Divided We Fall, But Bland Calls For Unity Won’t Cut It Either

by Shamil Idriss

on November 12, 2016

With each Presidential election over the past 25 years, we Americans have reacted with increasingly polarized emotions – so much so that you would think the survival of one half of the country depends on the political annihilation of the other.

But what happened in 2016 is different still.

The despair of those who did not vote for Trump feels worse because of the unprecedented nature of the rhetoric and policies he advanced during the campaign: targeting minorities for ridicule, proposing travel bans, and indulging in misogynistic language the likes of which we have never heard from a Presidential candidate.

In our desire to encourage unity, we cannot simply ignore this. Millions of Americans feel they received a clear message on election night that nearly 60 million of their fellow citizens do not feel they deserve equal treatment, protection, or respect, even if that is not the message that the vast majority of Trump voters intended to send.

And while recognizing what is different this time around, we must also recognize what is not: that insecurity and a pervasive sense that “these leaders do not represent me, are not listening to me, and certainly are not serving me” had seeped very deeply into our body politic long before the rise of Trump, building for decades across Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

The biggest mistake we can make is to assume that it is up to our political leaders to unify us. They can set the tone, but it is primarily in the hands of the American people to rebuild a basic level of mutual respect and dignity. The sooner we do, the better, because we are hurting each other and in the process making our country ungovernable, no matter whom we elect.

Breakthroughs usually only come out of crises, and we are in crisis. So there is no better time for We, the People, to build a new order: one based on mutual respect and care for our fellow citizens, a commitment to social justice, and a defense of the liberties that give us the power to build that order in the first place.

So here are three steps that anyone can take and three insights from more than thirty years of peacebuilding that may help you build up the courage to take them.

1. Whatever it is you are pursuing, think about who loses if you win.
This may be pretty clear right now if you are a Trump voter – it is Clinton voters. But for an environmental advocate pursuing legal action against a polluting company, it may be the employees who will be out of work if the company goes out of business; for an opponent of the Affordable Care Act, it may be the 20+ million Americans who may end up without health insurance; for a supporter (or opponent) of affirmative action, it may be the people who won’t land the job or get the educational scholarship they might otherwise have gotten.

2. Decide you care what happens to them.
This does not mean you need be any less principled or passionate in your beliefs, only that you are willing to consider whether there might be a place on the other side of those debates where your adversaries – your fellow citizens – can also have their basic needs met and dignity respected.

3. Reach out across that divide to start a real conversation.
A real conversation begins when you start by listening and asking questions so as to understand, and not only to convince. And it is when you discover what lies behind others’ positions – their aspirations, interests, and fears – that you not only find common ground, but establish a relationship that can create more of it.

Insights from years of practical peacebuilding that can help you take these steps

Hate and bigotry almost always grow out of fear. Understanding this can reduce your own apprehension when you consider reaching out to people whose aggressive views offend or disturb you.

Caring for those you disagree with is not the same as compromising your principles. In truly divided societies, there is a critical threshold through which people must pass in order to open up to dialogue: it is the experience of being heard and respected by those who disagree with them. You can still disagree with someone’s position, but if you reflect true care for the hopes and aspirations that have led them to it, transformative change becomes possible – not only in their outlook, but also in yours.

Emotional connections change everything; rational arguments don’t. The experience of being respected – or its opposite: being ignored or humiliated – has a much more powerful influence on people’s opinions and behavior than do rational arguments. Indeed, if you present the same fact to two individuals with opposite worldviews, they will interpret it in ways that reinforce what they each already believe. Showering your adversaries with debate points may feel gratifying, but it almost certainly won’t change minds–and will in fact make them more obstinate if it comes at the expense of making them feel heard.

So, please consider taking the first step with that police officer or community activist; with the Muslim, Jew, Evangelical or atheist who you don’t know, or think you know but don’t understand; with that political adversary whose views you can’t stand. Take it knowing you are not compromising your principles, but merely elevating the well-being and dignity of your fellow citizen to be as important as the causes that motivate you.

If we Americans do this, we will come up with solutions to our problems that are more creative, sustainable, and healthier for us all. And we will set the example for our political leaders to follow, rather than waiting for them to do it for us.


Shamil Idriss is the President and CEO of Search for Common Ground.