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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

Don't get consumed by all the noise

Montgomery Mayor-elect Steven Reed speaks at his victory

Montgomery Mayor-elect Steven Reed speaks at his victory party on Tuesday in Montgomery, Ala. Reed becomes the first black mayor in the Alabama capital's 200-year history after defeating businessman David Woods by a decisive margin.  Credit: AP/Mickey Welsh

As the House impeachment inquiry races forward, its concentric circles snaring more people; as the president thrashes in its focus, lashing out with ever more incendiary language; as the institutions of our democracy quake against his daily battering; as our nation betrays its allies, exposing Syrian Kurds to great harm from a more powerful foe — some quieter recent developments invite optimism about our shared human endeavor.

Montgomery elected its first black mayor. Choosing Steven Reed, 45, was powerful symbolism. Montgomery, 200 years old, is Alabama's capital and the first capital of the Confederacy. It hosted a slave market and was blotted by racial violence during the Jim Crow era, but also was a cradle of the civil rights movement as home to the Rosa Parks-led bus boycott and terminus of the famed Selma-to-Montgomery voting rights marches. Now all three Confederate capitals — including Richmond and Danville, Virginia — have black mayors. Reed and company will have to prove themselves by delivering services and responsible budgets, but for now one can note that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s arc continues to bend, however gradually, toward justice.

The Senate Intelligence Committee issued a sweeping report. It confirmed that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton, that it's working to disrupt the 2020 campaign, that its goal is to foster distrust in our democratic institutions and sew discord, and that it does so by using social media to spread conspiracy theories and false information. The bipartisan committee, led by Republicans, showed that our warring parties can work together for the sake of country. The rest of Congress should honor that, by adopting the committee's recommendations to safeguard our elections.

A big power company is going green. PacifiCorp, a major Western utility, is going to shutter 20 of its 24 coal-fired power plants and add 6,300 megawatts of solar power, 4,600 megawatts of wind and 2,800 megawatts of battery storage. PacifiCorp will still use some fossil fuels, but the company noted the plunging cost of renewable energy and demands by its customers for cleaner energy. Call it a triumph of the marketplace and the public square.

A fascinating social experiment was conducted in Texas. More than 500 ordinary Americans, identified as a cross-section of the country by the respected research institution NORC at the University of Chicago, were brought to Dallas by Stanford University political scientists to talk politics. They were given a 55-page briefing book on top issues that omitted polarizing words (progressive, conservative, names of parties) and for four days, in mostly small groups, they talked. Guess what happened? Most moved to the middle. NORC polling before and after found that among Democrats, support decreased for free tuition at public universities, government baby-bond savings programs, and automatic enrollment in "more generous" Medicare programs. Among Republicans, support decreased for reducing the number of refugees allowed into the United States and increased for Medicare for All, offering more visas for low-skilled workers, and repealing the Affordable Care Act. Will their shifts stand the test of time? For now, it's a shard of light splitting our dark divide: Our tribes might be able to get along.

Last week was Nobel week. I love it, for what it shows us about ourselves, whether it's a peace prize for a prime minister from Ethiopia whose outreach ended a long and often violent stalemate with Eritrea, or a chemistry award to three scientists who built on each other's work for nearly two decades to produce the lithium-ion battery, which revolutionized electronics. 

In our quieter corners, hope lives. Let's nurture that, not the noise that consumes us. 

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.

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