A Nation Divided
On a range of social and political issues, Americans are deeply split. On questions ranging from how favorably the Supreme Court is viewed, to the value of higher education, or the role of scientists in policy debates, we see the world very differently. What’s more, whether or not you hold the Supreme Court in high regard, or think universities have a positive role to play, depends largely on whether you tend to vote for Republican or Democratic candidates.
Since 1994, think tank Pew Research has measured where voters stand on 10 different political values. From 1994 to 2017, they found that the gap between Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, and Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, widened from 15 to 36 percentage points. In other words, our party identity is closely correlated with massively different understandings of the world.
These partisan divisions are also closely correlated with race, educational background (closely tied to income), and gender. The gender gap in the 2018 midterm House elections was a massive 24 points, with male voters preferring Republican candidates by 9 points, while women backed Democrats by a margin of 15 points.
Education also plays a critical role in voting patterns. In the same midterm elections, 59% of college educated women voted for the Democratic candidate, while 56% of non-college educated women supported a Republican — a chasm of 15 points. While Republicans won both college-educated and non-college educated men, there was still a difference of 15 points in the strength of support, based on educational background.
Race plays a far stronger role than gender or education, in predicting how we vote. In the 2018 midterm election, 54% of whites supported Republican candidates, while 90% of African Americans, 69% of Latinos, and 77% of Asian Americans backed Democrats. Needless to say, these are massive gaps.
Americans are increasingly aware of just how divided we are. A poll from Rasmussen found that 31% of Americans think a civil war is likely at some point in the next five years. As unlikely and alarmist as this might sound at first glance, it is a troubling indicator of the tense political moment we are living through. As the House moves towards impeaching President Trump, and with a presidential election less than a year away, these deep divisions aren’t likely to be bridged any time soon.
Sincere, heartfelt differences lie at the core of a healthy republic. The absence of dissent, over the long run, also means a lack of thought, and long-term stagnation.
If we only consider one fixed set of ideas, & pursue the same policies over and over, we become vulnerable to groupthink. We continue to support and implement strategies that may not work, unconscious of our own fallibility.
On the other hand, talking past each other, or being perpetually outraged at some occurrence, does not move us forward either. In late 2014, Slate published a piece titled “The Year of Outrage”, with a visual collage of every news story that year (often political), which had at some point stirred some sort of outcry.
Writing 4 years later in The Atlantic, Conor Friesdorf referenced that piece, and noted that he was “pondering the almost constant expressions of outrage that characterized another year….in America’s digital culture, outrage is packaged to almost every niche in the citizenry.” As 2019 winds down, one must wonder whether we’ve hit peak outrage, or if 2020 offers even more in store. Signs point to the latter.
We need to facilitate ways to get to know each other better, on a human level. Not as Republicans or Democrats. Nor as rural, religious, pro-life conservatives who own guns, or secular progressives who support abortion rights, yearn for gun restrictions, and live in larger coastal areas. Neither as members of the working class, nor as the 1%. Or as members of various, ethnic and religious groups.
This isn’t to say that any of those identities is irrelevant to who we are, or that they should be ignored. On the contrary: one’s political views, religious background (or lack thereof), ethnicity, geographic location, and social class can heavily inform how we see the world, and think about politics.
However, it is critical that we are also capable of seeing those who are different from us, as people who share a common destiny. We need, a shared sense of purpose. We must allow for vigorous disagreement, while listening to each other, and striving to find ways to build a better society.
Eric Liu’s Great Idea
How do we make this happen? One of the most compelling approaches was offered by Eric Liu, writing in The Atlantic just days before the 2016 presidential election. Liu is an author and thought leader. He served as a policy adviser and speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, and today runs Citizen University. Liu argues for a process of “more listening, more serving, and — perhaps counterintuitively — more arguing.”
The first part of Liu’s proposal involves “talking circles”, where people with varying opinions agree to simply listen to each other. These conversations would not explicitly focus on ideology or political viewpoints, but rather, seek to address broad questions, which all of us have opinions on.
One example Liu offers is “Who influenced you, and how do you pass it on?” The goal is to get people talking, and see what they share in common. The objective would be not to have a debate, but rather “presence….to listen to one another.” As Liu explains, “….chords of connection would emerge among dissimilar people who found they’d been shaped by similar experiences.”
