Americans are tired of division. Causes that bring people together can motivate millions.
By Doug Hattaway and Alfred Ironside
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.
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.
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).
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.