James Coan

James Coan

James Coan develops approaches to reduce U.S. political polarization at scale. He’s a strategy consultant for the energy industry, with interests in social psychology, mass communications, and politics. For Braver Angels, he is on the social media team and a member of the DC Alliance. He can be contacted at [email protected]

How to Communicate the Chili Bowl Metaphor of American Identity

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In my previous article, I argued that the chili bowl should be America’s new national metaphor. I said that it strikes the right balance between individuality and commonality. A chili bowl has unique and identifiable ingredients, but it is still held together with a single sauce.  People can maintain their unique identities, while also having a strong common identity as an American.

However, that article left various questions unanswered. What is in the chili bowl’s common sauce, and what actually ties us together as Americans? How should this chili bowl message be communicated to different audiences from different messengers? How can the Depolarization Movement promote the metaphor?

As for the ingredients of the chili bowl’s common sauce, I develop the mnemonic CHILI—there are common Characteristics, Holidays, Ideals, Lifestyles, and Identities, all of which are explored. In terms of communicating with various audiences, messengers typically should try to validate some of what a group already feels first, before nudging them in the direction of greater unity. Messengers in our current environment will typically speak to audiences sharing similar political beliefs, which affects some of the messaging. Finally, the Depolarization Movement can provide tools to those with audiences who want to speak in ways that can reduce polarization, can encourage those messengers that are currently reluctant to speak, and can more generally highlight ways in which we have similarities and share this common sauce of the chili bowl.

Identifying the Common Sauce of the Chili Bowl  

The concept of a common sauce holding Americans together hopefully resonates deeply. Yet it begs an obvious question—what comprises this shared sauce? 

I happen to like mnemonic devices and acronyms, and I use one here to explore this question. Thankfully, the most obvious mnemonic works well—CHILI:

  • Characteristics: Personal character traits that are quintessentially American
  • Holidays: American holidays that bring families and friends together
  • Ideals: America’s foundational creed, typically from the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, along with certain other sources
  • Lifestyles: Shared pastimes or interests seen as American
  • Identities: Shared emotions toward America, and identification as American

Each of these is explored in a bit more depth below. However, each is worthy of its own essay, if not more:

Characteristics: From my perspective, the most obvious quintessentially American character trait is a version of striving. Striving includes taking active steps to improve one’s life, and/or pushing for something meaningful. It involves an external orientation and some persistence. The Declaration of Independence’s “pursuit of Happiness” captures much of this idea. Sometimes it is easier to understand this concept in relation to its opposite; for instance, stereotypical traditional Japanese culture tends to emphasize reticence and deference, quite different from this more forceful striving.

Holidays: The 4th of July and Thanksgiving are the two most obvious holidays that are quite distinctly American. The holiday season (notably Christmas) including New Years is also major and celebrated in American ways, but not unique to the country. Other holidays can sometimes be useful, at least in terms of their connection to other aspects of the CHILI acronym (e.g., President’s Day and MLK Day emphasizing shared characteristics and ideals, the connection between Memorial Day and Labor Day and shared American summer lifestyles.)

Ideals: The Declaration of Independence and Constitution contain articulations of ideals such as equality among all people, governments gaining power from the consent of the governed, a willingness to decry tyranny, and the importance of both liberty and justice. The Bill of Rights specifies personal and collective freedoms, and thus certain government limitations. Some terms in these documents have become politicized, but many can still be used effectively. Outside of these documents, there are some terms or ideas such as “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One) that can be useful. Certain major historical leaders have sometimes echoed foundational ideas in helpful ways, such as Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people” from the Gettysburg Address. There is also a quite different approach to using ideals: In some cases, the most effective messaging strategy involves expressing a balanced view that while American ideals are admirable, there are instances of America falling short of achieving those ideals. Both the ideals themselves—and shared acknowledgment of how they have not always been met—can be effective ways of improving interparty emotions. It’s simply a question of when and how each is deployed.

