That question is at the heart of new research from the Hidden Common Ground “Divisiveness and Collaboration in American Public Life” report, released this month by Public Agenda. The answer is surprising: Americans say we have more that unites us than voices on the extremes suggest. Additionally, most respondents said that differences of opinion are less of a problem than not knowing how to discuss those differences productively.
The good news is Americans are not only already sitting down to talk, but also rolling up their sleeves to work together.
- Consider Dallas-based Urban Specialists. Founded by the man who negotiated a peace accord between the Bloods and Crips gangs in the city, Bishop Omar’s organization is carrying on that work today by bringing together families of victims of police violence and the families of police officers who were killed in retaliation with the long-term goal of making communities safer.
- In Atlanta, one couple’s work on a church holiday gift-delivery project has grown into a nonprofit whose volunteers and staff work in local mobile-home communities with largely immigrant families to promote academic progress and build relationships among families that transcend economic, ethnic, and ideological barriers.
- Another organization, the National Institute for Civil Discourse, founded in Arizona in the wake of the shooting of a former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, works with scholars from many disciplines and worldviews to discover ways to diffuse tension and draw strength from our differences.
These inspiring organizations build on groundbreaking research that shows their approaches can be applied far beyond their individual programs.
Conflict resolution theorists have studied similar approaches and found that we start by listening rather than persuading. Social psychology research has discovered sharing stories is more effective than stating facts if you’re looking to see the person more than their opinion. Other studies confirm that identifying shared concerns—whether it’s something nearly universal like opposing murder or more niche like monetary policy—can help remind us of our common humanity.
People are putting these and similar tools to work close to home. Public Agenda’s new report revealed Americans are much more likely to feel that their community is on the right track than the country as a whole, by mirror percentages—70-30 for their community, 30-70 for the country. Most divisiveness concerning people stems from national figures and campaigns. People are much more likely to work with others to solve problems locally.
The findings don’t offer a silver bullet for the polarization that’s all but certain to intensify as we go into an election year, but they do reinforce other recent research. Americans are eager to find ways to be more open with each other, particularly our neighbors and those in our community, and collaborate on shared concerns. These findings offer hope for the divisive times to come. It might seem like we have nothing in common, but we’re actually hungry to collaborate locally with great frequency.
Enabling that desire to move to action will require digging in to better understanding the challenge, discovering the tools that enable people to take steps toward each other, and sharing stories that remind us of the extraordinary change that’s possible when we do.
Fortunately, that work is underway. Probably in your own backyard.
Sarah Ruger is the director of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute. Public Agenda’s Hidden Common Ground initiative is supported by funders including the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Knight Foundation, and the Charles Koch Foundation.