Opinion: Healing a Divided America

Jamie Brian, Opinion Writer

Throughout the pandemic, I have watched as longtime friendships fractured over political differences. A family friend I had known for over a decade blocked my mother’s number over opposite views on masking. Another friend lost her maid-of-honor title when she revealed her presidential election vote to the bride. Tales of Twitter battles and Facebook unfriending abound in recent months. I have seen friendships turn bitter, families drift apart, and romantic relationships end over political polarization.

America is divided on party lines with wide-ranging views on topics such as vaccinations, the 2020 election, school curriculums and the Capitol insurrection. This appears to be an ongoing trend.

A 2020 study from the National Bureau of Economic Research used four decades of public opinion surveys from twelve countries and determined that political polarization in the United States has increased more rapidly than other democracies. Using a scale from 0 to 100 to rate attitudes toward other political parties (with 0 being no negative feelings and 100 being very negative feelings), the study found that negative feelings toward other parties had increased by 4.8 points per decade since the 1970s.

These negative perceptions affect how we communicate with each other. A 2021 study from the Pew Research Center determined that 59 percent of Americans believe having political conversations with people they disagree with is “stressful and frustrating.” Additionally, 65 percent of Americans surveyed believe people who supported a different candidate in the 2020 election don’t share their values.

This “us and them” mentality has led to political stonewalling and a divided nation. Instead of confronting differences and having constructive disagreements, both political leaders and everyday citizens use toxic rhetoric and personal attacks to defend their views.

Our country can’t keep going on this path toward increasing polarization. As Abraham Lincoln said in his 1858 speech in Springfield, Illinois, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Those words are especially relevant today: we can’t be a democracy that is fractured in half.

While researching for this piece, I stumbled across an article from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts that laid out some ground rules for civil discourse in courtrooms. 

Their advice is simple, but it’s relevant to everyone, not just lawyers. Here are some of their recommendations: be attentive and considerate, don’t interrupt, stay calm, ask questions and find common ground. 

Even if you don’t agree with someone else’s point of view, listen with an open mind instead of talking over each other. You just may learn something new. If the conversation becomes aggressive, take a break and try again later.

 I’m not suggesting that we need to agree on everything. We are a country of 329 million people with vastly different backgrounds and lived experiences. However, we do need to be able to listen to each other and engage in civil discourse. We need to recognize the humanity in the folks across the aisle.

Finding common ground is something we don’t do enough. We are all made of dreams and disappointments, memories and mistakes, and love and loss. Our dualities are what make us human. As long as we share these fundamental experiences, we can find our way out of the dark.

Jamie Brian is an opinion writer. Contact her at [email protected].