South Florida’s college of medicine. “It’s possible for members of the same team to have different beliefs and views.”
Before we begin to heal, we have to acknowledge that we hurt, Hofmann said. A lot of people aren’t fine. Many are stressed about politics, the pandemic, police, protests, the economy, the election.
"We’re trying to manage incredibly difficult personal situations, changes in navigating relationships, being stuck at home, more isolated, spending less time with others … All of our anxiety buttons are being pushed at the same time. People are exhausted. "
The first step toward taking care of the country, the psychology professor said, is taking care of yourself. “Go outside. Exercise. Turn off the TV,” Hofmann said. “Start waving at your neighbor again. Walk across the street and compliment him on how well his azaleas are looking. He’s still the same person he was before he put up that sign.”
Maurie Lung, a mental health counselor in Seminole, said the same goes for families. Thanksgiving, she said, is an opportune time to talk to those relatives you don’t agree with — or haven’t spoken to.
But don’t attack, she said. Or defend. Tell them, " ‘I love you. I really want to be able to listen to you and understand where you’re coming from,’ " she said.
Avoid why questions, Lung said. Ask what and how. “What led you to this decision? How did you come to this conclusion? Most of the time, we’re not really listening. We’re just waiting to jump in with our next argument.”
Elections aren’t worth losing relationships over, Hofmann said. “Your uncle you argue with over politics is still the guy who took you to Disney World,” she said. “Don’t forget that piece.”
Fuentes and Overcast each blame the other’s party for fanning flames of divisiveness. But their prescriptions for how to proceed are similar — and echo the professional advice:
- Stop name-calling.
- Find common causes.
- Respect everyone, even if you don’t agree with them.
- Be willing to compromise.
- Concentrate on things you can control.
Those things are easy to say, harder to do.
“We can’t keep referring to human beings as illegals and racists,” said Fuentes, the Tampa Democrat. “It hurts to hear that. And plays into people’s fear of the unknown.”
Overcast, the St. Petersburg Republican, said: “You cannot, for four years, tell people they’re deplorables then say, ‘You guys need to like us now.’ I’ve never seen anything work like that.”
Some problems shouldn’t be political, said Anthony Brunello, a political science professor at Eckerd College. Like ending the pandemic, protecting the environment, shoring up the economy. We need to concentrate on those causes, he said.
Overcast said everyone “needs to be civil. Calm down the rhetoric. The media needs to take responsibility for that.” And elected officials, he said, need to stop blocking each other on everything. “We have to get these loud partisan people like McConnell and Pelosi out of the way. Congress has to start working together on projects that need to be done for the whole country.”
One of the first things Congress needs to do, political science professors said, is pass another stimulus package, give people enough money so they can stop worrying about being evicted or feeding their families.
“People are suffering, starving, there’s not adequate housing or health care. We can’t keep letting that happen,” said J. Edwin Benton, a political science professor at USF-Tampa.
Benton, who grew up in the 1950s, in the segregated South, said he’s proud of how far this country has come in terms of inclusion but appalled at how much inequality and racial bigotry still exists. We need more compassion, he said, where we treat everyone like we want to be treated.
“People need to be tolerant, listen to all perspectives, from people of all races and religious backgrounds. And we need more education. For everyone. Ignorance is the biggest divide,” he said. “We can’t just stay in our own political corners or we’re going to end up self-destructing as a nation.”
Change has to start with each of us, the professor said. “Ask: What can I do?”
Scars will begin to fade once we can see each other as people, Hofmann said. “Diversity should be thought of as a strength, not something divisive. We need to recognize people are impacted by different policies and events in vastly different ways because of their identities. This is an important opportunity to talk about what different groups we need to bring to the table. We’ll probably always have to live with tension.”
Part of what happens with trauma is we decrease our high-level functioning, we lose things like critical thinking, she said. “We start functioning in survival mode, so things impact us more emotionally than they otherwise would,” said Hofmann. “In survival mode, we focus on fear and safety, which elicits stronger reactions than when we’re thinking rationally.”
There’s a lot of value to talking to people outside your echo chamber, she said.
You don’t have to compromise your beliefs or feign acceptance of someone else’s, Flood said. Sometimes, people just want to be heard. “People feel more empowered if they have a voice,” the counselor said.
Fuentes, the Tampa Democrat, said she used to be much more vocal about her opinions — and shutting down others. “Like my mom.” Now, instead, she asks questions: What do you really want? What are you really trying to accomplish? “I work with people who are more likely to be Republicans, so I get to hear them and talk to them, and it helps me understand why people feel marginalized and hurt.”
Elected officials need to communicate better, too, Lung said. Shared experiences, the counselor said, force people to knock down walls and work together. She takes clients hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding — working through things outdoors.
If she could counsel Congress, she said, “I’d put a Republican and Democrat leader together in a canoe and get them to try to not paddle in circles.”
When Jennifer Fuentes got the group text inviting her to Thanksgiving dinner, her mom typed back, “How many Republicans will be at the party?”
Fuentes' brother is a Democrat. “With our mom? He didn’t have a choice,” she said. His girlfriend is more in the middle, but her family are Republicans. “They don’t hate Cubans, or me or my mom, though some Republican policies reflect that,” she said.
“I know I’m going to Thanksgiving. I’m not sure about my mom.”
When Billy Overcast planned his Thanksgiving dinner, he knew his family would avoid talking politics. His 25-year-old daughter supports Biden. So does his older son. His younger son, a military man like him, is still holding out hope for Donald Trump, like him.
“Politics are personal. Everybody has the right to vote for who they want to. I don’t challenge my kids over who they vote for,” he said. “And I don’t think they want to take me on.”
As weeks roll by, and everyone waits for the vitriol to settle, the best thing we can all do, experts said, is focus on what we can control.
For big-picture issues, Lung said, “Write your legislators. Donate to nonprofits. Put your energy toward how to turn the ship instead of trying to change someone else’s beliefs.”
At home, get the laundry done, help your kids with school, make something you really want to eat for dinner.
The whole world is uncertain, Lung said. But we can hold onto uncertainty and hope at the same time. "I’ve become very comfortable with being uncomfortable. It helps keep me aware, keeps me growing and learning, gives me space to learn.
“I see hope in the younger generation. There’s more inclusion, more acceptance than ever.”