Healing our divided nation is the defining challenge of our time. Nothing less than the success of the American experiment is at stake.
Our problems won’t be solved with a single election or a new president. Hyper-partisanship has poisoned our politics to such an extent that it compromised our response to the COVID-19 pandemic, fueled the spread of disinformation, and sparked the January 6th attack on the U.S. Capitol.
But the U.S. was fraying long before Donald Trump became president, with growing gaps between the rich and poor as well as deep cultural divides between urban and rural communities. The result is that America often feels like it’s coming apart, with clashing tribes caught in feedback loops of distrust and resentment, amplified online and manipulated through disinformation, driving us toward ever greater levels of mutual incomprehension.
People on different sides of this divide fear that the other side hates their kind. They have a point: a 2019 study found that roughly 42 percent of both parties view the opposition as “downright evil.” In this environment, there is an understandable temptation to fight political fire with fire. But that will only burn the whole house down.
To emerge stronger and wiser from this severe civic stress test, we need to put country over party. We need to address the deeper causes of our divisions while developing a unifying vision that can guide policy debates going forward.
We call it the Unum Test. Here’s how it works: put partisan blinders aside and ask yourself which policies would have the long-term effect of uniting—or further dividing—our country. The policies that pass the test won’t all come from one party or ideology. That’s precisely why it offers an off-ramp from our bitter polarized debates. The Unum Test can reunite our nation because it is rooted in principle and practicality, not partisan agendas, allowing us to make progress towards a more fair, just and prosperous nation. It can help us achieve:
- A political system where solving problems is put ahead of destroying the “other side.”
- An economic system that rebuilds the middle class and ensures equal opportunity and social mobility for all Americans.
- A civic culture that emphasizes shared values and the dignity of every individual, while protecting the open debate that democracy depends upon.
What is Unum? It’s an idea that flows from the earliest ideals of our republic. The United States of America was the first nation born out of an idea rather than a tribal identity. Our Constitution begins with a call that transformed subjects into citizens: “We the People.” The founders’ crystalized our mission with a national motto: e pluribus unum, “out of many, one”— and placed it above the eagle holding a cluster of arrows and an olive branch on the Great Seal of the United States.
E Pluribus Unum remains the key to what makes America exceptional in the eyes of the world. America’s role as an imperfect but diverse democratic republic stands in clear contrast to the history of other nations—as well as the ethno-nationalist parties and surveillance state autocracies that are on the rise today. At our best, America remains a rebellious project against tribal and fundamentalist forces. And e pluribus unum is literally the opposite of “us against them”—the demagogues’ eternal calling card.
If we consciously aim to elevate Unum over the divisive forces that encourage groupthink and group-blame it will lead us to durable reforms rooted in broadly shared American values in the intertwined areas of politics, economics, and culture.
Eighty percent of Americans say they are concerned about political polarization. Seventy-eight percent of Americans believe it’s important that Republicans and Democrats work together. How can we achieve that?
First, by changing the twisted incentive structure in our politics. The rigged system of congressional redistricting can result in parties losing the statewide vote but still winning more seats in Congress. Ronald Reagan called this the “antidemocratic and un-American practice of gerrymandering.” Today ninety percent of Members of Congress live in “safe seats” without meaningful congressional general elections while about 30% of state legislative races are not even contested. This empowers partisan extremes (especially in closed party primaries) and typically drives down turnout while disincentivizing bipartisan compromise.
Independent non-partisan redistricting commissions, combined with open primaries, would make elections more competitive and representative, driving increased turnout and giving candidates an incentive to reach out beyond their party’s base during campaigns, and especially when they reach congress. Reforms like ranked choice voting – with run-offs – also provide candidates with a powerful disincentive for “going negative” against opponents because they want to win over their opponents’ supporters, which should open the door to more constructive congressional debates. It also may encourage more independent candidates to participate in our politics. It’s worth remembering that the constitution doesn’t mention political parties. Contrary to what many in Washington apparently believe, partisanship is not, in fact, the purpose of our politics.
To restore trust in the fairness of our elections, we need to strengthen voting rights and election security systems with backup paper ballots while combating all forms of voter suppression. We should lower obstacles to voter participation, adopt automatic voter registration for all eligible citizens and expand early voting, including mail-in voting, which has proven effective at increasing participation. Many of these reforms are being considered in congress right now, though the “For the People Act” would go further in many areas.
Finally, growing concerns about political corruption need to be addressed before they fundamentally compromise the credibility of our democracy. It is past time for reforms that reduce the influence of big money on elections, compel legislators to disclose if any of the language in their bills have been drafted by people with a financial interest in its passage, while requiring more transparency about donors to dark money Super-PACs. Presidential candidates should be required to release their tax returns, family members of presidents should not work in the White House and presidential pardons should be processed through proper channels in the Justice Department.
These reforms will not solve all our problems, but if you change the rules you change the game, and you’ll begin to change the culture around our politics. These reforms collectively pass the Unum test because they would reduce the influence of political extremes, increase transparency, and restore trust in the integrity of our elections.
Even before the unemployment that came from Covid-19, much of the anger in our politics came from the uneven recovery after the last great recession and the destabilizing economic impact of globalization and technological innovation.
Many Americans no longer believe that they’ll get ahead if they work hard and play by the rules. The hollowing out of mid‑sized manufacturing cities in America’s Heartland has fueled the rise of populism on the right and left. The middle class has been squeezed for decades with stagnant wages and lower social mobility while at the same time the top tenth of the top 1 percent has seen its share of wealth more than triple. In 1965, the average executive made 20 times the average American worker; today the average CEO makes more than 200 times as much. Executive compensation packages have soared even in the face of scandals, downturns and layoffs.
