How to Unify America
Today’s political hostility is ruining America.
It’s happening bit by bit. In living rooms, across backyard fences, and in front of TV screens. At very least, our overt hostility is making it much harder to stay friends.
Case in point. I know two colleagues who regularly hobnobbed at their kids’ community league basketball practices.
They conversed about their businesses and families, about the films they’ve seen, the books they’ve read, the sports teams they followed, about what they did over the weekend. They would have considered each other good, albeit casual, friends.
All that changed two weeks ago when they had their first conversation about federal politics.
Now, they are not talking.
I mean literally. They. Are. Not. Talking. These are two fully grown, well-educated adults who long ago learned the rudimentary Sesame Street axioms about cooperation, inclusion, and how grand it is to get to know the people in your neighborhood.
Sadly, they are not alone in their experience of social breakdown. Just listen to the nightly news or scan any newspaper’s front page, and you’ll see a fury erupting. In these present times, we all must confront this highly-charged question—
If we don’t agree politically, can we still be friends?
The statistics are alarming. According to the pollsters, a unified America isn’t even close on the horizon.
A current Pew Research report states that Democrats and Republicans are more divided along ideological lines now than at any point in the last 20 years.
CBS News polls showed sharp partisan division in the United States, with only 47 percent of Americans now believing that people of different political views can come together.
And a recent poll from CNN showed 60 percent of Conservatives and 50 percent of Liberals keep close friends only among those who share the same political point of view.
That means we only like our same kinds of folks, thank you very much, and we are hard-pressed to become friends, much less family, with the Americans across the great divide.
Indeed, the same CNN poll showed a full 30 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats would shout bloody murder if an immediate family member married across party lines!
We have morphed into a country of political Montagues and Capulets, and we are receiving seemingly scant encouragement from today’s leadership to remedy the situation. In times like these, what’s needed in urgency is a collective shout of “Enough!”
Stop the hate!
Since change is not happening on a leadership level, then the reunification of America is up to its citizenry. As individuals, we must create the change we long for.
We create this change within our conversations. On our social media posts. In our responses to people we don’t see eye to eye with.
To succeed in this aim, it helps to go back to the basics and start with square one. With an understanding of the absolute foundation of fair play. What exactly is that?
In a famous psychological study, groups of two elementary-aged children were seated across from each other at card tables. A checkerboard was placed between each set of two children, and one coin was placed in the center of each checkerboard.
Before the play commenced, the children were each told the rules of the game.
Players would alternate turns, and each child could push the coin any direction on the checkerboard he or she wished. If a player so managed to push his coin all the way to the other side of the board, then he would receive a toy.
After 20 moves, the game would be over.
Each set of two children would play the game four times total.
The experiment was conducted with children from countries all over the world. Researchers found that almost all children quickly figured out the secret of the game. Each child could receive two toys if they simply took turns winning.
You push the coin to my side twice, and you get two toys.
I push the coin to your side twice, and I get two toys.
The children who figured out the strategy found the game easy. Even boring. It was classic win-win strategy at work.
There was one twist, however. One distinct group of children—and one group only—didn’t find the game simple. And they didn’t get any toys.
This one group of children found the same game intense. Competitive. Frustrating. Even exasperating.
The sets of children in this group kept pushing the coin back and forth among each pair of players, back and forth, back and forth. Their 20 moves soon would be over, and neither child would win.
They would play the second game, the third game, and then the final. All four times would yield the same lousy results. Both children would walk away emptyhanded.
What went wrong?
Researchers found that these children were smart. That wasn’t the question. And they knew how to compete. When it came to playing hard and never quitting, these children had already been schooled as champions.
They understood the paradigm of playing a game where one opponent tries to beat the other so the other will lose. But they had not been taught the paradigm of playing a game where opponents can both win.
These children all came from the same country. Can you guess which one?
These children all came from the United States.
Do you feel stunned by that study’s results?
We need to go beyond feeling stunned. If we Americans are ever going to come together as a nation, then we must dig up and overturn our deeply rooted paradigm that insists upon polarized play. We must understand that there are other paradigms, not just the competitive rulebook we grew up with.
Simply put, there are more options than this: I win, and you lose.
Sure, sure, I can hear the objections already. We have already tried listening to the other side, but they won’t listen back. We’ve already tried to negotiate and cooperate, but the other side refuses to concede any ground.
The gloves are off now, my fellow Americans, the objectors shout. The only way forward now is to crush our other fellow Americans! The stubborn ones. The backward ones. Or perhaps the progressive ones. The ones who color outside of the lines.
How strongly we must resist this line of thinking. At very least, we must relegate the gloves-off strategy to our last option, not our first. And certainly not an option we are comfortable staying in for long.
If we ever stand a chance of breaking our four-game losing streak, then we must find ways to come back to the checkerboard. We must invite the other side back no matter how mired they are in their stubbornness. No matter how widely outside of lines they color with their crayons. We must resist our civil war of ideologies before it sparks an actual civil war.
It’s up to us as citizenry to discover how to sit down at the table again. Strategies exist and can be learned so our conversations can be renewed, however difficult those conversations are to conduct.
A simple rule of humanity states that concessions must be made if cooperation is to be achieved. None of us can have everything we want. Yet by making concessions, we can both walk away with full hands.
Yes, it is possible for both parties to walk away happy. Republicans. Democrats. The toybox is full enough for everybody. Hearts held high. Dignities intact. Everybody wins.
Please hear me clearly. I’m not saying we can’t have conflict. Passion in politics is fine. Disagreements can be worthy. Principles can be steadfast. Heated debates and their resulting conciliations helped create the foundations of democracy.
But conflict and passion can coexist along with politics without mixing in hatred for our fellow human being. Political hate must not triumph in today’s United States—no matter what side we are on.
Have we forgotten that unity is not the same as uniformity? Our political dichotomies aren’t as far apart as we often think. We Liberals and we Conservatives and We People Who Refuse to be Lumped in with Any One Political Party—we can still disagree and not despise each other. We can work together toward solutions and find our concessions aren’t as difficult as imagined.
On our road to reunification, may we be reminded of one important word within our country’s collective pledge. It’s the word that points out how our allegiance to our flag encompasses liberty and justice for all.
May we work with all our might toward the dignity and consideration and, yes, noble compromises, held forth within this word.
We are one nation—
Question: What changes in behaviors, attitudes, or policies will help unify America?