When people hear what I do for work, the most common reaction I get is something along the lines of, “Wow, good luck with that,” or, “You all sure have your work cut out for you.”
They’re not wrong. But these comments also reflect how many think our growing polarization is a problem for others to solve—or worse, that our divisions are so deep there is no choice but to accept it and nothing can be done to fix them. It’s not a surprising feeling—we are constantly fed stories that reinforce the narrative that we are irrevocably divided—shouting matches in school board meetings, families not talking to one another, challenges navigating politics in the workplace.
Yet our research shows that this narrative is not an accurate reflection of reality. Two-thirds of Americans are part of an “Exhausted Majority” who are fed up with polarization; Americans hugely overestimate the extremism of “the other side”; and 72 percent of Americans think we have more in common than what divides us.
“WE ARE CONSTANTLY FED STORIES THAT REINFORCE THE NARRATIVE THAT WE ARE IRREVOCABLY DIVIDED—SHOUTING MATCHES IN SCHOOL BOARD MEETINGS, FAMILIES NOT TALKING TO ONE ANOTHER, CHALLENGES NAVIGATING POLITICS IN THE WORKPLACE."
While I may work on this for a living (and it’s an honor to do so), we each have a role and responsibility to play our part if we’re going to dig ourselves out of this narrative of division. Luckily, finding ways to engage with others across lines of difference and build less polarized communities is more possible and accessible than we think.
More in Common’s research points to several effective strategies to reduce polarization—and there are ways we can incorporate them into our everyday lives.
1. Reduce Animosity: Our work consistently shows Republicans and Democrats have large perception gaps (the gap between what we imagine an opposing group believes and what that group actually believes). This means that both sides grossly overestimate the percentage of members in the opposing party that hold extreme views, which makes it challenging to see we have more in common than we think. For example, 93 percent of Republicans believe “Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes”—yet Democrats think only 35 percent of Republicans agree. Similarly, 83 percent of Democrats believe “[i]n learning about American history, students should not be made to feel personally responsible for the actions of prior generations”—yet Republicans think only 43 percent of Democrats agree. Knowing this information should help members of both parties realize there is more they may agree on than they think—and therefore feel less hostile toward one another. Simple, right?
But do you find yourself doubting these stats? You’re not alone. Our research has found that many find it hard to believe that most people on the other side do not hold such extreme views. And in a time when Americans are concerned about made-up news and information (and distrustful of our institutions and one another), it’s not surprising. Information that counters our own narratives of the world can be especially challenging to believe, as it is hard to admit when we are wrong.
“WHAT WE NEED ARE MORE EXAMPLES THAT EVOKE HOPE OF WHAT IS POSSIBLE—RATHER THAN ONLY STORIES THAT SHOW THE CRISIS OF A DIVIDED COUNTRY.”
So, we asked ourselves, How can we decrease political animosity and increase trust in the data? We found that people are most likely to change how they feel toward the other side when they watch someone on their own side do it first. So, a Democrat’s view of Republicans is more likely to change when they watch other Democrats change their perspectives after being given proof (statistics and video testimony) that Republicans’ views align more to theirs than they thought. The same is true for Republicans’ feelings toward Democrats, and the effects are strong. Showing “people like me” (what we call “in-party validators”), on a journey of persuasion, can be a powerful tool in reducing hostility between partisans.
2. Get Inspired: StoryCorps’ One Small Step initiative records one-on-one conversations between two strangers of different beliefs and backgrounds. The experiences can be transformational for the people who participate in these conversations, as they discover the common humanity in each other. Yet even just listening to these stories can also be impactful. In our work with StoryCorps, we found after hearing a series of these conversations, the number of Americans who expressed willingness to engage with those on the other side went from 42 percent (before listening to the conversations) to 62 percent (after listening to the conversations)—an almost 50 percent increase.
These two examples highlight the power of personal stories and the impact of witnessing people discovering and acknowledging areas of commonality despite their differences. What we need are more examples that evoke hope of what is possible—rather than only stories that show the crisis of a divided country.
"WE HAVE THE OPTION TO BELIEVE IN A STORY THAT IS MORE ACCURATE AND HEALTHIER FOR OUR COUNTRY—ONE WHERE AMERICANS CAN BUILD BRIDGES DESPITE THEIR DIFFERENCES."
But what does that mean for us? How can we do our part? If you are a communicator, complement your facts with stories of how peoples’ perceptions changed of “the other.” In your personal life, instead of wallowing in your echo chamber, get inspired and consciously seek out content of people coming together across lines of difference (Starts with Us has a great Instagram that feeds these to you daily). Alternatively, strike up a conversation with someone you might not otherwise—the person ringing you up at the grocery store or a fellow parent at the playground. There’s no need to dive into controversial issues, but these moments of engagement with people you otherwise may not meet are key to getting out of our silos. Resist making assumptions of a neighbor with a different political sign—instead, see it as an invitation to learn about what shapes their perspectives or a challenge to find something in common. And then tell someone about your experience or conversation—inspire someone else!
This all might come across as naïve, that when set against the powerful media and political actors, our individual actions are too small to make a difference. Conflict entrepreneurs want us to believe a narrative that we are irrevocably divided and the only options are to fight to “win” or disengage. But that doesn’t mean that narrative is true.
We have the option to believe in a story that is more accurate and healthier for our country—one where Americans can build bridges despite their differences. But it takes each of us to play our part, as strong communities are the foundation of a strong country. Collectively, we can demonstrate through our everyday actions to others what our research shows—that we have more in common than what divides us.
Kate Carney brings over a decade of multisector experience to her current position as chief of staff for the nonpartisan research organization More in Common. She has worked in communications, partnership development, and program management, including policy advising on Capitol Hill. Carney also founded a nonprofit in Haiti. She is committed to building "strong communities for a strong country."