It’s time to update our economic system and our social contract to better accommodate the changing nature of work. Government needs to return to its critical role of ensuring that fair competition is protected, while companies should focus more on long-term value-creation rather than obsessing over quarterly earnings reports.
One way to achieve this is through a more inclusive vision of capitalism with more opportunities for being a stakeholder in shared success. For example, incentivizing corporations to pass a percentage of profit to its workers can align the interests of management and labor. We need policies to encourage small business start-ups, particularly for those on the lower end of the income spectrum. We should ensure that trade agreements better reflect the interests of American workers, as the renegotiation of NAFTA did. The tax code should incentivize investments in research and development as well as in human capital, which will in turn increase our competitiveness and economic mobility. Finally, critical infrastructure reform can help strengthen our nation while strengthening the middle class for a generation.
All this will have real costs. But we cannot ignore George Washington’s warning about “not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden we ourselves ought to bear” in the form of unsustainable debt. While the transnational challenges of the 21st century—including climate change, global health crises, and an aging population—will lead to a government somewhat larger than we’ve had in the past, it needs to be financed responsibly with incentives to grow America’s economic pie rather than simply redistribute it.
These reforms pass the Unum test because they would “deal everyone in” while reducing some of the frustration and stagnation that drives populist anger. While America should never be punitive towards those who have been successful, the moral legitimacy of capitalism depends on whether a rising tide lifts all boats. There is a special responsibility that falls on the wealthiest citizens to use their money and influence to push for reforms that will make America civically stronger, across partisan lines, in return for all the blessings they have received.
Trust is eroding across nearly every aspect of our culture. Trust in government, trust in the media and even trust between fellow citizens have all declined dramatically over the past four decades. Democracy withers when people cynically assume the worst about their institutions and each other.
We need to overcome this crisis of confidence before it cripples our country. As the late Congressman John Lewis said, “Maybe our forefathers and foremothers all came to this great land in different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.”
In his Farewell Address, George Washington warned that “enlightened opinion” is necessary for a self-governing society. But only about a quarter of students in 2018 scored “proficient” or better on a basic civics test, with about 15 percent scoring the same on American history, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This reflects longtime cuts to civics education from school curriculums across the country.
Investing in civics education again should be an area of bipartisan agreement. An inclusive and honest assessment of American history and civics should be taught beginning in elementary school, while high school students should also be taught an unvarnished account of life in non-democratic societies so that they appreciate what it means to be an American. And here’s a bold idea: require all graduating high school students to pass the basic citizenship test that immigrants take when they apply for naturalization.
It is also time to restore a norm of national service, which would rebuild a sense of cultural cohesion and common purpose across class, race and regional lines. This should be more than just military service, including teaching (like AmeriCorps), the Peace Corps, the National Park Service, and work in different local communities, in exchange for an expanded new G.I. Bill that would help young people obtain a college education or vocational training without taking on crippling debt.
We need to expand our commitment to racial justice and equality, ending tolerance for racism in any form. We need to continue to push for criminal justice reform and invest in police retraining to ensure fair and equal treatment for all Americans without sacrificing public safety. This is entirely consistent with the American ideal of judging people as individuals rather than as members of groups—and that is a goal we should always steer towards in matters of policy.
No conversation about healing distrust would be complete without addressing the impact of social media on our democracy. Platforms need to combat disinformation while cracking down on bots and trolls through individual verification. In addition, we need to find ways for news outlets to measure and monetize their success by focusing less on sensational click-bait and more on engagement-based attention metrics; less on profiting off polarization and more on responsible original reporting to foster fact-based debates.
Developing a more cohesive civic culture is essential because our domestic divisions are distracting us from a growing list of external threats, including cyber assaults by Russia on our democracy and our government, the economic rivalry with China, and the cost of extreme weather events that come from the climate crisis. It’s no wonder that our adversaries spend so much time and money trying to inflame our identity fault lines. They understand it is America’s Achilles heel. Indeed, as other nations grow stronger, they are beginning to challenge America’s leadership and America’s values. Some of those nations want to impose their values on us. If we don’t pull ourselves together, they will succeed.
The good news is that citizens across the political spectrum are now realizing that We the People can no longer take the stability or success of the American experiment for granted. And about 8 in 10 Americans are tired of how divided we have become.
A core theme of Joe Biden’s successful presidential campaign was this pledge: “I’m running as a proud Democrat. But I will govern as an American president. I’ll work with Democrats and Republicans. I’ll work as hard for those who don’t support me as those who do.” Now as president, he needs to make good on that promise, rather than give into the temptation to “go it alone” with a razor thin margin in congress at a time when there are more self-identified independents in our nation than either Democrats or Republicans.
There is still a strong and vital center in America that is under-represented in our often extreme political debates, a coalition of pragmatic Americans who want our politics to be more constructive. This broad group of politically homeless citizens is a tribe trying to transcend tribalism—and while that may sound quixotic, that is the story of America.
Reuniting our nation will require a new movement to strengthen our democracy. For all our energizing differences, we are all Americans and we need to achieve more unity amid our diversity if our democratic republic is to overcome the global rising tide of ethno-nationalist autocracies. That is a cause worth fighting for.
As Abraham Lincoln wrote in an even more dire time: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present…As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.”
This task now falls to us. We are divided, but not beyond repair. Guided by the Unum Test, we can move forward together to find common ground and common purpose, armed with the understanding that our independence as a nation is inseparable from our interdependence as a people. We must transcend our tribalism to survive and thrive as the United States of America.