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America has become polarized and an unsuspecting legislative newsletter shares advice on how to address its deep divisions.

Bowman: Confront Differences With Respect, Friendship and Humility

Legislative newsletters to constituents aren’t typical repositories for larger life lessons. The recent one from freshman Rep. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard, was an exception, offering ways to address political polarization. His newsletter included history lessons and a reading list.

“The health of our Republic is seriously strained, in part because of escalating polarization and partisanship,” Bowman wrote. “The way all of us will successfully navigate this moment in American history is by managing our political differences with mutual respect and genuine friendships with those on ‘opposing sides’ who operate in good faith.”

“On an individual level,” he added, “authenticity, vulnerability and humility are three keys to transcending divisiveness.”

Bowman offered his insights after attending a week-long Emerging Leaders Program for first and second-term legislators from across the country. A former school board member, Bowman said, “I have attended many leadership trainings over the years, and this was one of the most impactful. During the program, I built relationships with legislators from across the country and across the ideological spectrum.“

The history lesson included the complicated relationships between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson who went from bitter political rivals to pen pals who provided eyewitness accounts of the new nation’s growing pains. Bowman’s lesson included a tour of Monticello, Jefferson’s Virginia home and refuge.

The reading list grew from what Bowman described as a challenging week of discussions about modern ethical dilemmas, including “escalating polarization” that often descends to “contempt for one another”. At the top of his list was Love Your Enemies by Arthur Brooks, a Spokane native.

An economist, former head of the American Enterprise Institute and professional musician, Brooks says an ideological bias doesn’t require despising opponents and viewing them as not just wrong, but “morally evil”. In his book, Brooks says holding others in contempt is a “recipe for continued discord and personal unhappiness”.

Love Your Enemies offers some intriguing advice: “Escape the bubble. Go where you’re not invited and say things people don’t expect. Disagree better and disconnect from unproductive debates.”

Other books on Bowman’s list include The Collaboration Blind Spot; Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know; and The Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.

Summing up the event he attended, Bowman said, “None of [what we discussed] is earth-shattering or revolutionary, but it is important to understand and hard to actually do. Despite significant ideological differences, I was left with genuine admiration and respect for these ‘emerging leaders’ across the country and genuinely grateful for the opportunity.”

To say the obvious, this is a legislative newsletter that didn’t instantly hit the recycling bin.

“The way we will navigate this moment in American history is by managing our political differences with mutual respect and genuine friendships.”

About Ben Bowman
Bowman was elected in 2022 as a state representative in House District 25 to fill the seat vacated by retiring Democratic Rep. Margaret Doherty, whom he worked for a legislative aide.. Bowman works as a school administrator, owns a small business and hosts The Oregon Bridge podcast. He helped found Packed with Pride, a food bank serving Tigard, Tualatin and King City.

A seventh generation Oregonian and graduate from Tualatin High School, Bowman was elected to the Tigard-Tualatin School Board in 2019 and served as board chair in 2021. His legislative biography notes, “In those roles, he helped eliminate extracurricular pay-to-play fees, passed a policy on hate speech and advanced environmental sustainability initiatives. During his service, the district achieved its highest graduate rate on record.”

Bowman is a University of Oregon graduate and earned a master’s degree in education policy at Stanford University. House Speaker Dan Rayfield appointed Bowman to serve on Governor Kotek’s Early Literacy Educator Preparation Council. Democratic caucus members elected Bowman as an Assistant Majority Leader, making him part of the leadership team heading into the 2024 legislative session.

The Collaboration Blind Spot
Written by executive leadership coach Dr. Lisa Kwan at Harvard University, her article identifies the failure to understand and address personal issues as a central reason for collaborations to falter. While the article focuses on business collaboration, Kwan’s point applies equally to political collaboration.

Those who pursue collaboration, Kwan says, “forget to consider how the groups they’re asking to work together might experience the request – especially when they are being told to break down walls, divulge information, sacrifice autonomy, share resources or even cede responsibilities.”

“To make sure collaborative initiatives are successful,” Kwan advises, “leaders must first identify threats to group security and take steps to minimize them and discourage defensive behaviors. Only then should they focus on process and outcomes.”

Think Again
Adam Grant, an organizational psychology professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, makes the case that because it’s impossible to know everything, so leaders should be humble and open to being proven wrong. According to Grant, humility is a virtue, not a weakness, in pursuit of goals facing opposition or disagreement.

Grant argues that being wrong is actually an opportunity and sincere criticism can be invaluable. A useful leadership trait is to give opponents the chance to prove their point. With the right tools and experiences, “even the most ignorant people can change their minds.”

Founding Fathers
Historian Joseph Ellis won a Pulitzer Prize for his book that traces the contributions of seven “founding fathers”. It is one of the most readable accounts of America’s constitutional birth.

Ellis is also prized for his commentary about modern America, as was on display in an interview he gave to Time magazine. When asked what’s different now since America has suffered vehement political disagreements since Jefferson’s time, Ellis responded:

“It’s a size problem. There’s a difference between 4 million people gathered on the Atlantic Coast and 325 million people across the nation. The single most important difference is that we are attempting to do something that nobody has ever done before: Create a fully and genuinely multiracial society in a huge nation.”

This was Ellis’ response when asked “What will finally unite Americans?”

“A great crisis that leaves us no choice but to come together. When the coastal areas have to be evacuated, when the real implications of climate change begin to hit, we’re going to be forced to come together.”