The following is an excerpt from "Our Common Ground: Insights From Four Years of Listening to American Voters," the latest release from RealClear Publishing.
“Give me a call if you can,” the email read. It was from Gary, a Republican from Pennsylvania and one of 500 American voters who were participating in my research project. He continued, “I had a terrible day yesterday, and I think I have lost a lot of friends.
I called Gary right away. He was a pretty even-keeled man, 52 years old, a store manager, married with three children—and it was unlike him to exaggerate.
“Hi, Gary. So tell me.”
“Well, I went to Capitol Hill to protest yesterday, and now everyone is calling me a terrorist.”
I was flabbergasted. It was January 7, 2021, and I couldn’t imagine that Gary, a cheerful family man, was one of the people I saw storming the Capitol the previous day. As he spoke, I learned that Gary and his friends had just driven to Washington, DC, to march. They planned to walk peacefully down Pennsylvania Avenue to express their chagrin about the election of Joe Biden and what they saw as the radical policies that Democrats were promoting. His sign read, “Honk if you think Socialism Sucks.”
“I mean, my wife went to the Women’s March in D.C. back in January of 2017, and everyone thought she was a hero. She had a blast. I just figured I could do the same kind of thing, and I wasn’t near that group at the Capitol. Meanwhile, my neighbor called me un-American, and my children are refusing to talk to me.”
I asked Gary about the friends who had accompanied him. They were all bowling buddies who didn’t like President Trump’s values, but who believed that he would do the best job on the economy, their number one issue. “We had nothing to do with those crazy people at the Capitol, but if you watch the news, I was there with my automatic rifle, invading Nancy Pelosi’s office. What a mess—and no one wants to hear my truth.”
It was not the time for me to tell Gary that Joe Biden was not a socialist. But as we talked, I realized that inaccurate perceptions were behind most of what he was experiencing. He perceived that President Biden would take his hard-earned income, raise his taxes, and use his money to give Americans everything they wanted for free. And his neighbor and his children assumed he was an anarchist just for having been in D.C. that day.
I have had thousands of these conversations since 2016 as part of a massive longitudinal study of 500 American voters—conversations about everything from immigration to climate change to mask-wearing to Trump’s rallies. Each week, voters from all states, all ages, all ethnicities, and all ends of the political spectrum have shared with me their lives, their dreams, their fears, and their politics. I wrote more than fifty opinion pieces for the Boston Globe about what I learned from them, many of which are in this book. And, I have seen over and over again that the assumptions we make about each other—our attitudes, our values, and our rigidity—are horribly inaccurate.
And here’s the thing: our inability to hear each other, our speculation, and our impatience are tearing us apart. This has now caused a crisis in Gary’s close circle, and, repeated everywhere in America, it is dividing us as a country. It’s a sickness that permeates the American culture, erodes our collective mental health, paralyzes our ability to move forward, and makes us hate each other. Substance abuse is up, mental illness is on the rise, and sales of guns and ammunition are exploding.
Addressing this problem doesn’t require us to agree on everything. But to turn down the heat, we need to stop presuming, to listen, to try to understand, to treat each other with dignity, and to know that most Americans are not crazy radicals. If we can find our common ground, we can have a much better world.
There is actually much more common ground than you would think in our country, especially when it comes to policy. Common ground means just that: the path forward might not be ideal, but it’s a good compromise, a positive step. Let’s take immigration as an example. Most Democrats tell me that Trump supporters want to halt all immigration into the United States—that they want to build a big and expensive wall across the entire southern border of the country, that they want to evict Dreamers, and that they believe that Trump’s separation of children from their parents at the border was a sad but necessary step.
Most Republicans tell me that Democrats want open borders where illegal immigrants can pour into our country at their convenience. Once in, they should be able to get a driver’s license and free health care, independent of whether they plan to work or pay taxes.
To be sure, there are Democrats and Republicans who are proponents of those views, but my research says they are on the fringes. Only 2 percent of the voters in my sample thought it was okay to separate children and parents, and only a few Democrats were for open borders.
The reality is that most Americans would be fine with an immigration bill that was a compromise: funding a wall in select parts of the border with Mexico, creating a path to citizenship for Dreamers, accelerating citizenship for university students in STEM fields, and stiffening security at the border to discourage further illegal immigration. More specifically, when I laid out the main elements of the proposed Immigration Reform Bill of 2013, more than 80 percent of my voters said they would support the bill. That bill actually passed the Senate and was championed by everyone from Republican Senator Lindsey Graham to Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer. The House never acted on it.
In the meantime, we assume we are far apart on the issue, but it is not the case.
As with immigration, there is also common ground in our country on gun control, health care, infrastructure, climate change, and many other issues. We think we agree on nothing, but it’s all perception.
