At the heart of our crisis: American polarization


The past four years have been marked by heated and extreme political rhetoric, the loss of the political middle ground, and policymaking gridlock. COVID-19 exacerbated these political schisms before racism once again dominated the news. While these debates rage on, the loss of American lives continues to grow.

Unfortunately, as we continue to fight COVID-19 — and its disproportionate impact on communities of color — ideological tensions are erupting.

Despite the differences Americans have, we should be able to agree that we all want to save lives and rebuild the economy. We need to resist the temptation to oversimplify the issues. We can save lives, protect the economy at the same time, and reverse the policies and systems that have created the inequities we face. Shifting the conversation to make clear that we aren’t faced with binary decisions is essential to keep people safe and strengthen our resilience and recovery.

To survive this once-in-a-generation challenge, we need to hit pause on the polarizing rhetoric that divides us and frame the issues we’re facing in ways that allow for more open dialogue, productive engagement, and motivation to act.

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Carefully framing key ideas can help us move beyond our ideological battles. The following three strategies can help reorient our national conversation and channel our energy toward moving forward together.    

Use common-good values. We need to prioritize conversations about what all Americans need but only some are getting and resist those that begin with the vulnerability or deservingness of “those” groups. Everyone, regardless of race or political ideology, is anxious and scared – worried about the future, keeping their jobs, feeding and protecting their families, paying their rent, and staying healthy. In order to motivate action and avoid polarization, efforts to safeguard both our physical and economic well-being should be presented as being in everyone’s interest and for the common good. We need to advance ideas of solidarity and dispel those of division. We need to prioritize conversations about what all Americans need but only some are getting and resist those that begin with the vulnerability or deservingness of “those” groups. Frames that activate harmful stereotypes, snap us into “us versus them” thinking, and magnify our perceptions of difference rather than our shared fate.

Use metaphors carefully. COVID-19 has been compared to causes of death like heart disease, drowning, and motor vehicle accidents, but these are false comparisons and will lead to inaccurate conclusions and the wrong actions. You cannot catch heart disease from someone else, one person’s drowning does not cause others to drown, and even the worst multi-vehicle accident does not spontaneously cause other accidents. This is not the case with COVID-19, where one person can unknowingly infect two to six other people. COVID-19 is more like a forest fire. Once it starts burning, only quick and decisive action can keep it from spreading and getting out of control. And even when it is under control, it’s not completely out and requires continued vigilance.

Embrace the unique role of government, but hold it accountable. Government overreach is at the heart of our nation’s ideological divide on the many and inextricably linked issues we face today. While there may not be universal agreement on the role of government, in a crisis like this, we need government to take actions that benefit everyone. Businesses, nonprofits, and individuals all have a part to play, but only government can channel public resources into the things we need at the scale required to deliver them. Only government can set and enforce the rules that keep us safe and well. We are all relying on our public institutions to protect us from physical harm and economic hardship during this pandemic. Policies to support the economy — such as subsidies for food and housing, paycheck protection programs, individual and corporate tax relief, and increases in the amount and frequency of stimulus checks — are tools for resilience and recovery in the time of the outbreak, but should be provided through mechanisms that are transparent, go to those most in need, and protect against fraud.

Abraham Lincoln famously said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” We are learning that a country divided cannot effectively manage a pandemic or address systemic racism. Advancing the ideas above will not end American polarization, but they can help build the common ground we need to save American lives and find our way through one of our country’s darkest times.

Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, is president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation; Nat Kendall-Taylor, PhD, is chief executive officer of the Frameworks Institute; Rachel Locke, MPH, is senior program associate at the de Beaumont Foundation; Ruth J. Katz, JD, MPH, is vice president and executive director of the Health, Medicine and Society Program at the Aspen Institute; and Mark R. Miller is vice president of communications at the de Beaumont Foundation.