Lifestyle: There are pastimes and interests that are both fairly widely shared and distinctively American. Categories include travel, sports, and food.[1] There are American destinations that are broadly popular, from the national parks to Walt Disney World. Meanwhile, the current coronavirus shutdowns notwithstanding, the largest sports leagues in America feature sports developed in America—football, baseball, and basketball. Finally, there are American foods and related pastimes, often those associated with grilling. Even categories such as American fast food and junk food can be useful at times. And, of course, chili is American.

Identity: Many Americans have similar feelings towards their country. Positive emotions can include pride, gratitude, and appreciation. As an identity, some people do not necessarily have to feel positively about the country, but they can simply feel strongly that they are American. Certain negative emotions toward America such as frustration can also be used to successfully bind people together, usually as long as they are combined with some positive emotions toward America.

Utilizing the Common Sauce of the Chili Bowl

Identifying the common sauce of the chili bowl is a necessary start. However, it is just as important to think about the politics of the audience and the speaker before operationalizing it.

In general, messages should try to validate some of what a group already feels first, before nudging them in the direction of greater unity. Otherwise, a message of common Americanness may lead to little impact, or even a counterproductive backfire effect. As nearly always with messaging, the greatest messaging effectiveness usually comes from communicating with stories and emotions.

As an example, let’s think of trying to get a group of mostly Blues to feel that they share a common characteristic of striving with Reds (see the “C” of the mnemonic CHILI above.) It will likely make sense to first show how Blues strive—how they have worked hard in school and at their jobs, worked hard to take care of their kids, and even taken action publicly in support of policies they believe in. But then there are stories of Reds who have done much the same. These stories of perseverance and putting oneself out there can be described as American. Then the cross-cutting identities of “strivers” and being American can feel more prominent, and the Blues can feel more similar—and more warmly—toward the Reds. 

The same logic applies when speaking mainly to Reds. Reds have often integrated a kind of self-reliance into their self-conception, which fits neatly with an idea of striving. Once this connection to striving and Americanness is established, then the parallels with Blues can be shown.

It is also important to think about the messenger. In our segmented media and influencer landscape, the most common meaningful situation will involve a Blue influencer communicating messages to other Blues, or a Red influencer communicating to fellow Reds. (Influencer in this case means any institution or individual with an audience.) 

 These influencers will likely have spent much of their careers validating their own side. As the examples above show, they would then pivot toward showing that the other side is actually similar in many ways, including in ways that are American.

How the Depolarization Movement Fits In

The Depolarization Movement has a role supporting and encouraging influencers who do want to bring Americans together. And at a more basic level, the Depolarization Movement can have a role generally popularizing ideas like the “chili bowl” and publicizing data showing that Reds and Blues are more similar on key American attributes.

There are likely prominent Red and Blue influencers who would like America to feel closer together, but just do not know what they can do at scale. The Depolarization Movement can provide messaging guidelines—and potentially trainings—that can allow these committed influencers to speak and communicate effectively to their audiences.

More specifically to the name Braver Angels, pointing out these similarities to partisan audiences can require some bravery. The Depolarization Movement can minimize the anxiety associated with this step, to their point where the messaging may no longer even seem that brave.

A more difficult category of influencers includes those who do not have sufficient motivation to highlight similarities with the other side. The Depolarization Movement can help understand why various influencers have this reluctance, such as concerns about losing an audience, concerns about a diminished desire to achieve policy aims, or lack of belief in the effectiveness of the messaging. Then, the Depolarization Movement can target messaging to these initially-reluctant influencers, in order to convince them to be useful to the Movement.

And finally, there is a general kind of messaging to no particular audience, mostly hoping that the right people are enticed and eventually use messaging effectively. This can highlight much of the research from More In Common and others showing that there is a great deal of overlap between Reds and Blues. The Depolarization Movement can simply say that highlighting commonalities and cross-cutting identities is effective.

We live in an era of extreme amount of information. Attention spans are short. The Depolarization Movement must keep it simple.

We’ll come together when we see what we share.

