Baseball Cap with American Flag PatchIt’s time to take off your Democrat hat or your Republican hat and put on your American hat.

 

And our President agrees with us.

“What truly matters is not which party controls our government but whether our government is controlled by the people.”
~ President Donald J. Trump, Inaugural Address

We must remember that we are all Americans first. And our loyalty is to our country and not a political party. Plus, there are real consequences to a country that is politically divided. At the national level, Congress has been stalled by gridlock that prevents them from passing even basic legislation. This unwillingness to compromise prevents the work of the American people from getting done. On a personal level, political polarization is ruining friendships, splitting families, and ending marriages. The divisions in our country are not healthy for our democracy or our personal lives.

Growing animosity across party lines

Are our divisions really getting deeper? There have always been conservative Americans and progressive Americans. What has changed is the degree to which we are divided. According to a 2014 study on political polarization by the Pew Research Center, the percentage of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled from 1994-2014, from 10% to 21%.  What is more troubling is that unfavorable opinions of the opposing party have risen even higher. Republicans who have a very negative opinion of the Democratic Party rose from 17% to 43% over 20 years. Likewise, Democrats with a very unfavorable opinion of the Republican Party increased from 16% to 38%.

Worse still is the finding that the majority of these individuals believe the opposing party is a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” This animosity toward our fellow Americans is troubling and dangerous for our country. Another consequence of this increasing political divide is that the center has gotten smaller. The number of Americans that fall within the center (equal number of liberal and conservative positions) has dropped from 49% in 1994 and 2004 to 39% in 2014.

So how did our country become so divided? At the federal and state level, gerrymandering has allowed politicians to pool their supporters into safe districts to the point that opposing viewpoints don’t matter. Politicians only have to be accountable to their supporters in order to be re-elected. The result is that more politicians with extreme political views are in office and the number of moderates has declined. Without moderates to find common ground with the opposing party, the party extremists have created a culture of gridlock and animosity in Washington and state legislatures.

At the individual level, a combination of factors have contributed to our political divisions, but they are primarily related to a trend where Americans are increasingly isolating themselves from their fellow citizens with differing viewpoints. According to Bill Bishop in his book, The Big Sort, over the past 40 years, Americans have been sorting themselves into communities where people live, think, and vote like their neighbors. In other words, “birds of a feather flock together.” An analysis by the Pew Research Center further supports this premise since their study found that 75% of consistent conservatives prefer to live where “the houses are larger and father apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.” In contrast, 77% of consistent liberals prefer a community where the “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” In other words, Americans are segmenting themselves into rural (conservative) and urban (progressive) communities.

The ideological isolation is not just geographical and has made its way into our personal relationships as well. Most people look for a mate with similar ideological views. Research by Shanto Iyengar at Stanford University found that many Democrats and Republicans wouldn’t want their child to marry a supporter of the other party. In addition, Americans with strong political viewpoints are more inclined to have close friends that share their political views. This is more pronounced with consistent conservatives (63%) than with consistent liberals (49%).

Further exacerbating the political isolation are media habits of consistent conservatives and consistent liberals. They get their news from different sources, they trust different news outlets, and they behave differently on social media. Consistent conservatives get most of their news (47%) from one single source, Fox News. Consistent liberals on the other hand, get their news from a variety of sources (CNN 15%, MSNBC 12%, NPR 13%, New York Times 10%). Consistent conservatives are more distrustful of news sources and report a distrust of 24 out of 36 news sources polled. Consistent liberals are more apt to trust news sources and report a distrust of 8 out of 36 news sources. However, the level of distrust among the 8 sources is high:  81% of consistent liberals distrust Fox News and 75% distrust the Rush Limbaugh Show.

On social media, consistent conservatives are more likely to hear political opinions that align with their own views. This makes sense when we remember that consistent conservatives are more likely to have friends that share their views on politics. Consistent liberals are more likely to block or defriend someone on social media with an opposing political viewpoint. They are also more likely to end a personal friendship due to political differences.

