I have lately been engaged in an important research project with the Job Creators Network and The Winston Group.
We believe the blizzard of arguments, attacks and harsh words filling social media and news media reports from Washington don’t reflect the views or the hopes of the majority of Americans.
To test that idea out we met with focus groups across five states in different parts of the country to ask people how they defined a successful America. Our goal was to collect concrete examples of activities and initiatives that most of the American people believe are successful – and to hear about other specific examples of things Americans want done.
We heard some of that, but we learned something far more interesting and alarming.
Overwhelmingly, Americans wanted to talk about the tone of our national conversation – and the growing division in the country. This was true across every demographic and group we questioned: African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, middle-income voters, suburban women, young voters, conservative Republicans, college educated voters, independents – you name it.
We asked: “What is your view of the state of the country?” Every group in all five states had nearly the same answer. People said we are deeply divided and they were concerned. Moreover, their concern over the division diminished the importance or relevance of good news.
This insight brought some clarity to the results of the last election. Why didn’t the brilliant economic results of the previous 18 months under Republican leadership translate to electoral success? Because, even though the economy was successful, people didn’t feel like America was succeeding – or that their personal concerns were being addressed. This sense of deep division is a major reason.
Many groups said social media were a major contributing factor to the division, and they felt trapped by it.
In our hyper-polarized environment, it is becoming clear that many people assume that if the other side is losing, their side must be winning. But if the result is a world in which truth and facts do not matter, getting anything accomplished will be impossible.
Interestingly, young voters had the strongest feelings in this regard. One of my colleagues in the project observed that this group talked about social media the way addicts might talk about their drug dealers – hostile but dependent. There was a near unanimous sense that social media elevates the most extreme, angry voices and then forces people to take sides.
These observations were validated last weekend by the eruption of hysterics and vitriol directed toward a group of high school students who attended the March for Life in Washington.
Without any context, evidence, or broad perspective, there was an immediate social media condemnation of these teenagers. If you weren’t wholeheartedly against them – if you didn’t want to punch their faces – you were told you were morally bankrupt.
The left gleefully pointed to what the students were accused of doing – without evidence – as an example of all that is wrong with the right.
Many conservatives bought into the smear as well, denouncing the students and trying to make it clear that they weren’t like them.
Nobody bothered to question if the few seconds of video told the whole story. In this age, a side must be taken – immediately and without thought or hesitation.
Even after more videos were released that showed the initial stories were simply false – and the teens were not racist demons – many people felt compelled to stick to their initial outrage. To change your opinion or accept another’s is seen as a win for the other side. This cannot be allowed – truth be damned.
In our hyper-polarized environment, it is becoming clear that many people assume that if the other side is losing, their side must be winning. But if the result is a world in which truth and facts do not matter, getting anything accomplished will be impossible. We will all lose.
While we still have more listening to do with this project, the results so far suggest that there is a sizable majority of Americans who reject this sort of zero-sum thinking. However, they don’t feel like their voices are being heard.
It may be that the next election will be decided by who best captures this sentiment that is building in the country. Bringing us together may be more powerful than condemning the other side.