Skip to main content

America Talks: Toxic polarization threatens our nation’s future. Here’s how we can save it.

By May 18, 2021No Comments

Truth and reconciliation is painful. But to those who reject the idea of engaging across differences, I earnestly ask, what’s your endgame?

USA Today // Pearce Godwin // Opinion contributor

America needs to talk. And will as never before during America Talks and the National Week of Conversation (June 14-20).

Abraham Lincoln, quoting Jesus, said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” They weren’t playing. More than half of us (54%) now say our fellow Americans pose the biggest threat to the country.

Described as a “singularly virulent and dangerous phenomenon” and “our greatest national security vulnerability,” toxic polarization – the way we demonize one another across differences – is a grave threat to all Americans, our families, our communities and our country.

Mandatory Credit: Jarrad Henderson – USA Today

Nearly all of us (93%) recognize this problem, and 71% rightly conclude that our democracy itself is in danger. Experts, including my partner Maya MacGuineas of FixUS, note that “democracy withers when people cynically assume the worst about their institutions and each other. … E pluribus unum is literally the opposite of ‘us against them.’”

Sadly, today “they” are our “enemies,” a “serious threat” and “downright evil.” One in five Americans say many members of the other side “lack the traits to be considered fully human.” And 15% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats say the country would be better off if large numbers of opposing partisans “just died.”

Wish they’d just die? Come on now. We need to get a grip on ourselves. When was the last time murderous rage ended well for anyone?

As my partner Kristin Hansen of Civic Health Project asks, “Once our political disagreements curdle into acute conflict, where does that road take us? How does it end?”

We won’t drift toward unity

It’s easy for perennial optimists like myself to assume that somehow, someway it’ll all work out, that mighty America will prevail. But as my partner David Eisner of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution writes, “Thinking that polarization is as bad as it can get constitutes a failure of imagination. America is likely only at the beginning of this journey; absent intervention, we’re headed toward national violence and tragedy.”

Indeed, 51% expect political violence to increase.

Former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords, nearly killed 10 years ago in an act of political violence and now advising my partners at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, writes, “The first principle and best practice of engaging our differences more constructively is to listen across the divide with the goal of understanding,” echoing the #ListenFirst Pledge: “I will listen first to understand.”

Read the rest of Pearce's opinion on USA Today