Does this sound familiar: “Every morning, I wake up with a pit in my stomach over how divided our country is. Sure, it’s not as bad as the Civil War, but is that supposed to make me feel better?” asked Anna, from Nevada.
Anna’s sentiment is typical of citizens across the United States, no matter their politics. Over the last three years, there are many issues that my panel of 500 voters has disagreed on, but they consistently and overwhelmingly agree with the statement, “I am worried about the divisiveness in our country.”
What’s interesting is how voters diagnose the problem. Some feel it’s “the other guys.”
“It all started with Obama for me,” said Phil, a Republican from South Dakota. “Hey, I’m a cop, and when our president started making a mockery of the police, it made me angry at everyone who agreed with him. For that, people started calling me racist, which is the worst thing anybody could call me when I know I’m not. So, I give up.”
Helen, a Democrat from Delaware, thinks President Trump is at fault. “Trump took the Tea Party to new heights,” she said. “He used all of that divisive language even before he became president. When you badmouth another group every day, you eventually lose them.”
Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 30, 2019
The list of culprits they cite is long — from Karl Rove to Adam Schiff to “Saturday Night Live.” And, although some blame individuals and parties, many voters still believe the divide is about policy and the role of the federal government. Robert from Massachusetts agreed, “Republicans are concerned about socialistic policies: too much government, too many intrusive laws and regulations, overly pro-labor, too much attention being paid to income inequality — and now it’s out of hand.”
Of course, some voters blame the media, and especially the cable stations that jockey for position 24/7. Preston, a Trump supporter from Alabama, told me, “The media drives divisiveness hourly, and depending on what you watch, we have different truths. Fox and MSNBC can’t get clicks and ads by being moderate, and this is a disaster for America.” Jerry, a Democrat from New Hampshire, agreed with Preston, “I think that when we are scared or angry, we turn to the worst possible place: our biased news sources, featuring the talking heads who will make me feel better.”
However, according to my panel of voters, what they believe to be the most dominant factor contributing to political divisiveness is that we, as a nation, have lost our ability to have conversations with people who are different from us, that we have lost our ability to listen to each other.
Nancy, an independent from Connecticut, believes “we are so rooted in individualism that we don’t try to listen to each other’s problems or walk in each other’s shoes anymore.” Allison, a Democrat from Wisconsin, said she longs for the days when we would respectfully debate politics. But now? “We have different opinions and so we decide not to talk about it — and not talking makes it worse.”
Michelle, an Independent from North Carolina, agrees. “Does anyone try and see the other side, or have we all become so close-minded that we have resorted to making fun of the other side or even disliking those who think differently? Everyone loves to speak and talk, but are they really listening?”
We all know what it’s like to hear that the other side has done something outlandish yet again or to tune in to Rachel Maddow or Sean Hannity to satisfy our confirmation biases. We all see Americans screaming and yelling, and hiding behind anonymous comments on social media, not interested in trying to understand the other side. And, many of us have seen the TV experiments where experts bring people from both sides together for a day; Trump supporters and Trump detractors almost always leave hugging, “I had no idea!”
As our holiday season approaches, we might give listening another try. While Russian trolls do everything possible to pit us against one another, we can do more than wait for Congress to regulate the social media companies. Although we know that income inequality results in different lives and values and views of the world, we can do more than hope that tax or spending policies bring back a strong and vibrant middle class. We can break ourselves of the habit of retreating when we hear a comment with which we disagree, and learn how to have a dialogue again. We can say, “tell me more” instead of “you are stupid and racist.” Or, as Tim from Colorado told me, “We can get out from behind our phones, keyboards, and cameras and have a discussion over a beer, where we are less likely to say hurtful things.”
It’s time to do more than wake up, like Anna, with a pit in our stomachs. Jane, a Republican from Massachusetts, explains that “we need to stop complaining and start doing, to stop watching endless depressing news on TV and begin to revel in all that we have going for us.” And Larry from Massachusetts reminds me about the late Senator John McCain’s “Final Words to the Nation”: “We are 325 million opinionated, vociferous individuals. . . . If only we remember that and give each other the benefit of the presumption that we all love our country, we will get through these challenging times.”
Diane Hessan is an entrepreneur, author, and chair of C Space. She has been in conversation with 500 voters across the political spectrum weekly since December 2016. Follow her on Twitter @DianeHessan. See her methodology at https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/5979231-Diane-Hessan-Methodology.html