With so much common ground, you would think we’d have significant legislative progress in Washington. The system, however, works against that: if representatives want to get reelected, they are actually better off with popular issues unresolved. It’s easier and more powerful to be a Republican candidate and yell to your constituents that immigrants are dangerous people and that, as your voters’ ambassador, you will never let those open-border Democrats get their way. It’s more compelling to be a Democratic candidate and holler about children at the border and the outrageous cost of a wall, reassuring citizens in your district that you will work every day to make sure the other side doesn’t get its way. Resolving the issue takes away valuable talking points. As Kathy, an independent from Ohio, told me, “I used to listen to my congressman for information and for comfort, but now, every time I hear him, he makes me more anxious.” Immigrants are worse than you think, liberal teachers brainwash our children, gun owners want to shoot you, minorities are replacing you at work, and you are getting the short end of the stick. Vote for me and I will fix it all.
Our media also plays a role in our divisiveness by amplifying the extreme messages. Cable TV channels get more eyeballs showing white nationalists than they do showing normal people trying to live their everyday lives. So we see the stories of people who believe in extreme policies and we project those stories onto our views of others. “I used to think Republicans were reasonable Americans who just wanted less government interference in our lives,” said Matthew, a Democrat from Florida. “But I have been watching MSNBC and it has convinced me not to spend a lot of time with my Republican friends anymore.” Turn on the news and it is all discord all the time: we hear regularly about our divided America, that constant case of us versus them, the Never-Trumpers versus the Lock-Her-Uppers, the Elites versus the Deplorables. The fringes are clearly getting the airtime. Those media clips get shared on Facebook and Twitter, which keeps conservatives in their own information bubble and liberals in a separate bubble.
The more we watch, the more we read, the more apprehensive we become. It feels better to blame the other guys and to parrot back a story you heard—even if it’s extreme. At this point, if you ask most Republicans about the Democratic Party, they will say Democrats are a bunch of elitist socialists who want to take my hard-earned tax dollars and give them away to illegal immigrants, criminals, and people who are too lazy to work. And who want to take away guns, allow women to use abortions as birth control, and, more recently, to completely dismantle policing. Or, if you ask most Democrats about Trump supporters, they will say that they are a bunch of hypocritical, uneducated deplorables, who sleep with their guns, refuse to wear masks, deny that climate change is happening, and never met a Black person they liked. Both of these views are inaccurate, but these are the stereotypes that were on the ballot in 2020, and they dominate our perspectives.
Voting Against Versus Voting For
“I always thought of myself as a Democrat,” said Joseph, a Republican from Texas. “I thought that the Dems were cool and young and always trying something new, breaking the mold, putting money in your pocket, looking out for the people, and slamming the rich corporations.” Then, he told me, things changed. “Our senators explained that the Dems were actually taking my tax money and funding people who are not out there earning their living. I heard a news story about someone on welfare who didn’t want to work because it was easier to get a government handout. And I also noticed that Fox News was talking nonstop about the economy, and CNN was talking nonstop about sexual orientation. I am all for letting transgender people pick whatever bathroom they want, but I don’t want to hear about it as the main issue for our country. So I guess I am voting against the Dems these days rather than for the Republicans.”
This theme dominates the discussions I have with voters. They voted against someone rather than supporting their candidate because of horror stories about the other side. “I don’t like Trump, but the alternative is much worse” was a frequent cry from those who supported him.
In 2016, one of the primary reasons that people voted for Donald Trump was not that they thought he was a really great guy. They just hated Hillary Clinton. Trump supporters reported to me that she was totally corrupt and listed an entire lifetime of questionable activities: Whitewater, Vince Foster, the Clinton Foundation, Benghazi, and “stealing furniture from the White House on their way out.” Although each of these issues was resolved in Hillary Clinton’s favor, voters were not appeased. “Normal, law-abiding, ethical people just don’t have all of those shady, questionable things in their lives,” said Susan, a Republican from North Carolina. Women told me that Clinton was a hypocrite to say that she was a supporter of women, when she had once defended her husband against women who accused him of sexual harassment. And the famous emails, rather than being a pivotal factor in their decision to vote for Trump, were just one more thing to pile onto their list.
Of course, that same year, many voters chose Hillary Clinton because they hated Donald Trump, calling out his criticism of Gold Star families, his conversation with Billy Bush about his sexual escapades, his narcissism, his name-calling, his track record of business failures, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and more.
This “dislike of the alternative” also happened in 2020. Over half of my voters who chose Biden told me they were just voting against Trump. And over half of those who voted for Trump told me they were just voting against Biden.
Trump supporters saw a strong man who tells it like it is, works hard, loves his family, and made huge progress despite unprecedented lawsuits, hearings, and general obstruction from the other party—the likes of which had never been seen before. They think Biden has dementia, will be hijacked by the “radical liberals” in the party and mess up any chance of an economic recovery, and is just too quiet and weak for our times.
Biden supporters saw an experienced, empathetic man who will unite our country, bring sanity back to the White House, build a great and expert team, and watch out for the little guy—especially because of his background. They saw Trump as a lying, cheating buffoon who panders to Putin and cares only about himself.