Reds and Blues have much in common. 

We also have unique identities.

It’s like we’re a bunch of unique ingredients sharing a common sauce.

America is a chili bowl.


[1] Note that there are other pastimes that can be broadly enjoyed as cross-cutting identities but are not uniquely American, such as enjoying music, movies, or pets. However, sometimes these can be tinged American insofar as they were made by Americans or in America, and/or they conjure up something American like a Dalmatian at a fire house.

More to explore

8 thoughts on “How to Communicate the Chili Bowl Metaphor of American Identity”

  1. Keely Vanacker

    So I love this idea! I’ve always said we are a salad with American dressing. It’s way better than the melting pot.

  2. Nice. There’s another simpler cultural metaphor that captures your CHILI analogy pretty well. It’s called Baseball, the quintessential “American” sport and cultural touchstone. (See George Will.)

    In WWII suspected spies were exposed by asking them major league baseball facts and statistics. You have to grow up with it. (The tricky American language with all its colloquialisms is another way we root out imposters.)

    1. Michael – Thanks. I definitely agree that baseball can be important, and I include it in the “L” (Lifestyles) section of the CHILI mnemonic. For certain people, baseball will work really well as something American, but it may not resonate as well for others. Here’s a sober discussion of demographics of baseball interest (https://www.startribune.com/major-league-baseball-fans-turning-gray-while-millennials-tuning-out/488240861/), and here’s a more optimistic take (https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2018/05/23/how-mlb-is-successfully-getting-younger-more-diverse-fans/#4ec880f06699).

      In a previous era, I agree that talking about baseball as American could’ve done the trick for most people. Now I see it as part of a messaging arsenal, and I think it’s important to figure out which messages work best for which audiences.

  3. James – What a thoughtful article. The CHILI metaphor really does apply here. I like your point that both Red & Blues value striving. Reds exhibit this through self-reliance (pulling themselves up by their bootstraps), and Blues exhibit this through self-improvement (working hard in school/work). Taking these active steps to improve one’s life is something that both Red & Blues in America share.

  4. I would love to make this work but I can already anticipate issues. Would love help on how to address those with different audiences. For example, “holidays” as a unifier can be viewed as problematic. Thanksgiving is viewed by some (typically Blues) as celebrating the conquest of Native Americans, for instance. On another note, I think some Reds might think some aspect of our free-market economic system has to be captured in what is American – but that doesn’t show up in CHILI acronym.
    I don’t offer this as a protest of the metaphor. Rather, I’m looking for more tips for making the metaphor work given that I have audiences in mind who would find issues with it. I really appreciate this kind of messaging work on behalf of depolarization.

    1. Hi Michael – I realize I’m somewhat late with a response, but please reach out if you’d like to help ([email protected]).

      I recognize that holidays can be tricky for certain groups, which is why I want to target messages as appropriate. In general, messages should try to validate some of what a group already feels first. Thus, it can help if a Red hears about a Blue family that likes to celebrate Thanksgiving, or if a Blue hears about Reds who recognize there are problematic aspects with the holiday. Likewise, it can be helpful for a Red to hear about Blues who feel positively about capitalism (likely with government involvement), and it can be helpful for Blues to hear of Reds who recognize flaws in capitalism.
      Of course, there’s a lot of work collecting these stories or data points, and finding the right messengers for various audiences.

      The fit between capitalism and the mnemonic may not be perfect, but individual striving in a capitalistic system can be a Characteristic. Similarly, since the country was founded with a capitalist system (albeit an immoral and flawed one with slavery), it can be an Ideal, and positive emotions toward America where working hard and earning more money in a capitalistic society is possible can be connected to Identity.

      The work that More In Common produced in its Hidden Tribes report (https://hiddentribes.us/) can be helpful for targeting. For instance, the types of stories gathered from and directed toward Traditional Liberals will likely be different than Progressive Activists on the political left. On the political right, the same would be true between Traditional Conservatives and Devoted Conservatives.

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