Americans Agree on a Lot

So let’s change the narrative of division

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor on Unsplash
Months back, I vowed to stop writing about politics

But that doesn’t mean I won’t write about democracy, or about what it means to be an American in these critical days. Especially having just passed the first anniversary of January 6, 2021 — a day that I believe ranks with 9/11 in terms of existential threat to the nation — the state of our Union is a topic that is with me, waking and sleeping. I find myself ricocheting, feeling hopeful and resolved one moment, frightened yet resigned the next. I know I’m not alone in this.

There is growing, general agreement that America is in deep trouble. In December, USA Today reported on a poll conducted by Public Agenda which found that most Americans are sick of the shouting and divisiveness and would rather focus on making life better for more of us: “Nearly three of every four Americans said it would be good for the country if Americans “reject political hostility and divisiveness and focus more on their common ground.”

But the same poll found that few Americans expect that to happen. “Fewer than one in 10 surveyed think political rancor between ordinary Americans will decrease in the next 10 years, compared to nearly half who think it will increase,” say the article’s authors, Ledyard King and Chelsey Cox.

Increasingly, there is fear that we may descend into political violence, even civil war.

Why, when there is so much common ground?

While the partisan divisions about what happened on January 6, 2021 seem nearly insurmountable (check out this article from NPR), there’s plenty of evidence that most of us agree on a whole lot of other issues. A number of polls conducted within the past two years —among them a survey conducted shortly before the 2020 election by Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights — find that Americans’ values and concerns are more in sync than many of us suspect and that regardless of our party affiliation, our goals for the nation aren’t out of whack.

Across party lines, most of us consider addressing climate change among our top 15% of national priorities. Most of us also share a sense of urgency about improving access to quality health care, ensuring safety in our neighborhoods and communities, reforming criminal justice, updating our infrastructure, and giving the middle class a fair shake.

Most of us care deeply about quality public education for our kids. A majority of us believe we have a right to clean air and water — even if we don’t think other Americans share those concerns. And we seem nearly unanimous in our support for the concept of individual liberties. None of that is really so hard to understand.

Why, then, all the rancor and division?

Not to wimp out, but this is a question both deep and wide, upon which much has been written and continues to be considered by minds far more erudite — or, in some cases, simply noisier — than mine.

There’s plenty of finger-pointing: at the infamously radicalizing algorithms of social media; at the anonymity of the internet that allows people to give vent to their most irresponsible vitriol without fear of consequence; at the baked-in, if-it-bleeds-it-leads negative bias of the news media; at pundits and leaders who are perfectly fine with releasing outright lies into the national discourse like pathogens, as though conducting a kind of societal germ warfare.

Yet the Public Agenda poll indicates not only that a majority of us think the divisions are harmful to the nation, but that we value different viewpoints and want to find ways to connect across party lines.

Who gains from divisiveness?

If most of us are sick of the screaming and shouting, the hateful trolling, and the undignified antics of some members of Congress, then it follows that one reason it persists is that a spirit of distrust and division benefits certain interests — just not yours, mine, or the nation’s.

I think it’s a worthwhile question to ask, even if the answer may be multi-pronged. But it’s no mystery that many of us have lost respect and confidence in our elected representatives. The USA Today article quotes Will Friedman, a senior fellow at Public Agenda: ” . . . a lot of it has to do with the fact that national political leadership is highly polarized and is finding it helpful to ramp up to the divisiveness within the country.”

So perhaps we should be wary when a politician or a pundit or a talking head seeks to whip us up on the relatively small number of topics upon which we tend to disagree vehemently. We shouldn’t make it easy for anyone to distract us from our common interests by weaponizing our differences. There is too much at stake.

Here’s the bright side: we’ve named the problem

Since we agree that polarization is bad for America, we’ve taken the first step to address any issue: naming it for what it is. Now we can start asking better questions. What will it take to bridge our divides? How can we focus on our common interests? How do we move past blame and ideological rigidity enough to work together toward our mutual interests?

I don’t have those answers, but here’s one thing I’m sure of: if we think we can shout the other side down or wait for them to see the error of their ways and come around to our superior way of thinking, we’re already defeated.

If we can acknowledge that we’re all in the same boat, we still might differ over the best way to fix the leaks. But we’ll be a lot less likely to blow a hole in the hull just so we can drown the passengers whose viewpoints we don’t like.

2 Comments

  1. Love this, Jan. I could not have expressed your point better. Have you heard of “One Small Step”? It’s a project designed by the creator of Story Corps (on NPR) that gets people from opposite ends of the political spectrum talking to each other about views they have in common. It’s a start.

    • I have not heard of “One Small Step”, and I’m excited to find out about it — I’m a huge fan of Story Corps, and this sounds like another simple but powerful idea. Thanks for letting me know!

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