Nudges to American unity

Preelection divisions may seem high but both studies and activists point to how much people have in common.

People queue to vote early at a polling station in New York City, Oct. 25.

When asked by California to help it prevent Russian interference in the Nov. 3 elections, the Rand think tank didn’t focus too much on ways to block Russia’s attempts to use online falsehoods to divide Americans and push them to extremes.

Rather, in a study released in October, Rand’s national security experts gave this advice: Convince Americans “they have more in common with those who are different from them than they may believe at first glance.”

The best antidote to anyone trying to manufacture conflict between people (which includes far more than Russia) is to help people “reach a consensus – a bedrock of American democracy,” the Rand report stated.

California need not look too far for nonpartisan initiatives already helping people find common ground through “principles that bring us together,” as one group puts it. They include Braver Angels, the Hidden Common Ground 2020 initiative, America Amplified, the Bridge Alliance, and the National Issues Forums.

Such groups share a belief that a divided society is not inevitable. They already have much going for them. More than two-thirds of Americans believe people in the United States “have more in common with each other than many people think,” according to a 2020 survey by Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy.

The latest example of this trend is One Small Step, a project of public radio’s StoryCorps. It is bringing together strangers on opposite sides of the political spectrum and recording the conversation. The purpose is to help them past the dehumanization – or the “culture of contempt” – in American discourse and equip people to better deal with authentic disagreements.

A leading group in this emerging activism is More in Common, a nonprofit research group that conducts polls and offers tips on how to talk with people who disagree with you. It finds about 80% of Americans say that being pitted against each other is a threat to democracy. Perhaps that explains why the share of Americans who feel they live in a divided society has fallen from 87% to 48%, according to More in Common. The key to this political resiliency lies in local communities: Sixty-eight percent of Americans say they trust their local officials to do what is right while 57% say people in their community with different views treat each other with respect.

“With Americans feeling so divided at the national level, it is the local level, in communities and neighborhoods, where there is the greatest opportunity to build confidence in the integrity of our election,” concludes More in Common.

As political temperatures rise before the election – along with fears of foreign interference and postelection violence – these groups are showing that U.S. society is stronger and more unified than many headlines depict. Americans enjoy their shared experiment in self-government. When reminded, they want to keep it.

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