In this era of poisonous partisanship, The Reunited States of America is a lifesaving antidote. At a time when loyalty to party seems to be overpowering love of country, it not only explains how we can bridge the partisan divide but also tells the untold story of how our fellow citizens already are doing it.
This book, a manifesto for a movement to reunite America, will help us put a stop to the seemingly endless Left-Right fistfight while honoring the vital role of healthy political debate. Mark Gerzon describes how citizens all over the country—Republicans, Democrats, and independents—are finding common ground on some of the most divisive and difficult issues we face today.
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From Confirming to Learning
Confirming what we already believe so unquestioningly that we become prisoners of our own points of view
Learning more about issues from those who differ with us so that we can expand and enrich our point of view.
Reuniting America is about learning. We can’t “know” the answer just by applying our ideology. Instead, we can learn how to harness the best ideas and practices from across the political spectrum to keep America on track. To reunite America, citizens are seeking opportunities to challenge their own assumptions, deepen their understanding, and expand their perspective on the issues that concern them.
Instead of confirming what they already believe, they are learning beyond partisanship.
Mabel McKinney-Browning, John Gable, Eric Liu, Michael Ostrolenk, Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, University Network for Collaborative Governance, and the participants of the “Climate Change and Energy Security” retreat.
Convinced of Our Own Correctness
FACED WITH A HYPERPARTISAN political stalemate between the two major parties, America is desperately in need of fresh ideas and new approaches to public policy. Another generation of diehard ideologues, who simply repeat the partisan errors of their elders, is not what our country needs. More citizens getting involved just to prove themselves right and the other side wrong won’t help. We will just sink deeper in political quicksand.
Yet until recently, if one visited most college campuses in America, only two alternatives existed on campus. One could join the Democratic Club, where one was tutored and guided by various liberals, including the predictable baby-boomer survivors of the culture wars. Or one could join the Republican Club, where one could be instructed and inspired by assorted conservatives, including the local businesspeople who championed private enterprise and were suspicious of government. In other words, higher education was efficiently replicating the problem of kneejerk partisanship, not incubating civic innovation. It was creating cross-generational confirmation for one’s point of view.
It is only natural to want our beliefs to be confirmed. Our political, religious, and/or cultural beliefs are the cornerstone of our identity. So we are naturally inclined to want information that reinforces our existing beliefs. Whether we lean to the right or to the left, we want to think that our values, attitudes, or principles are better than our adversaries’. So we seek out information that tends to confirm what we already believe. After all, who would not rather be right than wrong?
But if taken to extremes, we can become prisoners caught inside our own closed information loop. Living in a world in which all information reinforces or amplifies our existing beliefs can freeze us in place. Although we are blessed with freedom—of speech, of the press, of assembly, and of worship—we can easily become locked forever behind the bars of our own beliefs.
In 1960, this danger was given a name: confirmation bias. It means seeking and valuing information that reinforces one’s opinions and, conversely, avoiding or dismissing information that challenges one’s views. If confirmation bias is prevalent, even a well-educated and diverse populace can become increasingly polarized over time. Confirmation bias, multiplied by media preferences and social reinforcement, has made political views in America more extreme.
The natural place for our civic beliefs to be challenged is in school. In a previous era, this was called “civic education” and was a respected part of the public school curriculum. Young citizens attended school, not just to prepare for the job market but also to learn about citizenship. But today, this kind of subject matter has trouble finding a place in the school day—and it shows. An authoritative study a few years ago revealed that students’ level of proficiency was lower in civics (22 percent) and history (18 percent) than in arguably more challenging subjects like mathematics (35 percent), science (34 percent), and reading (34 percent).1
When it comes to the skills of citizenship, concludes a leading civic education researcher, Robert Pondiscio, American students are “alarmingly weak.” As “our national store of common knowledge” about our own history and civic institutions dwindles, we are left to our own devices. As a result, concludes Pondiscio, “we increasingly live inside our own information, entertainment, and cultural bubbles.”2
As undereducated young people reach voting age and become adults, this ill-informed electorate becomes easy prey for partisan politicians huckstering half-truths.
