Buddy System for President
Ahead of the November 3rd election, we speak with Prof. Amy Uelmen from Georgetown University, Washington DC who proposed the “Buddy system” to help voters and communities overcome political polarisation, and Rebecca and Diane, two buddies.
The battle of ideas, policies and candidates during an election cycle is a necessary and healthy part of our democracies. Something is going wrong, however, when families stop talking to one another; when friendships are broken; and when communities divide because of destructive political polarisation.
We zoom with Prof. Amy Uelmen, from Georgetown University in Washington DC who outlines the ‘Buddy System’ proposal designed to overcome extreme polarisation, it’s a method which is also used to keep children safe on school trips. I remember it well. My buddy would sit beside me on the bus, look out for me and help me avoid dangerous situations as we’d go to the zoo, the beach or even the theatre as school kids.
Professor Uelmen explains that ‘a buddy’ takes on a new meaning when we are travelling through election cycles. My buddies used to be someone in my class, chosen by my teacher or me, but during an election, who can be your buddy and how do you find one? “It’s someone invested in the future of a political party different from your own. You might already have a connection that can be further developed in this way. If you can’t think of anyone, other friends might be able to give you a hand,” Uelmen replies. She further explains that a good partner need not be limited to someone who supports a specific candidate, it can also be someone invested in some way in the future of a political party that’s not your own.
There are clear differences between elections and school trips, so how exactly do buddies help each other in the political journey? Uelmen explains that it is helpful to make a kind of pact, to promise to help each other out, when you are in the politically hazardous situation. For example, in the middle of a disagreement with someone about politics: “your buddy might act like a ‘sounding board’ – someone who can listen to you and then tell you how you sound to someone like them who comes from a different political background”.
Uelmen thinks the most useful element of the Buddy System is that it helps us “to slow down and reflect on how to communicate in the face of a conflict. Infact, once you have agreed to navigate these political disagreements with your buddy, it naturally takes time when you have to call them or message them to ask for their advice. Professor Uelmen thinks this can help, for example, “to avoid things like reactive and hastily written posts on social media that too often damage relationships and shut down dialogue”.
To check whether this system actually work, Professor Uelmen put us in touch with buddies Rebecca and Diane from Pennsylvania, a crucial swing state in the November 3rd election. They vote on different sides of the bi-partisan political divide in the USA. Rebecca (a health coach) leans right, Diane (a Special Educational Needs Teacher) leans left. They’re both working from home at the minute, and we check in with them on their lunch breaks.
Their friendship began during High School, “since then we’ve often disagreed, but we’ve remained friends” according to Rebecca. Diane brands this type of friendship (one that crosses left-right lines) as “unique” or “rare” at the moment. Diane is a progressive Green party supporter; Rebecca is one of her few Conservative friends. After hearing about the Buddy System proposal from Amy, Rebecca shared it with Diane, and they made their long-term friendship “Buddy System official”.
We ask both Diane and Rebecca what it takes to make a Buddy System relationship work? Diane says making the Buddy System work requires you to want to “try first to understand, rather than to be understood”. Rebecca adds that it is essential “to try to assume the positive motivation of the other; you need to keep reminding yourself that the other side is listening to their conscience and they want to protect their community”. They both tell us you need to be ready to slow down a bit so that you can listen, hear and understand the other person from the opposite political side to you. Their weekly phonecalls (in person coffees or pre-pandemic lunches) start with life, the day to day, how are things are going, then they talk politics, ethics and the big issues. For this system to work, they stress, you need to be genuinely interested in the buddy, you need to care about them.
Rebecca tells us that “things are scary right now in the US” in the lead up to the election. Many share her fears; in fact, 71% of Americans are worried about the risk of widespread violence after the election, according to the recent Democracy for President report.
We ask Diane if the Buddy System helps navigate this post-election anxiety. “Yes” she responds, “you can see the other side is anxious too, that everyone is feeling this anxiety”. In turn, Rebecca notes the “urgent need for people to be seen, heard, felt and understood” in this dangerous context, adding her belief that grassroots experiences like the Buddy System can change things for the better in her country.
Both Rebecca and Diane are doing a social media detox before the election. But we ask them how the Buddy System can also help in interacting on social media pre-election. Diane shares a recent experience with us. A relative responded aggressively to a recent post of hers on social media. Using what she’d learnt from her relationship with Rebecca, she asked to talk to her relative by private message. She tells us “I just wanted to thank them for their opinion and to let them know that I respected them”. For the first time in five years, her relative responded positively to the message.
Political polarisation and division are a complex challenge facing societies all over the world. It will take more than the Buddy System to deal with that division. Nevertheless, relationships like Diane and Rebecca’s and their weekly phone calls give hope and can inspire us all to do something similar, wherever we are. We’re off to join Amy, Rebecca and Diane and find buddies to help us work for a politics that can unite societies, not divide them.
 The buddy system is a method in which two individuals, the “buddies”, work together as a single unit so that they are able to look out for and help each other. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of the expression “buddy system” dates back to 1942. Webster continues to define the buddy system as “an arrangement in which two individuals are paired (as far as mutual security in a dangerous situation is concerned)”. It is a method used in education, in schools on school trips, but also by the U.S. Armed forces, the Boys Scouts of America and the Girl Scouts of the USA.