On June 6, 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, cutting short a presidential campaign that experts have speculated would have ended with a victory. Fifty years later America continues to struggle with the division and polarization that Kennedy fought to end.
The night he was shot, Kennedy told an interviewer, “If the division continues, we’re going to have nothing but chaos and havoc here in the United States,” according to NBC News.
The number of Republicans and Democrats who view the other party as very unfavorable has more than doubled in the last 20 years, according to a Pew Research study.
Kennedy served as the attorney general under his brother, former President John F. Kennedy, as well as a New York senator in Congress before launching his own presidential bid. Robert had just won the California primary when he was exiting the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles and was shot and killed.
This assassination came just five months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and five years after his brother, John, was assassinated.
Eric Walz, dean of the College of Language and Letters at BYU-Idaho, said he hopes we can learn from Robert and from that time period in America — violence and division do not bring peace. Walz said America still faces division and polarization.
“Today’s divisions seem to me to be based more on groups — some have called this tribalism,” Walz said. “The clearest example is political, Republicans versus Democrats, but there are others. In these divisions, anyone not of your group is outside and cannot be compromised with without being untrue to your group.”
Walz said the danger in this thinking is that people stop listening and try to speak over others and not with them.
“The group with the loudest voice gets listened to,” Walz said. “There seems to be little sense that conversations will bring any sort of acceptable compromise. You either get what you want or you don’t.”
In a speech given after the assassination of King, Robert spoke of this same division and hate and why that is not the answer for America.
“What we need in the United States is not division,” Robert said. “What we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country.”
Sarai Nava, a junior majoring in international studies, said extreme polarization is a danger that leads to tribalism but suggested BYU-I students can avoid the temptation of treating others with hostility by listening and asking questions.
“BYU-I students can practice overcoming political hostility by asking people of opposing convictions why they support certain views,” Nava said. “Discovering what’s most important to them can help to find parallels and friendly debate.”
The division between Republicans and Democrats continues to escalate. It reached record highs during Barack Obama’s presidency and has continued to widen during Donald Trump’s presidency, according to a Pew Research Study.
Despite the polarization between the political parties, various political and religious leaders have attempted to overcome these differences and show there can be good relations between different groups.
Such was the case when, earlier this year, Democratic Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona squared off in a friendly snowball fight duel on the front lawn of the Capitol, according to USA Today.
President Russell M. Nelson encouraged members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to work together with all people of various backgrounds or cultures during the “Be One” event on June 1.
“Understanding inspires us with passionate desire to build bridges of cooperation instead of walls of segregation,” President Nelson said.
President Nelson, Walz and Nava all spoke of working together and treating people with civility. Walz suggested that having the love of God is the only way to avoid furthering these divisions and to quell the political hostility in this country.
“Nothing quells political hostility faster than relevant thought-provoking questions,” Nava said. “This will keep the focus on solutions instead of labels or name-calling.”