Beyond education, the other arena in which our views were once challenged is the news media. When previous generations of citizens picked up a newspaper or turned on the television, they encountered information that might challenge their opinions or broaden their perspective. But hyperpartisan politics has now so effectively polarized the institutions that provide us with our information that we are far more likely to find our views confirmed than challenged. We can insulate ourselves against disagreement by simply picking news sources that share our biases.
With partisan views reinforced by an increasingly partisan media, civic consciousness can become more poisonously polarized than ever before. The right watches Fox News; the left turns to MSNBC and other like-minded sources. If one finds the New York Times too liberal, one turns instead to the Wall Street Journal. Don’t like liberals? Then tune in to The O’Reilly Factor. Can’t stomach conservatives? Then switch the channel to Rachel Maddow. Want serious, multisided analysis? Good luck.
Responsible journalists who used to cover stories about serious political negotiations are having increasing trouble even finding material. “We reporters used to sit outside bipartisan negotiations waiting to see the results,” Dana Bash, CNN’s chief congressional correspondent, said at a meeting in Washington, DC, that I recently attended. “Now we don’t sit outside those meetings because they just don’t happen anymore. . . . We have to fix the system because it’s broken.”3
With even our news sources now feeding our preconceived ideas, the danger of confirmation bias only increases. The less capable the citizenry is of critical thinking, the more we can be manipulated. Indeed, the art of manipulation has become so advanced that a new word has entered the civic vocabulary to describe it: spin.
“‘Spin’ is a polite word for deception,” writes Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a leading expert on political communication. “Both sides actively work to deceive the public.”4 Like a pitcher’s curveball, the words we hear coming out of candidates’ mouths are not coming at us straight. They are loaded with spin in order to change direction suddenly in midair. It’s designed to fool us.
As Jamieson makes clear, it is a systematic, calculated, and highly sophisticated strategy of both parties to package communication in order to manipulate rather than inform. Citizens are consequently becoming cynical about all political communication because they fear that candidates and their surrogates are intentionally spinning everything in order to get their votes and their money. No one, ultimately, says it better or more bluntly than ordinary voters:
“People get a little overwhelmed . . . [sorting out] what’s fluff, what’s been engineered, and what’s actually true.”
—40-YEAR-OLD SALESMAN, GEORGETOWN, KENTUCKY
“They’ll spin everything. You’ve got to wade through so much muck to try to find the truth.” 5
—61-YEAR-OLD WOMAN, RETIRED PRODUCT DEVELOPER, LAVACA, ARKANSAS
The incentives to spin in today’s hyperpartisan political system—party pressure, money pressure, media pressure—are almost irresistible.
In such a political environment, how can we, the people, open ourselves to learning? How can men and women running for national office not twist facts and put spin on almost every issue? Is the pressure to confirm our own correctness in public becoming overwhelming?
“We need men and women of good will . . . building back the muscles of consensus, compromise, and solution finding,” said Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush early in the 2016 campaign.6 A few months later, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders made a similar plea in his speech at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University. After quoting the Golden Rule, Sanders challenged “those of us who hold different views . . . [to] engage in a civil discourse.”
Finding solutions? Civil discourse? They will only be achieved if we are first willing to learn.7
Finding the Courage to Learn
JUST AS HYPERPARTISANS extinguish the fire of learning by requiring uniformity and eliminating inquiry, civic education kindles it. The key to sound civic education is being open to views that differ from one’s own.
As the brilliant report of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of the Schools makes clear, an open mind needs to be cultivated when we are young.8 The report of the Campaign, co-chaired by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and US Representative Lee Hamilton, titled Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, explains why our most precious energy resource in America is not the coal in West Virginia, the natural gas in the Midwest, or the oil off the Gulf Coast or in Alaska. It is the civic energy of the American people. If we do not nurture and develop that energy source, the lights may stay on in America, but there will be no one home.
“We hope to give young people a deeper understanding of their responsibility as citizens,” says Mabel McKinney-Browning, one of the key leaders of the Campaign. “Civic education at its best gives young people a sense that they can have an impact on their leaders and also make them more satisfied with their lives.”
What has undermined its place in the school day is more than just the pressure of time and testing; it is also fear of being whipsawed by extremists. “Teachers are concerned that somehow teaching this material might offend someone,” she says. “They fear some kind of backlash from parents or administration and naturally want to avoid that.”
In the wake of civic outrage about the deaths of African Americans at the hands of law enforcement officers, McKinney-Browning, the African American director of the American Bar Association’s Division of Public Education, recalls how vibrant civic education programs a generation ago brought police officers into high school classrooms. “It gave the police officers an opportunity to engage with students and recognize students as individuals. It also allowed the students to understand the decision-making process of the police officers as well as the law. Research showed that it improved communication and helped bridge the gap and build a more positive environment between police and young people.”9
The civic education that the Campaign recommends is, in fact, a lifelong challenge. For it to remain vibrant and relevant, not a legal cliché, it cannot stop after we leave school or college but should continue to deepen and mature through our adult lives. This requires a disciplined commitment to recognize, but not be constrained by, one’s own partisan beliefs.
“Like everyone else, I have partisan instincts and get angry,” admits Michael Ostrolenk, a passionate libertarian and founder of the Washington, DC–based organization the Liberty Coalition. “But a motto that I attempt to follow is: ‘There are no real enemies, only future allies.’”
To open himself up to other points of view, Ostrolenk has practiced something he calls the “30-Day Media Fast.” It is a practice he believes can keep our civic learning fresh. “I recommend that everyone, from time to time, take thirty days off from being right. Stop reading, watching, and listening to things that confirm your own worldviews. I suggest during these thirty days you find podcasts, magazines, or periodicals with other perspectives that may seem unfamiliar. This might not be easy, but it is an important first step.”
If you normally read Mother Jones magazine, Ostrolenk says, then read the American Conservative for a month. If you listen to Fox, switch to MSNBC. If you subscribe to the libertarian periodical Reason, then try the International Socialist Review—or vice versa.
But it’s not just the act of reading widely that Ostrolenk advocates; it is also an attitude. “I encourage you to expose yourself to new sources of information, but not with your old perspective in mind. Don’t read other points of view thinking, ‘Oh that’s stupid, that’s dumb . . .’ Instead, I suggest you start to look for the partial but limited truths within their worldviews. There are some truths there with a small t. In all perspectives, even the ones you hate, there may be something of value. Try to find those nuggets, and see if you can integrate them into a larger worldview for yourself.”10
In addition to trying a media fast, we can change our media diet. We can choose to watch or listen to sources of information that stretch rather than confine us. Smart media choices can help us to strengthen our civic muscles. Unlike the superpartisan media that simply reinforce our narrow points of view, the more mind-opening media do just the opposite.
In the 1980s, John Gable was a typical political operative, working doggedly in Republican politics to get his candidates elected. But then he “got excited about technology.” He left politics behind (or so he thought at the time) and joined the teams that developed Microsoft Office and Mozilla at Netscape. “I realized technology could move the world and change things in bigger ways than I could have imagined. I believe technology can empower people and empower a movement to change the course of history.”
Despite his usual enthusiasm, Gable’s diagnosis now is that the Internet is failing us. “In the last ten to fifteen years the Internet has boomed. It overwhelmed us with noise. So we pushed back. We created a ‘bias bubble’ around ourselves: we do everything we can to filter out people and ideas that challenge us and only let in what we already agree with. We begin to believe that people who disagree with us are either ignorant—or evil.”
Given his fervent faith in high technology, Gable dreamed of designing a new application that could counteract this kind of media-magnified hyperpolarization. “We created the political divides,” he argues, “and we can bridge them. We can use media to give multiple views of today’s news and issues, providing new avenues and tools for civil dialogue.”
