An Urban's Rural View

There's More Common Ground in Our Polarized Society Than We Think

Urban C Lehner
By  Urban C Lehner , Editor Emeritus
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The nation is in a gloomy mood this Thanksgiving. Here's something to be thankful for. (Photo by Mark Miller, SA BY 4.0)

It's the season for giving thanks but many Americans aren't feeling thankful. The nation is in a miserable mood. Many fear the country is speeding toward disaster.

Left and right alike share the feeling, though for different reasons. The right is convinced the left hates America and is determined to do away with the American way of life. The left is sure the right hates democracy and wants to replace it with strongman rule.

Even people of moderate persuasion are gloomy. A friend in New York City, a thoughtful man of the middle, is thinking of taking his remaining savings and buying land in Canada.

Civilizations rise and fall, he reasons. Their average lifespan is 250 years. The U.S. will reach 250 in 2026. He hopes having a few acres in Canada on which several houses could be built would give his children and grandchildren a place to flee.

Why this pervasive pessimism? It is, at least in part, a byproduct of the extreme polarization that has come to characterize our politics. This polarization has distorted Americans' perceptions of those who disagree with them.

Each side sees the other as so radical, so alien, so bent on transforming society in catastrophic ways that every election becomes a life-and-death struggle. They're convinced society is on the brink of disaster because they think the worst of each other.

Those in the middle, like my New York friend, are in despair. They can't imagine a civilization this polarized continuing.

Well, here's a ray of hope, a seed that if watered and nourished could grow into a solution: The left and the right are wrong about each other. Neither side is as extreme as the other thinks; there are even issues where their views overlap.

I've touched on this idea before here… and here…. Thanksgiving seems an appropriate time to return to and expand on the theme.

More in Common has provided a key piece of evidence. The nonprofit group did a detailed study of Americans' views on an issue that has seemed particularly divisive, how American history should be taught. The study included surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews. (…)

The study's surprising finding: The divisiveness is more a matter of perception than reality.

It turns out big majorities of Americans at both ends of the spectrum favor a balanced, nuanced approach to the teaching of history. To cite one example among many in the study, more than 75% of Republicans and 75% of Democrats agreed with the following four statements:

-- "It's important that every American student learn about slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation."

-- "Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks should be taught as examples of Americans who fought for equality."

-- "Schools should teach both our shared national history and the history of specific groups such as Black, Hispanic and Native Americans."

-- "George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in American history."

As I said, more than 75% of Republicans and Democrats agreed with all four. This convergence of views flies in the face of what cable-television and social-media partisans preach. They win elections and make livings stoking anger at the dangerous extremists who supposedly dominate the other side.

Many Americans believe them. The result is a dangerous gap between perception and reality.

Take that statement about Washington and Lincoln. According to More in Common, 87% of Democrats agree with it. That's the reality. The perception? Republicans figured only 42% of Democrats would agree.

Or take the first statement, the one about slavery, Jim Crow and segregation. According to More in Common, the reality is that 83% of Republicans agree every student should learn this. The perception? Democrats thought only 32% of Republicans would agree.

We've been taught, it seems, to think the worst of each other. To imagine that no common ground exists. To think the gap is so wide that compromise is impossible.

It's not true. Many of us, I suspect, know deep down that there are good, well-intentioned people at almost every point along the ideological spectrum. And thanks to studies like More in Common's, we know that at least on some divisive issues the differences between people at different points aren't as big as partisan politicians and pundits want us to think.

Yes, there are extremists on both sides, people who fit the stereotypes that the partisans insist cover everyone on the other side. But they're not the majority. Not by a long shot.

That's something to be thankful for. I wish you a Happy Thanksgiving.

Urban Lehner can be reached at


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