An increasingly dominant narrative has it that America is so divided that we cannot possibly understand one another, let alone agree on anything or work together toward common ends. There are, of course, more than a few kernels of truth to this position. America has significant divisions: along lines of race and class; with respect to broad attitudes of governance; and on questions of culture and lifestyle. Recent research by PEW offers useful insights into the segments that define the electorate. These differences are real and consequential.
But the case is overstated and obscures important truths. We question the notion that no common ground exists and that our divides are unbridgeable. In fact, the public agrees on many solutions to difficult social problems, much more so than do politicians and pundits. Public Agenda's Hidden Common Ground initiative shines light on agreement among the general public obfuscated by more extreme polarization of politicians, pundits and activists.
In a recent blog, I noted the common ground that exists among the public for common sense measures to reduce gun violence -- a contentious issues that we may take on in future work -- and the potential for leadership to build on that common ground to make progress. In the inaugural project for our new initiative, we are exploring the hidden common ground on matters that have been top concerns of the public for many years: health care and criminal justice reform. We're finding broad agreement that some offenses should not lead to jail time but rather alternatives to incarceration; that preexisting conditions should not disqualify people from being able to afford health insurance; and that too often politicians treat these questions in "purely partisan" fashion, as one respondent noted, saying "I don't think they have our best interest at heart." More to come on this research soon.
The myth of absolute division makes it harder to recognize common ground that actually exists among the public. This lack of recognition, in turn, makes it harder to build on our agreements to forge progress where we can. And this then plays into the hands of those who gain advantage from our cleavages through a divide and conquer strategy -- including, we are learning, Russian operatives who seek to influence our elections by exaggerating our disagreements and even revving up our hatreds though social media fabrications. It is time to counter this with a unite and conquer strategy. Step one is recognizing the hidden common ground that silently exists beneath the noise of our political rhetoric. This new initiative we've taken on is our contribution to that critical first step.