Bridging Americans Together is Not a Fantasy, It's a Work In Progress
Even as President Biden doubles and triples down on his commitment to “bring America together,” it is increasingly evident that America will need to address deep ambivalence — and even outright hostility — to the agenda of “unity” propagated by a vocal minority.
Yet, most Americans believe that moving past post-election anger and addressing America’s crises together is urgently needed if we want to see America healthy, back to work and addressing inequities in our systems. The reality is that razor-thin margins in both the House and Senate will require cross-party engagement on almost every issue.
Ironically, however, one of the few areas where those furthest to the left and right seem to agree is their distrust of the call to “bridge” partisan divides.
Many on the left worry that bridging Americans’ differences will set back movement toward social justice. This worry often accompanies an implied, if not overtly stated, belief that those who voted for Trump are uninformed racists and bigots. Which is why some who support bridge-building from the left accidentally telegraph that, for them, building bridges means educating people who are misguided rather than coming together to hear and understand each other.
Meanwhile, there remains deep resentment for many on the right about four years of defending President Trump from what they see as partisan attacks. It will be difficult for many to invest in finding common ground with those who, they believe, worked not only to delegitimize Trump from the start, but to vilify those who supported him.
The discomfort felt on both sides about a bridge-building agenda is exacerbated by a mutually reinforcing cycle between citizens and elected leaders. As Americans become more polarized, elected leaders push to prove their fidelity to the extremes, further polarizing the electorate. Many Members of Congress will tell you directly that their constituents didn’t send them to Washington to find common ground with the other party, but to “beat” them.
The landscape of post-inaugural America fairly shouts that unless we find ways to bring more Americans together across the chasms that divide us, we won’t succeed in living side-by-side, much less addressing our common problems. Most experts recognize that America’s crisis of polarization, which has been building for decades, comes with terrible long-term risks of violence and civic catastrophe, of which we saw only the first manifestations over the summer and, especially, on January 6. Preventing an escalation of violence will require serious investment and action across the public, private and nonprofit sectors to bridge our deep divides.
The good news: although seldom publicized, well-resourced international and smaller U.S.-based efforts at bridge-building have been documented to succeed across divisions as challenging, or more so, than those which we face. This bridge-building field, growing for decades, has exploded exponentially in the last four years, racking up experience at the national, state and local levels.
Those interested in the field can visit ComeTogetherAmerica.net to learn about some of the leading organizations on the frontlines of bridging divides that are deploying groundbreaking, successful bridge-building strategies that range from local, grassroots dialogues between Democrats and Republicans to problem-solving on national policy.
A key learning from both international and domestic bridge-building work: aspirations to bring people together across inflamed divides must be supported by concrete programming, adequate budgets and a commitment to steadfast patience. We will not succeed by rhetoric alone.
Another key learning: listening to and understanding one’s opponent does not mean having to agree, be conciliatory or compromise one’s positions. Trust grows from understanding, not from agreement or bargaining.
It’s time to reflect seriously as a nation on how we might rise to the challenges our deep divisions pose: What will it take for Americans to reconnect with each other and begin rebuilding trust across post-election rifts and how can we normalize bridge-building behavior across society?
Those of us in the bridge-building field are hopeful about President Biden’s expressed aspirations. We’ll look to see the emergence of a serious campaign, backed by multiple programmatic initiatives, steadfastness in the face of ongoing opposition, and meaningful partnership with practitioners and experts.
Moving this work forward will help us immeasurably in finding solutions to our sizable challenges — and, over time, in defeating the insidious forces of division.
David Eisner is CEO of Convergence Center for Policy Resolution. Convergence brings leaders and stakeholders together across political, sectoral and ideological divides to build trust, find common ground and fashion consensus solutions to intractable issues. https://convergencepolicy.org/