The Voter Fraud Question
After winning the 2016 presidential election but losing the popular vote, President Trump claimed that he actually won the popular vote if you eliminated all of the illegal votes for Hillary Clinton. This narrative continued throughout his 2020 presidential campaign, as he convinced his supporters that the only way a tired 78-year-old Joe Biden could win was through mass numbers of illegal ballots cast by enemies on the Democratic side. His supporters and the media amplified this message, and by the time Trump lost, he had convinced millions of Americans that it was all because of fraud.
My data says that about half of those who voted for Trump believe he lost the election, and the other half believe that there was significant fraud and that Trump most likely won. This has been reinforced by popular networks like Newsmax and One America News Network (OAN); when Fox News reported no voter fraud, they lost millions of viewers, and thus significant market share, to more pro-Trump networks. Projecting my data to the population as a whole would mean that there are more than 30 million Americans who see Biden as an illegitimate president. Although most of these people would never storm the Capitol, they are unhappy with the outcome and feel dismissed and ignored.
Said Brenda from Pennsylvania, “I sincerely believe this election was stolen. There is no way someone as demented as Biden could have won legitimately, not to mention the blatant proof via videos and sworn affidavits from countless witnesses.”
Even more important, most Republicans who believe Trump lost are fine with the continued claims of fraud because they see it as tit for tat. In January of 2017, they watched “500,000 women with pussy hats” converge on Washington, DC. Although most of the women went to express support for gender equality, affordable care, reproductive freedom, and other issues that they thought would lack support in a Trump administration, the conservative media told a different story: the march was a dangerous anti-Trump protest. Women carried signs that read, “Not My President,” a rejection of a duly elected candidate by the other party. Thus, Republicans see the resistance to the 2020 election result as similar, just in reverse. “Now you Democrats know how it feels,” said Brent from Oklahoma.
The Case for Conversation
We are inexorably divided in our country because of what we have come to believe about the other side. The extremes get the megaphone, both among our political leaders and in the media, and this in turn creates our extreme perceptions. The algorithms created by our social networks fuel the fire even more. The result is a narrative that people from the other party are crazy, selfish, and focused on the wrong issues. Nobody likes it this way: 483 of my 500 voters tell me they are distressed about the disunity.
Many Americans believe that those in the other party are dangerous. Like our president, we have resorted to calling people names: deplorables, low-information voters, elitists, socialists, fascists, radicals, racists, Nazis, idiots. We make assumptions about their values, and we don’t trust them. We believe that the other party as we knew it is dead. And we are afraid of what they will do if their candidate doesn’t win. It’s a civil war, conducted in our minds and documented on platforms like Facebook.
My voters tell me that they expect violence in the future, instigated by the other party. Sales of small, concealable guns and AR-15s are at record highs, and the demand for ammunition is tantamount to the run on toilet paper early in the COVID pandemic.
We need to put a halt to the insanity.
It’s clear that promises by President Biden to unite our country will not be enough. We could hope that the media changes—that they realize the enormous responsibility they have in shaping public perception and that they commit to being far less inflammatory and less tolerant of on-air conspiracy-mongering. We could hope that bridge groups like The Lincoln Project or No Labels use their communication skills to try to bring us together. We could hope that our state governors can band together to model what harmony and public safety can look like. Or we could hope for urgent messages and actions by our representatives in Congress about how hating each other is fruitless. These hopes may be overly optimistic, but they’re more likely than what some imagine: that we will pull together as a country because the guys on the other side suddenly realize that they are wrong.
Telling someone who believes there was fraud that they are just wrong doesn’t work. Explaining to that person that judges threw out 60 of 61 lawsuits claiming fraud doesn’t work either, because it is counter to everything they have come to believe about the world.
And similarly, telling someone who hates Donald Trump that he has been a great president is fruitless. Sending that person a long list of Trump’s accomplishments doesn’t work either, because it is counter to everything they have come to believe about the world.
The only solution is listening. Instead of lecturing the other side—sending them articles and lists and videos to prove they are uninformed—dialogue actually works. We have seen it over the years: groups of Republican and Democratic voters sitting in a room, talking for a day, and leaving with more understanding of each other; people with different views agreeing to listen hard to each other and try to walk in each other’s shoes. When this happens, the temperature goes down. When people are treated with dignity, when they feel that their perspective matters, they are eventually much better at listening to your facts.
Conversation is less about coming to agreement than about honoring the other person’s perspective. It’s taking a deep breath and making the assumption that the person on the other side might share values with you after all.
A great example of this happened in July of 2020, when Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted an anti-Semitic post on Twitter. Although a storm of criticism followed, Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots, who is Jewish, reached out to Jackson to ask for a conversation about why he posted the quote. Edelman wanted to take Jackson to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, but he also wanted Jackson to take him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The two had a conversation about challenges for Blacks and Jews that they kept private, and they made museum plans for after the football season. This was all about looking for common ground, instead of accusing and blaming.
Listening doesn’t take a sophisticated set of skills. Most of the time, it is about learning to use three words: Tell me more.
You are afraid that a minority will take your job? Tell me more.
You are afraid that your guns will be taken away from you? Tell me more.
You think it’s okay for Donald Trump to lie? Tell me more.
You think it’s okay for the federal government to increase your taxes? Tell me more.
The result is often surprising. