Political division in the United States has reached unprecedented levels in recent years, casting a long shadow over the nation’s democratic fabric. This deep-seated polarization is characterized by stark ideological differences, creating an increasingly hostile political landscape. The roots of this political division can be traced to several factors, including economic disparities, cultural clashes, and the rise of identity politics. Social media has furthered this political division by creating echo chambers that reinforce pre-existing beliefs and stoke animosity toward opposing viewpoints.
In our recent Pulse survey among American citizens aged 18 and up, 70% of respondents said they feel the country is headed in the wrong direction and more than 80% said they see the country becoming more divided leading to the 2024 election. In a similar vein, 6 in 10 respondents claimed they do not feel connected to society. The consequences of this political division are significant. It hampers the government’s ability to create meaningful legislation, damages trust in institutions — including the media — and encourages toxic discourse with personal attacks and vilification replacing reasoned debate.
In our recent Connections Roundtable session, we met with visionaries who are leading the charge to overcome political division — including Carrie Conko, Senior VP at State Policy Network, Riaz Patel, Executive Producer and Director at ConnectEffect, Tami Pyfer, Chief of Staff and VP of External Relations at The Dignity Index, and Dee Allsop, Founder and Co-CEO at Heart+Mind Strategies. In a time when the political climate can seem hopelessly polarized, this was more than just a roundtable — it was an opportunity to ignite change and provide real-life solutions that can pave the way to a more united society.
Extremes on both sides of the political aisle seek to divide and dehumanize — but when we start to see opposition as unworthy of our compassion or understanding, that leads to dark and divisive outcomes. The path toward unity begins with having civil, productive conversations, and realizing that individual differences can exist alongside our shared sense of purpose. Carrie Conko, from State Policy Network, mentioned that America has a long history of political division and conflicts.
“Our system of government was designed by the founders to accommodate different points of view, that was the beautiful American experiment,” Conko said. “We’re going to have different opinions, we’re going to have different lifestyles and even different policies…Historically, America has weathered periods of extreme polarization. Most of us worry about the most notorious example of it, and that’s the Antebellum period leading up to the Civil War. However, if you’re student of history in the 19th century, the Gilded Age was tense between labor and business, rural and urban. We know that following the Civil War itself, there were divides about how to rebuild the south and how to integrate freed slaves. Even our split with England was contentious. There were Patriots, and there were Loyalists…I remember the seventies, the time of the Vietnam War, civil rights, Watergate, the energy crisis…Our country has a history of political conflict.”
Undivide Us, a new documentary from Kristi Kendall and produced by State Policy Network, reveals overlooked facets of America’s political dysfunction by traveling to different regions and meeting with diverse people from each end of the political spectrum. By starting the conversation and engaging with different viewpoints, Undivide Us illuminates the growing toxic polarization in America — but it doesn’t stop there. Through poignant political analyses and intimate conversations with everyday Americans, the film focuses on the empathy and tolerance that exists beneath the manufactured divisions. The film serves as a call to action, urging us to engage constructively and promote unity in the face of a political rift that threatens the fabric of our society.
“In doing this film, we went to three different cities and did six focus groups, and it reminded me that our country’s traditional motto is E pluribus Unum, which is out of many, one,” Conko said. “It speaks to that unity and integration of the states into one nation…You see different identities. You see different cultures, you see different styles of government, and we have to remind ourselves that the 13 colonies that got together created one entity, but they wanted to retain their individuality…We are a country of different people with different opinions about critical issues, and we can still find a way to get along and have conversations in civil society.”
Dee Allsop, founder and co-CEO at Heart+Mind, worked as the moderator in the documentary, facilitating discussion among everyday Americans with differing opinions and leveraging Heart+Mind’s unique Triadic Illumination methodology. Allsop said the experience was uniquely fulfilling because he got to see empathetic change happen in real time even as political division over hot button topics were discussed.
“I love being in that position, because you come in, people sit down, and you have these certain impressions that we’re almost conditioned to make — that this person looks like they’re going to think and believe this,” Allsop said. “Then you ask questions and you’re always surprised…It’s such a powerful discovery every time that everybody gets to this ‘aha’ place…They are completely different humans in terms of how they see each other because now they see them with very different eyes.”
Get Out of the Online Echo Chamber
The ConnectEffect experience examines media, division, identity, human connection and the difference between the real world and the screen world. Born from the mind of founder Riaz Patel, ConnectEffect takes an audience of diverse strangers and quickly equalizes and humanizes them into one deeply connected group. Once connected, the audience has much needed conversations with each other that are label-shedding and echo-chamber-breaking.
Patel said ConnectEffect was inspired by the realization that technology has reached such an integrated place in our society that almost everything we do comes through a screen — we work through screens, we buy through screens, we learn about the world through screens. Isolation through screens is the root cause of so many of the polarizing problems that we’re facing. To counteract this, Patel created a fresh approach to fostering authentic human connections that go beyond the boundaries of the digital world.
“Harvard Research has come out and said that social fitness is as important as physical fitness,” Patel said. “There are a million gyms around me in L.A. and there’s not one place to go and meet strangers. The [ConnectEffect] idea is that you would go to these connection hubs and…you’re brought into spaces like this where it’s this hub for connection, conversation, and community.”
In an age of online echo chambers, we need reminders that we can connect on a deeper level with those who may hold differing views. ConnectEffect aims to do just that, by bringing together real people to connect, learn, and champion each other. The media-driven world tends to stoke fear and rage by showing specific soundbites, edits that are intended to make opposing viewpoints look bad. Humanity is complex, but that complexity is erased in the screen world, replaced by a stark black and white depiction intended to fan the flames of division.
“When you look at people through screens, it’s not the truth, it’s an edit,” Patel said. “Behind every edit is an intention… when we move people away from screen world depiction into the real world, that’s where the truth is.”
Speak With Dignity, not Contempt
The Dignity Index rates political speech on a scale from 1 to 8 — with 1 being the most contemptuous (“They’re not even human— it’s our moral duty to destroy them before they destroy us”) to 8 being the most dignified (“Each one of us is born with inherent worth, so we treat everyone with dignity, no matter what.”) Tami Pyfer said the intention of the Dignity Index is to come up with common language and a common metric so that when we hear these types of phrases, we recognize them. It’s important to recognize that our language can elevate discourse from the noisy battleground of political division to a dignified dialogue that promotes understanding and empathy.
“We deserve to be treated with dignity,” Pyfer said. “We don’t want to throw away our passion, our political beliefs, our personal beliefs, but we want to talk with people in a different way. That’s the goal of the Dignity Index — to teach people what that language looks like and then to give them ideas and tools on how they can speak about our most difficult problems in a different way.”
Finding Common Ground in the Middle
How can we, as everyday Americans, heal the toxicity of the political division between us? The solution will be finding common ground somewhere in the middle, and that starts with recognizing the humanity in us all. After a school shooting, Patel participated in a podcast special with Glenn Beck, where they brought together people in the community for connection. This meeting sparked a friendship between two local women — one woman who runs Moms Demand Action, a movement that fights for public safety measures to protect people from gun violence, and one woman who works at the NRA, the gun rights advocacy group. Even despite different political ideologies, connection is still possible.
Finding common ground in an era of deep polarization and political division is a challenge that we must confront to ensure a united future. While political division may shake the foundation of our country, a better future is ahead. A future where we bridge this divide together, with commitment to open communication and empathy, and a recognition of the shared values that bind the nation together.
“I go through the world with radical hope because I do see it in people every single day,” Patel said. “Don’t let that darkness permeate. Go out with radical hope.”
Practical pieces of advice to enact change:
- Visit dignityindex.us to learn more and take the pledge to become part of the movement working toward a more dignified, empathetic future.
- Be hopeful. Challenge your preconceptions and see the potential for unity in unexpected places.
- As the great American poet Walt Whitman said, “Be curious, not judgmental.” The solutions we reach will always be better if we start with curiosity, not judgment.