Gable wants to create an antidote for this poisonous force driving hyperpolarization, and he is addressing the core problem: the overwhelming and often one-sided information flow. His start-up company, Allsides.com, for which he now serves as CEO, “bursts the bias bubble,” presenting the news from multiple perspectives—left, right, and center—so that multiple perspectives become a natural part of our daily news flow.
If Gable is successful, his first major client will be the nation’s schools. He would like all children to be able to strengthen their critical thinking by being exposed to competing perspectives on the news so that by the time they reach voting age, no one can fool them. They can distinguish truth from half-truth. They can think for themselves. And, last but not least, they can choose their leaders more wisely.
This shift from confirming to learning embodied by Mabel McKinney-Browning and John Gable is absolutely essential if we are to flourish as a twenty-first-century democracy. Recall for a moment the new narrative that is at the heart of the movement to reunite America:
Story #3: Americans can work together with people different from ourselves to find common ground that can strengthen the country that we all love.
There can be no genuine, productive search for common ground without a willingness to learn on the part of all of us.
The Founding Fathers considered learning so important that they built public education into the very structure of our system. But learning is even more important because rapid social and technological change has catalyzed public policy choices that are new. We absolutely have to educate ourselves as citizens rather than simply repeating old left or right positions.
To illustrate why learning matters more today than ever before, let’s look at two issues that are currently controversial: sex education and Internet privacy. In both cases, citizens are breaking new ground by challenging both liberal and conservative orthodoxies.
In the early years of our republic, when the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution were conceived, birth control pills did not exist. Facebook had not been invented. Computer apps on which to post sexually harassing messages or sexually explicit photographs were beyond anything that Washington, Jefferson, Adams, and Hamilton could envision. They could never have even begun to imagine a world in which the following are true:
- One American teenager becomes pregnant every minute.
- Over 80 percent of those pregnancies are unplanned.
- America’s teenage birthrate is five times France’s and fifteen times Switzerland’s.11
Faced with the fact that young people are having sex outside of marriage more often and earlier than ever before, the question of what our schools tell them about sex is one that we must answer. On this issue, we cannot consult the Founding Fathers. We can’t take refuge in documents drafted in 1776 when it comes to whether or not birth control should be discussed in health classes or provided by school nurses. In this technological age of breakneck innovation, every one of us is going to have to think for ourselves.
Instead of learning together, partisans on both sides often resort to reciting clichéd arguments. Conservatives preach abstinence; liberals preach access to information and contraception. But this partisan ritual of being for or against sex education misses the point. Sex is happening. Sex education and miseducation (whether by commission or omission, in school or out of school) is happening. The question is: who will determine what information is being transmitted, to whom, from whom, and when?
Fortunately, educators are stepping forward and challenging both sides to get serious. They advocate learning together what best serves the generations coming of age in this pharmaceutical and technological strange new world. Specifically, they ask us to open our minds enough to absorb the partisan-puncturing evidence that education about both abstinence and birth control together is more effective than either alone.12
At the time of the American Revolution, protecting yourself from government cybersurveillance was not an issue. Horsemen with saddlebags, not e-mail or cell phones, were the primary way of spreading the news. It sometimes took months, not milliseconds, for a letter sent from some of the more distant states to reach Washington, DC. Cybersecurity and Internet privacy were not an issue in a country where the US Postal Service originally depended on riders making it through snowstorms in the dead of winter to deliver the mail.
As the debates in Congress about the USA Patriot Act prove, this issue is not a classic liberal versus conservative choice. On the contrary, at least three so-called conservative values are being pitted against each other. The first value is obeying the law, the second is protecting individual freedom, and the third is supporting national security. When a libertarian stalwart and Republican like Senator Rand Paul is on the same side as the ACLU and other liberal organizations, clearly we are in territory beyond typical partisanship. We absolutely need a new, post-ideological approach to cybersecurity.
There is no question that Edward Snowden, the young computer geek who released millions of top-secret documents and exposed the National Security Agency’s surveillance, broke the law. He did so knowingly in order to blow the whistle on “Big Brother” government snooping. As someone working for US security agencies, he knew that security sometimes requires sacrifices in freedom. (For example, as all air travelers know, intrusive body scans by the Transportation Security Agency are now required.) But if we were going to sacrifice our rights, Snowden felt, we citizens had the right to know what we were sacrificing. He was opposed to security agencies of the US government secretly deciding for us what rights we should sacrifice in order to fight terrorism.
