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]

The Depolarization Movement Should Focus on What Unites Us

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By James Coan

Imagine you’re at a sports stadium. You’re cheering for the home team. You want the team to win. You may be wearing the home team’s colors or jersey. Most everyone around you is also cheering for the same team. They also want the team to win. Many are also wearing the same colors and jerseys. Eventually, you and the other fans are cheering together. All of you have a common goal. All of you are on the same side.

Soon enough, you may feel that we’re cheering for our team. We start feeling part of a whole. The other fans may be totally different from you in many ways. Yet we can feel united. We can often feel an emerging bond or sense of connection with our fellow fans.

The depolarization movement can learn from this simple story. Simple messages and unifying symbols and colors can help bring us together. We can find unity and connection even if in many ways we’re different. We can quite quickly feel like we’re on same team, more than opponents.

The movement should focus on what unites us across political divides. Unity is not just some feel-good rhetoric. Unity is powerful, and should be pursued as an explicit goal. The depolarization movement should clearly highlight what similarities and commonalities people across political divides share. In fact, sharing stories and messages that show what unite us should be one of the depolarization movement’s main focus areas. It currently should be the most important focus of the movement. When we feel united as people and Americans, we stay united as a country.

My default is to trust social psychology, which strongly supports unity as a way to bring different groups back together. But social psychology is not the only body of thought that promotes unity. Support for unity is strong  across many different fields and voices, including religion, philosophy, ideologies across the political spectrum, America’s founding documents and ideals, and many historical social movements. In each case, thinkers have arrived at the conclusion that when groups are divided, they must focus on what unites them in order to bring themselves back together.

Social psychology notes that when we feel like part of the same team, we feel more warmly toward those we see as part of the same team. The social psychologists have a name for this: The Common Ingroup Identity Model.[1] Being on the same “team” is this “common ingroup.” When we see others as part of this common ingroup, we feel more similar to them, and we feel more warmly toward them.

We each have dozens or even hundreds of different identities and attributes, and they vary in strength. Sometimes our situations affect their relative strength. For instance, if I’m near a bunch of punk rock musicians, I’ll start thinking about how the way I dress makes me look more “conventional.” If I’m near gymnasts, I’ll feel my relative lack of coordination. If I’m near marathon runners, I’ll feel my relative lack of stamina, and so on. The messages we see and hear affect what identities we feel most strongly at any given time. If I’m on Facebook seeing all sorts of political news, it will tend to bring out my ideological or partisan identities, and I’ll start thinking about myself more in those terms.

Professor Matthew Levendusky tested the power of highlighting a common ingroup identity that could directly impact and reduce polarization–a common identity of being and feeling American. As this feeling of belonging to the American nation gains in strength, it can start to outweigh identities that can divide us politically, like liberal and conservative.

Professor Levendusky had subjects read an article about the strengths of Americans. The subjects then wrote a short paragraph explaining what they liked best about the country and why they were proud to identify as American. Just those brief activities improved feelings toward members of the opposite party substantially. It was as if, by a simple exercise, half of the strong partisans became weak/leaning partisans in a matter of minutes. People also rated famous politicians from the other party better after writing their paragraphs, and they identified more positive traits and aspects to like about members of the other party.

The changes came from seeing the other party as part of the same team. We’re all Americans. We’re on the same side and connected as Americans.

Prof. Levendusky even showed that we feel more warmly toward leading members of the other party near July 4th– when our American identity is strongest, increasing its importance relative to our partisan or ideological identities.

Studies have been limited on other cross-cutting identities, but it’s possible to identify some of what those other cross-cutting identities could be. Many parents can identify with other parents who must work hard and sacrifice for their kids, and many “dutiful kids” might identify with other “dutiful kids” who must balance taking care of aging parents with their own lives. Many of us are “volunteers” trying to improve one’s community, “strivers” who have overcome challenges to reach a goal or better one’s life, or “friends” who are trustworthy and do what they can for each other.

These are identities that should increase our feelings of warmth and sympathy toward each other, even across political divides. We feel like we have a similar experience—we feel like we’re part of a kind of ingroup. Even if other people are very different, we feel a way in which they are more like us. We can see their goodness. Their humanity comes through, a humanity we also can see in ourselves.

