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Out of Many, One

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Perhaps you, too, feel it like never before—intense contempt for your political opposites. National Election Surveys reveal that U.S. Republicans and Democrats who hate the other party each soared from 20% in 2000 to near 50% in 2016. Small wonder, given that 42 percent in both parties agree that those in the other party “are downright evil.”

 

Should the government “do more to help the needy”? Is racial discrimination a main reason “why many Black people can’t get ahead these days”? Do immigrants “strengthen the country with their hard work and talents”? The partisan divergence in response to such questions has never been greater, reports the Pew Research Center. The overlap between conservative Democrats and progressive Republicans has never been less. And fewer folks than ever hold a mix of conservative and liberal views.

Americans are polarized. There seems no bridge between Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, between MAGA red-hatters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez admirers. We are a nation of opposing hidden tribes. “Some people’s situations are so challenging that no amount of work will allow them to find success,” agree 95 percent of “progressive activists.” But no, say “devoted conservatives,” who are 92 percent agreed that “people who work hard can find success no matter what situation they were born into.”

Do we exaggerate?

But I overstate. Although the political extremes are inverses, studies (here and here) show that most liberals and conservatives exaggerate their differences. On issues such as immigration, trade, and taxes, they overestimate the extremity of a “typical” member of the other party. And for some ideas—higher taxes on the ultra-wealthy, Medicare negotiation of lower drug prices, background checks on gun sales—there is bipartisan supermajority support.

Differences, we notice; similarities, we neglect
It’s a universal truth: Differences draw our attention. As individuals, we’re keenly aware of how we differ from others. Asked to describe themselves, redheads are more likely to mention their hair color; the foreign-born, their birthplace; and the left-handed, their handedness. Living in Scotland, I become conscious of my American identity and accent. Visiting my daughter in South Africa, I am mindful of my race. As the sole male on a professional committee of females, I was aware of my gender. One is “conscious of oneself insofar as, and in the ways that, one is different,” observed the late social psychologist William McGuire.

Likewise, when the people of two cultures are similar, they nevertheless will attend to their differences—even if those differences are small. Rivalries often are most intense with another group that most resembles one’s own. My college has what is widely acclaimed (by ESPN and others) as the greatest small college sports rivalry with a nearby college that shares its Protestant Dutch history…rather like (in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels) the war between the Little-Endians who preferred to break their eggs on the small end, and the Big-Endians who did so on the big end.

Our similarities exceed our differences

As members of one human family, we share not only our biology—cut us and we bleed—but our behaviors. We all wake and sleep, prefer sweet tastes to sour, fear snakes more than snails, and know how to read smiles and frowns. An alien anthropologist could land anywhere on Earth and find people laughing and crying, singing and worshiping, and fearing strangers while favoring their own family and neighbors. Although differences hijack our attention, we are all kin beneath the skin.

Nearly two decades ago, the communitarian sociologist Amitai Etzioni identified “core values” that are “embraced by most Americans of all races and ethnic groups.” Eight in ten Americans—with agreement across races—desired “fair treatment for all, without prejudice or discrimination.” More than 8 in 10 in every demographic group agreed that freedom must be tempered by personal responsibility, and that it was “extremely important” to spend tax dollars on “reducing crime” and “reducing illegal drug use” among youth. A more recent study of nearly 90,000 people across world cultures and of varying gender, age, education, income, and religiosity confirmed that “similarities between groups of people are large and important.” 

Believing that there is common ground, the nonprofit Better Angels movement aims “to unite red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.” They do this in several ways:

  • “We try to understand the other side’s point of view, even if we don’t agree with it.”
  • “We engage those we disagree with, looking for common ground and ways to work together.”
  • “We support principles that bring us together rather than divide us.” 

We will still disagree. We do have real differences, including the social identities and values that define us. Nevertheless, our challenge now is to affirm both our diversity and our unifying ideals, and thus to renew the founding idea of America: diversity within unity. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one.

 (For David Myers’ other essays on psychological science and everyday life, visit TalkPsych.com.)

2 Comments
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THANKS for this commentary, Dr. Myers. Very thoughtful, and I'm going to be thinking about these ideas for a while. 

I shared your ideas with a friend who is also a historian, and his response is interesting, I think, so I thought I'd share it with you: "I agree with his premise that Americans are not actually all that polarized on matters of policy (there is generally a broad center-left consensus on most matters of policy when you look at polling outside the particular controversies of the moment) but would suggest that he misses some important context.  There is one political party that has dedicated itself to permanent minority rule and rejects the notion that the rich bear any responsibility to the common good.  To overemphasize polarization is to notice the shadow on the cave wall without turning around to see the thing that his making the shadow."

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In the 5th edition of Signs of Life in the USA (2006), Sonia and I included a reading by David Brooks entitled "One Nation, Slightly Divisible."  In that essay, Brooks surveyed the differences between "red state" and "blue state" culture, but concluded with an upbeat affirmation of what he thought that all Americans have in common, even asserting that "We are not a divided nation."  In the years since 2006, the divisions in this country have gotten much worse, and I am more inclined to go by what people do rather than by what they say their values are to an interlocutor when taking the pulse of the nation.  This is the essence of the semiotic method as I practice and teach it: using actions as signs; and I regret to say that the signs do not bode well right now for the rediscovery of an American common ground.

About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).