Reading the Federalist Papers will not tell us whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor. We have to weigh the evidence for ourselves. It is not a right-left issue; it is an issue that goes beyond partisanship. Whether or not the NSA should be allowed to monitor our e-mail and phone calls in order to defend us more effectively against terrorism is a decision for our generation.
Sex education and cybersecurity are only two of scores of issues that demonstrate clearly why learning is key to reuniting America. There is no substitute for we, the people, cultivating our own civic knowledge and resources—which is why Eric Liu founded the Seattle-based Citizen University.
“I want citizens to become more skillful in exercising our power as citizens,” says Liu, who hosts a powerful event called a Civic Collaboratory, attended by hundreds of people in cities around the country. “I believe all Americans should all renew our vows to this country. That means everybody, whether on the left or right.”
After his tour of duty in politics (he served as President Bill Clinton’s deputy domestic policy adviser), Liu realized that leadership in Washington, DC, could never replace the bottom-up civic leadership that makes America work. “How do we bring everyone in the tent and create something together?” he asks. “In a twenty-first-century way that activates our true potential, we all need to become sworn-again.”
Liu believes that citizenship is not just a right. It is a responsibility to engage constructively and creatively. As the Sworn-Again America program’s website put it:
Sworn-Again America is a project to revitalize citizenship. Let’s reconsider what it means to be an American. Reimagine what we can do to make a unum out of the pluribus. In ceremonies at dinner tables, block parties, or town squares, with five or five thousand, take the oath to become a Sworn-Again American!13
From Liu’s perspective, hyperpartisan politics is not fostering responsible citizenship but is, on the contrary, turning people off. Instead of thinking of politics as “bad, full of dirty tricks, negative ads, and big campaigns,” Liu built Citizen University to “embed the idea of citizen empowerment across the entire political spectrum.” He recognizes that Congress is in what he calls “an institutional death spiral,” which is why he focuses on exploring “the original meaning of politics, which is positive and has to do with balancing competing interests and looking for solutions.”
Fortunately, the revitalizing-citizenship premise of Citizen University is also gaining ground in many mainstream universities as well. Leaders of colleges and universities, as institutions of higher learning that are often supported by state and federal funds, are becoming increasingly aware that being bastions of conservatism or liberalism is antithetical to true civic education. College students are eager to participate in campus-based activities that, unlike the traditional Democratic and Republican clubs, promote learning beyond partisanship. They participate through the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network (38 states), the University Network for Collaborative Governance (25 campuses), and many other programs that are catalyzing a new generation of citizens who can think beyond left and right. Administered by the Policy Consensus Initiative, the UNCG programs make sure that students have another path besides the predictably polarized ones offered by partisan political clubs. Using local issues and connecting with local governments, UNCG institutions of higher education are acting as catalysts for precisely the new politics we need.
My own quarter century of work in this field confirms my colleagues’ emphasis on learning. Again and again, I have experienced how essential it is at every level of government, particularly at the top.
I encountered this first in my four years of close-up work with the US House of Representatives. In one exercise, the members themselves worked side by side to define all the causes of rising incivility, both inside and outside the House. When they witnessed their collective analysis, they were stunned. In less than an hour, they had developed the most detailed, thorough, and accurate portrait of the problem that they had ever seen. Many of them realized that learning together was the key to reinvigorating governing.
