Americans are tired of division. Causes that bring people together can motivate millions.

By Doug Hattaway and Alfred Ironside

People’s hopes for their lives are powerful motivators of attitudes and actions. American Aspirations is exploring the aspirations that animate Americans today.

The American Aspirations blog shares learning you can use to connect your cause to hopes and values that motivate people—and create communications that inspire and engage them. Sign up to learn more.


At an American Aspirations focus-group discussion in Nashville last October, a group of middle-aged voters was asked to draw a picture representing how they see the United States today.

example drawing representing how they see the United States today

66-year-old Betty—an African-American woman who has lived in Nashville since she was a child—sketched a pie with four pieces, each representing a different group of people (as shown in Drawing 1).

“At first my pie was black and white,” she explained. “But then I realized I had to make a big piece for the Latino population, and Asian, Middle Eastern, Greek—all those diverse populations are over here.”

Betty conceived of the country in zero-sum terms, with a limited amount of wealth and resources split among an ever-growing number of racial and ethnic groups. People with a zero-sum mindset view society in terms of winners and losers: One group’s gains come at the expense of another.

“The country’s just so divided. In some ways, I don’t think it’s any better than it was 100 years ago,” she said.

To Betty, the consequences of this division and competition were dire: “If everybody turns on each other,” she wondered, “how is anybody going to get ahead? How are we going to survive as a nation?”

Images of division

The American Aspirations research team has crisscrossed the country, engaging diverse people in conversations about their hopes for their lives and their country. In the West, we conducted focus groups in Denver, Seattle and Austin. In the South, we traveled to Nashville and Columbia, South Carolina. And in the industrial Midwest, we talked to Americans in Pittsburgh and Grand Rapids, Michigan.

example drawing of division

Many Americans saw the United States as Betty did, and overwhelmingly drew pictures of division. Some images showed people separated by canyons, rivers or railroad tracks. Others (as seen in Drawing 2) showed people with wealth and power high up on a pedestal or mountain, separated by a fence from many others at the bottom.

Many focus-group participants blamed the 2016 presidential election for the sense of growing divisions in American society. Others pointed to income inequality, racial tensions, or fear that they would be judged for their beliefs.

When we asked people to draw what they wanted the country to look like, however, most drew pictures of unity: people joining hands, sitting around a table and talking, or carrying heavy buckets of water together (as seen in Drawing 3).

example drawing of unity

In Denver, one young woman explained: “I just want people to be able to have conversations again—hearing one another and not completely shutting down when you hear an opinion you don’t agree with.”

This yearning for unity presents an opportunity for leaders and organizations looking to inspire and engage people to create positive change. Most Americans are tired of division; causes that bring people together can motivate many. You have the opportunity to meet a heartfelt need.

Finding common ground

To date, the American Aspirations team has conducted dozens of interviews and focus groups, along with a survey of thousands of Americans representing the nation’s full diversity. We’ve explored a wide variety of topics, but the conversations ultimately boil down to three powerful questions—not about issues, but about identity:
1. What kind of person do you want to be?
2. What goals and aspirations do you have for your own life?
3. What do you want for our country?

American Aspirations provides ideas to help organizations and movements transcend political, ideological and cultural divides by providing insights into American identity today. Focusing on shared aspirations is a powerful way to find common ground. When you step outside of the political environment and start a conversation about people’s hopes for their own lives, you find that they have a lot in common.

In our survey, for instance, 70 percent of Americans made clear that “respecting people who are different” was an “extremely important” personal goal in their lives. And 63 percent affirmed it was “extremely important” that America be a place that “achieves equality for people of different races and ethnicities.” These are just a few examples of a latent but untapped unity across our country.

Opportunities for social movements

At a time when so many people—including many within our own organizations—have accepted the idea that “America is more divided than ever,” we have a powerful opportunity. Remind people that Americans share a common destiny, and connect your cause to their shared hopes and values. Look for ways to reach across partisan, ideological and cultural divides. Bring people together to work toward common goals.

Whatever you do, don’t reinforce the idea that Americans are hopelessly divided. It’s a demotivating and disempowering message that drives people away from consensus and shared values. Instead of asking people to pick a side in an argument, ask them what they want for their lives, their community and their country. You might be surprised at how much common ground you find.

We were. And in our coming posts, we’ll share concrete lessons from American Aspirations about how to motivate people to support social change by building on broadly shared common ground.

Doug Hattaway is the President of Hattaway Communications.
Alfred Ironside is the Vice President for Communications at the Ford Foundation.

Stay tuned for more insights and ideas to inspire and engage your audiences:

  • Beware the zero-sum mindset: Negative messages can sabotage your cause
  • The Power of “and”: False dichotomies obscure the common ground that unites Americans
  • Making “opportunity” real: Americans define opportunity in tangible terms—and so should social movements

And others!


4 thoughts on “Yearning For Unity”

  1. Hello! I was inspired by your presentation at ComNet16 this past October, and I’ve been following American Aspirations ever since. I also took some of your key points back to my nonprofit so we could revamp our messaging. However, our focus is on conservation education, and, so far, I haven’t seen you touch on how we can use American Aspirations to reach into sectors like conservation and education. I would love to hear more on what you think about how to utilize this concept and research outside of the sort of public sector causes like equality and poverty. Any thoughts?

  2. Its like you read my mind! You appear to know a lot about this, like you wrote the book in it or something. I think that you can do with a few pics to drive the message home a little bit, but instead of that, this is magnificent blog. A great read. I will definitely be back.

  3. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this topic to be actually something that I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I am looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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