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist and business professor Jonathan Haidt neatly sums this up and says that to make people live and work productively together, “You want to make everyone feel like family. So don’t call attention to…differences; make them less relevant by ramping up similarity and celebrating the group’s shared values and common identity.”

Insights similar to these on the importance of unity can be found, not only in social psychology, but in a wide array of fields, promoted by people of very different backgrounds and understandings.

If you’re more politically conservative, you may find arguments from the outgoing president of the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, Arthur Brooks more convincing. He uses terms like “unity” and “united” throughout his new book Love Your Enemies, which identifies political polarization in the United States as a serious issue. He writes, “The goal to be more unified is still the right one to give us more of what we want as people.”  

Brooks notes how many thinkers and religions across time have advocated for unity, from Plato, to America’s Founding Fathers, to the Psalms and Jesus. For instance, he quotes Jesus in the book of Matthew: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” Now Brooks advocates for American unity in the present day.

Liberal intellectuals such as political scientist Mark Lilla in his book The Once and Future Liberal also agrees with the need for unifying messages across political divides. He looks back to liberalism around the time of President Franklin Roosevelt and admires how unified the country was at the time. He argues that liberalism at that time recognized the importance of unity and what bound the nation together.

He writes, “There can be no liberal politics without a sense of we.” He is dismayed that liberalism has, in his view, moved away from a focus on commonality and unity. He argues for a return to the liberal politics of unity, while continuing to advocate for maintaining and expanding rights for many historically underrepresented groups.

I want to clarify that unity does not mean homogeneity. We can see, appreciate, and cultivate what unites us while still maintaining different individual identities and different group identities within the broader group identity. It’s possible to see what unites us–for example, we are all Americans who help our family members and communities–even if all sorts of other identities and interests we hold are different.

Perhaps you think unity is a nice ideal, but not a practical strategy compatible with a political movement, at least not since Americans put aside their differences to win independence from Great Britain in the Revolutionary War.

Yet many movements since then have used unity as a strategy. These movements have often rooted themselves in beliefs or creeds that unite Americans, many of which come from our founding documents themselves. Many movements have asked America to live up to an ideal inherent to a single phrase from the Declaration of Independence—“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” That phrase unites us as a people around the equal worth and value of every one of us.

Within a half-century, poor white men who did not own property used that statement to argue that they should have a right to vote. Women used the Declaration of Independence as the model for the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments at Seneca Falls in 1848, arguing that all men and women were created equal. The idea that all men were created equal animated first abolitionists, in the 19th Century, and then the Civil Rights Movement in the 20th Century.

We can see how this core American ideal still influences American social movements, both conservative and liberal. Pro-life advocates can argue that all life is equal, regardless of whether that life has been born yet. (For instance, createdequal.org is a pro-life website.) Meanwhile, those focused on rights for those with different sexual orientations can say that people are equal in their capacity for love, regardless of whom they love.

When it comes to depolarization, there are numerous core American ideals we can probably use to advocate for our cause. I happen to focus on one that both unites Americans as an ideal and encourages unity directly: E Pluribus Unum–Out of Many, One. It’s our original national motto, a part of our heritage from the early 1780s, from even before the Constitution was written. It shows how even though we were very divided back then amidst thirteen new states with very different economies, religions, and ethnic heritages, we valued how we came together as one country and one people, Americans.

Various groups in this space have recognized the importance of unity and commonality, even baking it into their names like the group More in Common, whose Hidden Tribes report sorts the American population into seven “tribes” across ideological and other divides. More in Common then sees a path forward, “for new initiatives that seek to create trust and connection across the lines of difference and bring Americans together around what unites them rather than what divides them.” Groups like Braver Angels and the Bridge Alliance, in different ways, work in the same field.

And even more simply, we are the United States of America. Let’s keep it that way.

Today our country is divided, but the depolarization movement should show that we can come together as one country and people again. When we feel united, we will stay united as the United States of America.

James Coan is a depolarization strategist and founder of Red Blue Together, which has shared stories of friends and those in close relationships across political divides. He currently works as a management consultant and energy researcher. He previously worked at a think tank, where he often blended psychology and public policy.

[1] Matthew Levendusky, “Americans, not Partisans: Can Priming American National Identity Reduce Affective Polarization?” https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/web.sas.upenn.edu/dist/9/244/files/2016/10/JOP_Americans-17e7zuk.pdf.

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