For more than 230 years we have called ourselves the United States of America, but we are fast becoming the Divided States of America.
In this incredibly tight election, there are a few things we know. Whatever the results are, they will show an incredibly polarized electorate. Nearly 95 percent of the partisan bases of each party will vote for their candidate. And because the election will be extremely close, the victor likely will have little mandate to govern and little cooperation from the opposite party in Congress.
In addition to the partisan divide that exists in this country, there also has developed an unfortunate divide at other levels. The election results will further highlight this problem.
The race divide is well documented and has increased. Blacks and Latinos will give near-universal support to President Obama, while a majority of white voters will go for Mitt Romney. Younger voters overwhelmingly support Obama; older voters back Romney. There will be a consistent divide between the sexes, with a majority of women supporting Obama and a majority of men siding with Romney. The income divide continues to grow, as lower-income voters support the president and wealthier ones endorse Romney.
There also is a spiritual divide in this country. Folks who have a strict interpretation of religion and faith will go for Romney, and voters who don’t attend church regularly or have a more progressive view of spirituality will choose Obama. Further, there is a marriage divide, especially among women, in which single women will vote for the president and many married women will vote for Romney. And then there’s the geographic and community divide. The large urban centers will vote overwhelmingly for Obama, and small towns and rural communities will be just as enthusiastic for Romney. Most of the voters on the East and West coasts will vote for Obama, while the middle of the country by and large will go for Romney.
We are becoming more a nation of tribes in which we align ourselves with a certain side and are unwilling to unite for the benefit of the country as a whole. As many sociologists and historians have pointed out, democracy can’t survive or function in tribal cultures. We are on a fast road to a broken democracy with an inability to reach consensus on the big issues.
There are many things to blame for this: A media culture that seems to reward and encourage bitter and rancorous communication, a political culture that puts party over country, an unwillingness for all sides to sacrifice for everyone’s benefit and a winner-take-all attitude at every level in which compromise and agreement are seen as signs of weakness as opposed to strength.
What can we do? How can we again become the United States of America, and bridge the great divides that seem to exist at all levels? It is the biggest problem that I believe is facing the country, because without solving it, we can’t really solve any other problems. To start on a path towards a solution it is up to all of us individually, as well as the two parties and presidential candidates.
For us as individuals, we need to begin to bridge these divides in our own neighborhoods and communities. In our behaviors and communication, we need to open ourselves up to more diversity and understanding of others’ points of view. We need to be able to discuss issues without yelling. We need to treat each other with respect and dignity, not see each other as an opponent or enemy. And we need to begin to make choices in news that encourage respect and calm as opposed to raising the heat. We need to practice the golden mean in how we act and what we say and what we watch.
The first order of business on Election Night will be for the victor to begin to heal the divisions and build bridges on each of the divides. But it can’t just be words. After that, we need to have our own peace accord. In the past, we have brought fighting countries to Camp David to try and build a lasting peace. We need to have our own Camp David talks among ourselves to solve these incredible divides and polarization. These summits should include leaders from around the country in politics, faith, business and social entrepreneurs. This United States peace process should be out of the glare of cameras and media, so leaders cannot feel pressured to run back to their side and revert to partisan talking points.
It’s probably even more important for the candidate who finishes second on Election Night to put party aside and reach out. His role in solving this divide is huge, as it is in any peace reached anywhere. It will take a tremendous amount of courage and strength for the election loser to bring their supporters along in this peace process. It will be so easy just to attack the winning party, but the power to return us to a more united country in many ways is held more by the one who concedes.
As we face all these divides, the ability to unite ourselves is by far the most critical issue we face. It is a power and a responsibility that each of us has. Otherwise, no matter what the election results are, there will be no winner.