Serious people are sincerely asking a question that, even a few months ago, I never thought imaginable: “Is America so polarized that we just need to divide into two countries?”
In 2018, I ran for state Senate in Massachusetts on a platform of bringing disparate people together around common goals; it was a message I felt passionately about and felt was sorely needed then. Two years later, that message seems almost quaint.
Increasingly, people are abandoning notions like common ground and tolerance. Some see a permanently divided nation as perhaps the only way to end the ferocious polarization that has led to the deep resentment and even hatred we’re witnessing in this country today.
To those who feel that our divisions are too great to overcome, I have two messages: First, recognize that we are being played by forces whose incentives are to divide us. In “Why Competition in the Politics Industry Is Failing America,” Harvard Business School strategist Michael Porter and business executive Katherine Gehl explain that our “[political] parties compete to divide voters and serve special interests, rather than weigh and balance the interests of all citizens and find common ground to move the country forward.”
Individual political leaders have also grasped the power of performative political divisiveness and exploited it to its full effect. Media companies — including social media — benefit from, and therefore encourage, controversy and division, and we know that foreign forces also use these platforms strategically to sow conflict.
Much of this attempt to portray America as severely polarized is untethered to reality; a recent study by the nonprofit Beyond Conflict showed that Americans are not actually that ideologically divided, even on issues perceived as polarizing like immigration and gun control. We generally agree with other Americans far more than these interested forces lead us to think we do.
Second, retreating to one ideological side or another and digging one’s heels in is no way to end conflict. The result of that strategy is repeated fracturing into an ever-increasing number of tribes. Why stop at dividing the country between liberals and conservatives? There are profound internal disagreements within these groups, and we will find ourselves in an ever-narrowing bubble of like-minded people. Such a strategy cannot sustain a robust free society.
Instead, we can find the “moral purpose in pluralism” spoken of by commentator David French, ascribing goodwill to people who disagree with us so that we can exercise the compromise and collaboration necessary to build and maintain a functioning democracy.
As we move through this election season, let’s resist the forces working to divide us. We should agree, at the very least, that we want to keep the grand experiment of the United States of America going.
Margaret Woolley Busse is a public policy and social impact adviser and lives in Holladay.