This makes a lot of sense. All of us have family, friends, colleagues, and mentors who shaped our worldview, and really, our sense of ourselves. We’ve all experienced triumph, and grappled with failure. The more that we hear each other’s stories, rooted in common human experience, the less we view one another as alien.
Liu believes this process helps us humanize one another, to see our political opponents as people (even if we disagree intensely). At this point, it’s time to serve. As Liu puts it, the very positive aspect of national service, in the context of people who disagree, is that it “gets you and me together not to work on you and me, but on a third thing.”
This also reminds participants that we’re part of something much bigger than any single individual, or the worldviews each of us hold. Liu articulates this beautifully, noting that “…the work of service — if it’s done alongside people not of your set — rehumanizes everyone involved.”
It goes without saying that as a society, we’re facing some critical challenges. From homelessness and high suicide rates (with an epidemic of loneliness) to an underperforming educational system and widespread environmental destruction, there are numerous issues which requires our attention. This sort of work, done in a group setting, “literally repairs America.”
The process doesn’t end here. Liu’s approach involves one more critical step (perhaps the toughest one): arguing. He suggests that rather than arguing less, we should strive to disagree better, that is, to have “less stupid” arguments. As Liu sees it, we’re stuck in a somewhat obsolete debate, between a “decaying two-party institutional framework….fail to challenge foundational assumptions about capitalism or government…center on symbolic proxy skirmishes instead of naming the underlying change…”
Liu views disagreements over political and philosophical matters not as something to avoid, nor as a battle in which one side eventually declares victory. Rather, “It is for us all to wrestle perpetually with these differences, to fashion hybrid solutions that work for the times until they don’t, and to start again.”
We conduct surface-level debates around healthcare policy, income inequality & many other issues. Yet, we fail to dig deeper. Questions about fairness, justice, and our obligations to each other don’t seem to enter the conversation.
We don’t cut to the core of our differences, to better grasp what underlies our differing worldviews. We fail to think deeply about how to work through what divides us, and build a society that works for as many of us as possible. Liu’s approach offers a better way forward.
It is time to think about how we might implement Liu’s suggestions in a comprehensive, scalable way. How can we increase participation in this sort of project?
What A National Service & Dialogue Project Might Look Like
The first step is to find concerned citizens who wish to participate. These individuals would be adults, aged 18 or older.
There would be no work or schooling requirements. The goal is simply to gather people from a broad cross-section of American society — those who might not normally interact, and hold heartfelt disagreements about a range of issues.
What is needed is a willingness to share what one is thinking and feeling, with as much candor as possible. Simultaneously, one must be open to hearing the worldviews of those who are different from us. Of course, a desire to serve one’s society, in some capacity, is also critical.
This service could take many forms, ranging from tutoring and mentoring youths in a community, feeding the homeless, building housing for the underprivileged, helping formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrate into society, cleaning up local roads and parks, and visiting those who are suffering from illness. There are numerous challenges, each of which requires urgent attention from caring individuals.
These service projects would last 4 to 6 days. They would be held in a location where none of the participants live. A sense of being on neutral, unfamiliar ground puts everyone on a level playing field, and allows for greater growth and progress.
The first half a day or so would involve the sorts of talking circles which Liu suggested. Participants might discuss the greatest challenges they’ve faced in their lives, and how they overcame them. Or, they might examine which relationships have had the greatest impact on who they are. By starting with common themes of human experience, the entire group can better understand one another, and see that they’re not so different.
Next, it is time to work together, in service of others. Let’s take the idea of helping build a home (which Habitat For Humanity, amongst others, has enjoyed tremendous success with, for many years).
After the first half day of dialogue around common themes, the group could begin work on the project. While some knowledge of construction (or whatever else a project involves) certainly doesn’t hurt, the primary objective, as noted, is to bring together a group of people from different backgrounds, to collaborate towards a common mission.
Spending several days together in service will drive most people towards a sense of rapport, and perhaps even friendship. The project itself isn’t likely to be completed (especially with something more involved, such as building a home), but real progress will be made. Just as importantly, a group of people from different walks of life will serve together.
For the final 1.5 days of the project, it’s time for the arguing portion of the project. We must have honest discussions around the issues which members of this group disagree most about.
Ideally, these dialogues will not focus solely on partisan battles, though it is difficult to extinguish partisanship from our political dialogue. Those facilitating the discussions can help focus participants on the deeper philosophy and values that underlie opposing political beliefs.