What can we do to heal our divided country? At the federal and state level we must end gerrymandering. Politicians must be in competitive districts so that they are accountable to all voters, not just their party supporters. This will result in more moderate politicians being elected that will lead to compromise in order to end the stalemate in Washington and in state legislatures. A majority of citizens in both parties want Congress to work together. We the voters, need to make sure our politicians understand that.

At the individual level, the root of the problem is isolation from people with opposing viewpoints. In other words, conservatives live in a conservative bubble and progressives live in a liberal bubble. In order to come together as a nation and work together to solve the problems in our country, we must learn to understand opposing political viewpoints. And more importantly, to respect opposing political viewpoints. Too often, the other side is treated as the “enemy” and mocked or scorned on talk radio or social media. We need to understand that progressives and conservatives hold different moral values that deserve respect. Progressives tend to endorse values like equality, fairness, care and protection from harm while conservatives tend to endorse values like loyalty, patriotism, respect for authority and moral purity. We need to start listening to each other. Really listening in order to understand the other side. The goal is not to persuade the other side to see our point of view but to understand why they feel the way they do. Once we can understand each other and respect each other’s opinions, then we can begin to work together to heal the divisions and find common ground.

How do we get started? Follow these simple steps and we’ll be on our way to a more united America.

  • Be respectful. This should be obvious but our country is experiencing a lack of civility that makes it difficult to discuss public policy without it disintegrating into a name calling slug fest. We must acknowledge and respect differing viewpoints without it getting personal.
  • Listen with an open mind to different viewpoints. This is the key to understanding. Listen with the goal of learning why someone feels the way they do without expressing judgment on your part.
  • Resist the urge to rant on Facebook, Twitter, or other social media outlets. It’s divisive and results in hard feelings that prevent us from coming together. Besides, social media wars won’t change legislation. Instead, channel your energy into expressing your opinions where it matters – by calling your members of Congress.
  • Avoid Facebook as a source of news. More and more Americans (63% per a Pew Research Center Study) get some of their news from Facebook and Twitter where fake news is easily disseminated. Plus, we know that Americans choose social media friends with similar viewpoints so we wouldn’t get much exposure to differing viewpoints which is important for our healing.
  • Get out of your ideological bubble. Expand your news sources to include conservative and progressive media outlets. When we only hear “our” side of the news it only reinforces our divisions and doesn’t lend itself to a better understanding of our fellow American’s viewpoints. If you normally watch Fox News, switch it to MSNBC or another news channel for at least 5 minutes a day. Add 5 minutes a week until you get at least 25% of your news from a non-conservative source. The same goes for progressives. Add Fox News to your line-up and increase viewership by 5 minutes a week until you reach 25% of your televised news time.
  • Avoid political talk radio shows that aren’t respectful of a different viewpoint. Most hosts of these shows are deeply entrenched conservatives or progressives and they do not provide a respectful or balanced opinion of the opposing side. In fact, they spew hatred and intolerance for anything other than a far right or far left viewpoint. The hosts show no civility for others and paint the other side as the enemy. If the host yells or goes on an anger rant about the opposing side then the show is contributing to the divisions in our nation. Our country will never come together as long as we hear a constant barrage of hatred for our fellow Americans with a differing opinion. Avoid these shows.
  • Read a variety of newspapers in order to bring balance into your news.
  • Be wary of any news source that claims it is the only source of the “truth”.
  • Reach out to people in your community with listening sessions. Have a “potluck and politics” night where people from different political parties get together to share food and their views. The host will suggest a topic and people that wish to speak will share their viewpoint. Respectful questions may be asked to clarify a position but there must be no debating. Then the other side is allowed a chance to offer their viewpoint. The point is to listen and learn with the goal of understanding each other in a safe and welcoming environment.

Only we the people can bring our country back together. Let’s do what’s right for our country and end gerrymandering and heal our divisions. Only then can we make Congress work for the people again.

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