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Civility In The News

Opinion: Our country is tearing itself apart. Here’s one way to bring people together

By September 12, 2020November 10th, 2020No Comments

CNN // Justin Gest is an associate professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government and the author of The New Minority: White Working Class Politics in an Age of Immigration and Inequality. Follow him on Twitter @_JustinGest. Wendy Feliz is the founding director of the Center for Inclusion and Belonging at the American Immigration Council. Follow her on Twitter @forbelonging. The views expressed in this commentary belong to the authors.

The battle for the soul of America is playing out on our streets right now and it’s unlikely to end after the 2020 presidential election in November.

Elections tend to inflame divisions, since political campaigns are increasingly built on strategies that pit groups against one another with little regard for the damage they leave behind.

The fear and pain so many people in America feel right now as a result of the pandemic, police brutality, economic instability, and intense partisanship is being exploited. And the violence that has broken out at largely peaceful demonstrations calling for racial justice could get worse without leaders of all stripes condemning it and calling for the preservation of democratic norms: free speech, peaceful assembly, and civil dialogue.

Yet, even after the election is decided, the battle will continue. Without serious attention toward healing our divides, our pain will continue to be used for political gain and the people of this country will be torn further apart.

No matter who wins the election, we will still be debating the same questions come January 2021: Who counts? Who votes? Who belongs? Who matters? These questions will remain at the core of our political discussions over nationhood, all while our sense of interdependence and common identity frays beyond recognition.

If the next president hopes to heal our nation, he should create a White House Council for National Unity — an office that can coordinate an effort to rebuild our sense of shared destiny, reveal our interdependence and cultivate mutual understanding.

A Council for National Unity convened by the White House and staffed by a team of bipartisan leaders could gather public and private partners to promote social cohesion through programs and activities that bridge racial, ethnic, religious, and political boundaries. Wielding the convening power of the White House and the leadership of America’s most trusted institutions, it would pursue national service programs, volunteer efforts, and other initiatives that would advance the public good and promote a renewed sense of connectedness. The Council would look after the country’s unity the way the National Economic Council looks after the country’s prosperity.

For centuries, important institutions of American life brought people together. Houses of worship, union halls, bars, civic associations and social clubs allowed people to gather and foster a sense of community. Their gradual decline, coupled with the virtualization of our social lives into ever more specific and isolated subcultures, has been breaking us down and separating us into silos.

Of course, our historic efforts towards unity often excluded certain groups and failed to represent all Americans. It has only been 55 years since the Voting Rights Act opened the doors to a more inclusive democracy, yet a sense of national belonging requires more than the ability to vote; it requires a sense of mutual recognition too. Many people still feel shut outleft behind, or overlooked, while others feel threatened by the inclusion of those who have been historically excluded. The mutual exclusivity of belonging must end now. Our nation is experiencing transformational demographic and technological change, and we must come together to create a shared vision of who we want to be.

A Council for National Unity could find inspiration on a larger scale from organizations that are working for the greater good in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. YMCAs, which had to largely shutter their facilities due to the coronavirus, still continued to offer emergency child care services for essential workers. Meanwhile, a variety of non-profits like Operation BBQ Relief and World Central Kitchen have worked to feed first responders and communities in need.

These organizations have focused on breaking down existing divisions we have drawn in our society in order to care for fellow neighbors. Our government was founded with the same mission, but it has not been proactive in fostering a sense of interconnectedness.

If we can reinvigorate our mutual bonds with one another, we will be able to get back to the hard work of fixing many of our nation’s most pressing problems, with the realization that when one of us is left out or left behind, we all suffer.

Critics may wonder why something as fundamental as national unity can’t just emerge organically or worry that a commitment to unity might stifle dissent. But unity need not equal conformity, and cohesion of purpose is a crucial ideal that many countries seek to cultivate, culturally and symbolically. National anthems solemnly croon of glory from centuries-old battlefields; national flowers symbolize the nation’s indigeneity; national museums assemble artifacts to crystallize narratives about the origin, tragedies and victories of an indomitable people.

Identity and unity — while individualized and always evolving — are also something we construct and commit to as a society, and if government doesn’t have a hand in coordinating these efforts and bringing them to scale, it will be left to markets, algorithms, and opportunistic politicians — which is where we are now. It has left us divided and angry.

It’s inevitable that a country will occasionally reconsider the definition of its people and its identity, and question whether to adapt to new ideas, accommodate demographic change or account for shifts in political coalitions. This discussion tends to marginalize certain subgroups, who may be excluded from ruling majorities. But it’s essential for all Americans to be included and valued in these debates, if we are to forge and sustain a national connection across partisan lines.
The problem in today’s America is that our political polarization leads us to believe that the opposing party will destroy our way of life and exclude us from the conversation about who matters in this country. These divisive debates are not passing; they are now defining who we are. We must work purposefully and proactively to redefine American identity and cultivate our unity if we are to live together in peace.
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