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Searching for common ground on Thanksgiving in Trump's America

Searching for common ground on Thanksgiving in Trump's America
A clash between anti-Trump protestors and Trump supporters at Western Kentucky University on Nov. 9 in Bowling Green, Ky. (Austin Anthony/Associated Press)

With its imagery of native people throwing a lifeline to struggling immigrants, the holiday that Americans observe today celebrates values that seem to belong to another era. After all, we just elected a president who pledged to effectively close the borders to refugees fleeing sectarian oppression and violence in distant land — immigrants more desperate than even the persecuted Pilgrims who boarded the Mayflower — and to expel those who fled poverty and crime in their home countries to build safe and productive lives here without a legal right to do so.

To focus on the superficial parallels between then and now, however, would be to miss a more important aspect of what we celebrate on Thanksgiving. As time would reveal, the English emigres and the original inhabitants of Cape Cod were rivals at the most basic level. Yet the Pilgrims who lived to see their first harvest in 1621 celebrated it with members of the neighboring Wampanoag Indians because they recognized a few important things that they shared — starting with their common interest in eking out a living on the land and belief in a Creator who had helped them grow enough food to make it through another winter.

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Finding these sorts of touchpoints seems harder for Americans these days. The polarization between the political right and left, from the grass roots to the nation's capital, has grown more acute over the last two decades. We've split into multiple political, cultural and ethnic tribes — fissures promoted by the echo chambers of the Internet and cemented this year by a wildly divisive presidential campaign, which left protesters chanting "Not my president" in the streets of several major cities for days after the election. President-elect Donald J. Trump has been sounding some of the right notes as he prepares to take office, yet his first few appointments have only reinforced Democrats' suspicions that his administration will be every bit as extreme as his campaign.

The strains in the ties that bind us together as a nation will be felt at many a dinner table today, as families and friends gather to celebrate the holiday and try not to talk politics. But ignoring our differences won't make them go away. Three hundred ninety-five years after the first Thanksgiving, the challenge isn't to make it through the next winter. It's to search for our lost touchpoints— the goals we all share, from liberty to security and from equal opportunity to universal prosperity. We can and will fight over the means to those ends. But first, we need to find a way to agree on where we want to go. Together.

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