ZAID JILANI: Can Americans Still Unify?

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Zaid Jilani Contributor
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President Biden campaigned on unifying the country, but it’s easier said than done.

It’s easy to look around the political landscape and come to the conclusion that unity simply isn’t possible. We’re just too distrustful of our major institutions and of each other. One recent YouGov poll even found that most Americans say that “other people in America, and domestic enemies” are the biggest threat to “the American way of life,” topping natural disasters, viruses or the economy.

There’s no doubt that we’re pretty darn politically polarized. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t potential for a country that is more unified than it is today. It just requires remembering what politics is about: working together to solve problems.

Over the past few decades, many Americans have come to view politics through the lens of identity. I don’t mean race or gender – I mean that many Americans view their personal identity as being highly dependent on being a liberal, conservative, Democrat or Republican.

University of Maryland academic Liliana Mason has shown through her research that people who identify strongly as liberals or conservatives are more polarized from the other side – as measured through metrics like whether they’d like to live next door to someone from the other political tribe — than people who are further apart on the actual issues.

So, for instance, someone who thinks all abortion should be banned but who doesn’t strongly conceive of themselves as a conservative is much less likely to want to disassociate with people they disagree with than someone who thinks abortion should only be banned during the first trimester but who identifies themselves as a conservative first and foremost.

That means our polarization is based much more on a team sports mentality than what we actually believe. And when it comes to the issues, we’re actually much less polarized than we think, with most Americans somewhere around the vast middle. But by allowing politics to become a way of life, we’ve developed a powerful Us versus Them mentality that warps the way we think about our fellow Americans. There’s no way we can have anything in common with Them, they’re not Us!

The way out of this trap is to put some healthy distance between ourselves and our political identities. We shouldn’t be thinking of ourselves as Democrats or Republicans first and foremost, but as Americans. From that starting point, we can break down the team sports mentality that convinces us we have nothing in common and are locked into a zero-sum death spiral.

There are signs that even our leading political figures are occasionally able to do this. Take the recent stock market face-off between hedge funds and maverick Reddit day traders. Many Americans of all stripes found the David vs. Goliath tale to be inspiring. That included left-leaning lawmakers like Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and conservative media personalities like Tucker Carlson.

For a brief moment, we stopped seeing ourselves as members of warring tribes and realized we all had shared distaste for the reckless nature of Wall Street hedge funds.What if we extended these brief moments into a real movement? While it’s easy to look at social media and cable news streams and assume we just can’t agree on anything, the data on some big issues shows there’s actually tons of overlap.

Two-thirds of Americans support a wealth tax on the very richest people – including 77% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans. 81% of Americans – a broad majority across racial lines — want police to spend the same or more time policing in their area. We shouldn’t confuse extreme voices on the left and the right with the sentiment of everyday Americans.

Yet our Silicon Valley-generated apps and major news networks all profit off of polarization. The most polarizing content is what generates profits, and it’s not in the interests of our corporate titans to turn down the temperature and highlight areas of cooperation and comity.

That’s up to us. We need to rebuild our civic bonds through our institutions, big and small. Those include labor unions, charitable organizations, schools, athletic leagues and places of worship. As America slowly vaccinates, we will have the opportunity to re-embrace our neighbors and unplug from the shut-in lives we’ve adapted to over the past year.

Meanwhile, we can all commit to reaching across the aisle more often. Organizations like the One America Movement and Braver Angels can help. They work specifically to reduce polarization by bringing together Americans from different walks of life to engage in meaningful dialogue and service projects.

There is no reason why we have to settle for living in such a disunited country. As President Lincoln once said, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.”

Zaid Jilani is a freelance journalist who has previously worked for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, The Intercept and the Center for American Progress.