I experienced this again in 2004 when I facilitated a retreat involving former Vice President Al Gore and his most vehement critics on climate change. With the pain of his loss to George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election still fresh, Gore spent three days at the retreat, titled “Climate Change and Energy Security.” (My colleagues and I crafted the hybrid title very carefully to ensure that participants from across the political spectrum would feel included.)14
On the opening day, Gore presented his Inconvenient Truth slide show (later to become an Academy Award-winning movie) to the assembled group of thirty “experts” who represented opposing positions on climate change. Then a team of critics from a conservative think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI), who had financed attack ads attempting to discredit his work, presented their views. They explained why they questioned the validity of the idea of climate change and felt that the green approach threatened jobs, economic growth, and individual liberty. (Other participants represented a diverse spectrum on this issue, including faith-based organizations, renewable-energy advocates, and corporate energy industry lobbyists.)
My co-facilitator, William Ury, and I led the group through a sequence of conversations that finally yielded significant learning on both sides. On the final day, Gore acknowledged that he had learned from his critics how he could express his climate change views more effectively to a conservative, business audience. Meanwhile, his critics admitted that underlying their opposition to climate change was, in fact, a deeper concern: they felt the issue was being used as a “cover” for a liberal expansion of government and further regulations in the private sector.
One of the key lessons that Gore learned at the retreat was that his approach to climate change appeared to his conservative critics as just another Trojan horse for more government. Like a classic liberal, he had left his critics with the impression that government would be primarily responsible for solving the challenge of climate change. The CEI conservatives, of course, felt that if any sector would ultimately meet the challenge, it should be the private sector.
Here was Al Gore, who had spent his life from childhood on in the political realm, discovering how to communicate more effectively across the divides. It was a moving reminder that every one of us, from the highest government official to a child entering kindergarten, needs to keep learning.
I had to learn this lesson again on the final morning of the “Climate Change and Energy Security” retreat. Just when we thought the meeting was heading toward a successful conclusion, the room was torn apart unexpectedly by two men whose passionate statements exposed the deeper divide in the group that had remained beneath the surface.
“America can’t be a leader in the fight against climate change,” said one of the participants, the executive director of a “liberal” renewable-energy consortium. “We are one of the most hated countries on earth. We take resources from the rest of the world and then bomb countries that resist us. We are the greediest nation on earth. My kids pretend they are Canadians when they go abroad, just to protect themselves.”
The anger in the room that erupted after his “anti-American” statement was palpable. To give it a voice, I called on the next speaker, the head of an association of energy companies who had close ties to the Bush administration.
“I can’t sit by silently and listen to my country being run down like that,” said the conservative white-haired businessman in a strong southern accent. “We are the most generous country on earth. People die every day trying to get into our country. We are beloved around the world. I am proud to be an American—and will stand up to anybody who says different.”
The room erupted in chaos, voices vying for attention, hands waving wildly for recognition. The two speakers, sitting on opposite side of the room, both had tears streaking down their cheeks. I stood up and raised both arms like a cop stopping traffic and asked for a moment of complete silence. When I finally got the attention of the room, I knew that what I said next needed to be precise.
“When we resume our conversation,” I said, “I ask you to remember why you came here. I ask you to hold both of these two fine men in your hearts.”
After the moment of silence, I rang a bell, and a cluster of hands shot up. I called on four people to speak, making sure that the quartet reflected the diversity of the group. They each addressed in their own way the complexity of our role in the world and the terribly mixed feelings they had of pride and guilt, patriotism and self-criticism. As their collective wisdom emerged, they held the profound and beautiful paradox that is America: we have done enormous good in the world and also caused more harm than we dare to admit.15
As I listened to them, I realized that America could never be reduced to a positive or negative cliché. We are too great a nation to be captured by blind pride or blind criticism. The United States of America challenges us to be more than that. It challenges us to see more clearly, and feel more deeply, and continue learning how to fulfill our sacred destiny as a nation.
Table of ContentsIntroduction: Dividing--or Reuniting?
Part I: Citizens Taking Action
1. Reinventing Citizenship: From Confirming to Learning
2. Leading beyond Borders: From Control to Relationship
3. Championing the Whole Truth: From Position Taking to Problem Solving
4. Serving the People: From Campaigning to Governance
Part II: A Movement Being Born
5. Born out of Crisis: Why the Movement Is Emerging Now
6. Out of Many, One: The Core Values of the Movement
Conclusion: The Movement Is Us