Through such conversations, a progressive might come to better understand how many conservatives view the role of government, or ongoing demographic shifts, as the country becomes less white. This could lead to a better understanding of why so many conservatives are skeptical of government social programs, or favor stronger immigration restrictions.
Along the same lines, conservatives could hear directly from progressives (whom they spent the past several days working with), as to why they believe government-backed healthcare is so crucial, or the benefits of loosened immigration policy, and greater cultural diversity. Just as progressives did, conservatives should strive to understand the worldview which underlies these opinions.
I’m under no illusion that participants will reach consensus on any of these difficult issues. Nor should we expect them to. As Liu puts it: “Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument — between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility….”
It is time for us to have these debates and really hear each other, to see and feel our differences — and figure out a way forward. This isn’t merely a task for politicians, but rather, for each of us, the citizens.
While local, state and national elected officials must do better, we cannot delegate this responsibility to a third party. We need to gain a better understanding of what underlies opposing viewpoints, and how we might fashion solutions that gradually move us forward.
There must be clear rules for this dialogue. No opinion is off limits, no matter how controversial. However, participants must respect certain rules.
Every individual must be allowed to complete their thoughts, without any interruptions. If another person objects to a point a participant made, they are allowed to respond, after the other person has finished.
This entire discussion must strike a thoughtful balance between encouraging people to listen to each other, while facilitating deeper discussions about the topics on which we disagree. We will need to hold lots of uncomfortable conversations. This won’t be easy, but it is neccessary.
Those who live in towns and states unfamiliar to us, fall into varied income categories, or are part of different ethnic and religious groups, will now feel less like strangers. While their social and political views might be dramatically different, we have a sense of shared humanity. We’ve worked together to serve others. We’ve also delved deeply into why each of us sees the world differently.
Through such dialogue, we can begin to fashion compromises and solutions, which at some point might become local, state and national policy. This part is difficult, but it is possible.
As participants return home, they can engage with their neighbors. They can share what they’ve learned, and encourage others who are similarly open minded, to participate in this program. Perhaps they can stay in contact with those they met, and share the efforts they’re making in their respective communities.
As the years go by, more and more people have been a part of the program, and familiarized themselves with those of differing backgrounds, by collaborating on a common mission. We’ll improve our society, break down barriers, and have conversations that matter.
At some point, some of these participants will engage with local, state and national politicians. Some of them might even run for office themselves. The insights they gained from this program could be gradually implemented in our political system.
We can move towards a political culture which acknowledges the existence of strongly held beliefs and values, but also has a bias towards progress, and solutions that work for all of us. This part isn’t easy, and it certainly won’t be quick. However, it is possible, and the impact of such a change will be powerful. As Seth Godin puts it “Change the culture, change the world.”
This entire undertaking will often be uncomfortable. There is plenty we’ll continue to vigorously disagree on — and that’s how it should be. However, reducing the sense of distrust and personal alienation we feel towards Americans different from ourselves, must be addressed. That is an absolutely critical mission — really, a much needed medicine, to secure the future of this nation.
Who Is Going To Pay For It?
With any social initiative, an important question arises: How do we fund it? Some participants might have the means to pay to fly to another state or city, pay for lodging, and take time off of work. Others may not. Let’s remember, we’re trying to bring together people from different class backgrounds.
Fortunately, there are multiple sources of funding for this project. Private non-profit foundations, as well as some of the organizations which benefit from the services of the program’s participants (such as Habitat For Humanity), could help fund participants who cannot afford the program’s expenses. Some of the program’s more affluent members, after they have completed the program, might also provide additional funding.
Any sort of government support should be avoided. While government programs certainly have their role to play, this ought to be a private initiative. Receiving government support makes this incredibly important project subject to potential budget cuts, or influence by those in power.
However, private money should be quite possible to find. In a time of great division, there would seem to be few things more crucial than bringing people together in service, to better understand and work through their differences.
Towards A Better America
Our current course is undeniably perilous. Unhindered social and political division, combined with a stubborn unwillingness to listen to each other, is a recipe for a continued slide downwards. We need to find meaningful ways to come together, heal our society, and listen to each other.
This doesn’t mean we accept that which we find repugnant, or that we abandon deeply held convictions. Rather, we must make a good faith effort to understand one another, to serve, and to thoughtfully assess how we might fashion a better future. It’s time to do better.