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I’ve got a dirty secret that almost nobody in America knows. You see, Americans have this very popular notion that we can’t agree on anything politically. It’s so pervasive that to suggest otherwise seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Americans of each party look upon the other with ever-increasing antipathy—so much so that almost a third of party voters see the other party as a threat to the nation.
Congress also shows real evidence of no longer agreeing on anything at all. Whereas through the 1990s members of Congress would frequently cross party lines to vote on bills in various coalitions, Republicans and Democrats now vote almost completely in single-party blocs. All this looks dire. The most tempting conclusion to draw, of course, is that Americans disagree on more than they ever have before.
But America has a dirty secret that party leaders and media outlets don’t want you to know: as a country, we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. To understand, let’s look at a few of the most seemingly polarized issues of the day: abortion and guns.
When polled whether they are pro life or pro choice, Americans have been split nearly 50-50 for 20 years. But it turns out these distinctions, while not totally meaningless, tell us very little about one’s political position on abortion. When polled, over 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions. When Americans are asked to state their political preferences about abortion restriction timelines, 85% are willing to choose either 20 or 24 weeks as a cut-off. Only 8% insist that abortion should be always or never legal, regardless of timeline.
We see a similar seemingly wide gap between gun control advocates and gun freedom advocates when we ask broad questions about guns. In this case, about 50% of Americans consistently want stricter gun control laws and about 50% either want them kept as they are or scaled back. But when you ask people about specific policy questions not only do their views become more nuanced, we can also see a broad amount of agreement among Americans. Most Americans (96%) want background checks for guns; only 8% want to ban guns entirely. The majority of Americans (93%) want to prevent felons and the mentally ill from owning guns and 78% want mandatory gun registration.
If there’s broad room for agreement, why do we think that we have little or nothing in common with people of the other party? Politicians have a strong interest in you believing you have nothing to agree on. The most consistent and reliable voters, donors, and campaign volunteers are those who are most partisan. So politicians running for election actually have a political incentive to transform us from being more moderate to being more extreme, because we become more valuable to them. This process is called wedging.
Wedging involves repeatedly hammering Americans with messaging that the other party is dangerous, ill-intentioned, and doesn’t share their values. Years of this messaging have driven a wedge between us, convincing us that fighting is more productive than talking, because the risk of the other party getting elected is always catastrophic.
Even though our policy views are complex, we let ourselves fall into tribal camps labeled ‘pro life,’ ‘pro choice,’ ‘pro gun freedom,’ or ‘pro gun control.’ Such tribalization suppresses any opportunity to find the places where we agree and explore the places we don’t.
These incentives are very powerful and can’t be fixed by pleas or demands for bipartisanship or civility. We have to undermine these forces at their root. To overcome this political wedging, each American must learn how to identify when they are being manipulated into supporting partisan extremes and how to help themselves and others fight back.
If you’ve ever heard, for example, that Republicans are waging a ‘war on women’ or that Democrats want to ‘murder babies,’ consider that the vast majority of people in both parties want abortion to be legal under some circumstances but not all. If you’ve heard that Democrats want to take away all guns, note that only 8% of Americans want that. If you’ve heard that Republicans want total gun anarchy, remember that only 4% of people don’t want background checks for gun purchases.
To overcome the wedge, we need to remind ourselves and each other how much we agree. This happens one conversation at a time, and it has to start with you. You can’t ask others to do it for you, you can’t ask politicians to just ‘get along,’ and you can’t post something on social media. It’s time to start having conversations with people outside of your tribe, holding in your mind the knowledge that you probably have a lot to agree on. If you start with that agreement, magic can happen.
Erik Fogg MSc MIT has worked with MIT, Harvard, and the UN. He’s now chief of ReConsider Med where he speaks, podcasts, and writes articles and books to fight political polarization. His most recent book, Wedged, How You Became a Tool of the Partisan Political Establishment, and How to Start Thinking for Yourself Again, outlines a plan for each citizen to fight back.