By Nick Di Iorio
Earlier this summer, I sat on a bench in bustling Madison Square Park next to a big sign that read: "Meet a Republican Who Cares." I greeted hundreds of passersby. Three people stopped to talk. All three were Republicans.
It was discouraging. I wanted to meet Democrats, and I expected at least a few would stop. As a candidate for U.S. Congress in New York City, I consider myself a moderate, and I believe most New Yorkers would agree with my platform. Education reform and charter schools are my top priority. I want to end tax loopholes for corporations. I believe in higher unemployment benefits.
Yet no Democrats stopped. And I doubt Republicans would have stopped to "Meet a Democrat Who Cares." We seek out those who agree with us, and we avoid those who disagree. We prefer the comfort of affirmation to the uncomfortable threat of rejection. In other words, we hate being vulnerable.
And avoiding vulnerable situations has never been easier. We escape awkward party silences by acting busy on our phones. We avoid online confrontations by unfriending people against our tastes. We isolate ourselves based on our interests. We are abandoning our physical neighbors for virtual neighborhoods of like-minded people.
This is a problem. When all our friends think like we do, we may turn to the news media to understand those who are different. But the political news media spotlights the best of their own and the worst extremes of their ideological opposites. Few Fox News-watching Republicans try to meet Democrats, because they think Democrats are all tax-raising socialists hell-bent on destroying religion and delivering private enterprise into the hands of the nanny state. Few MSNBC-watching Democrats try to meet Republicans, because they think Republicans are all bigoted, brainless pawns of morally bankrupt corporations. And this is shameful.
America is not one half Stalinists, the other half heartless bigots. There is usually another side to the story. It's our responsibility to seek out both sides. Do we? I cannot help but wonder if a few Democratic passersby in Madison Square Park avoided me because they believe all the Republican stereotypes.
They might have been surprised. I'm not rich ? I live week to week and still have student loans to pay off. I'm not selfish ? I spent several years studying to be a priest and I serve the homeless weekly. I'm not homophobic ? I marched in the AIDS Walk this May. I'm not a racist ? I believe in one race, the human race, in all its beautiful diversity.
We must embrace our diversity and listen to those who are different. That means being vulnerable, accepting that our pre-conceived notions could be mistaken. It's not easy ? in fact, it's uncomfortable ? but our lives will be richer for it. And we might find out we're not so different after all.
That's what I discovered a few years ago when I was a Democrat reconsidering the Republican Party. I knew I opposed several Republican policies. But I also opposed several Democratic policies. I thought I deplored Republican principles. I was wrong. I agreed with Republicans on the merits of individual responsibility, innovation, and hard work; that social programs and spending, managed properly, serve a great good; and that state and local governments shape economic and social issues more effectively than distant Washington.
What I deplored was Republican coldness and inflexibility. But my disdain was misplaced. People, not parties, choose to be inflexible. To dismiss the Republican Party's principles on account of inflexible people was to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
I believe in compromise. I believe in alliances, not ultimatums; partnership, not partisanship; being flexible, not bull-headed. I believe in hearing the needs of others and being open to a middle way. And I can put this into practice. That's the beauty of being a New York City Republican ? I'm not beholden to party interests.
But as a candidate for Congress, I am beholden to people. And I want to be. I love meeting people, hearing their stories, and learning how I can help. Party affiliation doesn't matter. We are more than D's and R's. We are people, not parties. That is why I was in Madison Square Park, and why I continue to seek out New Yorkers of all backgrounds. The more vulnerable and open I am, the more I understand the hopes and desires of New Yorkers. And that's what being a politician is truly about.
Nick Di Iorio is the Republican candidate for U.S. Congress in New York's 12th District.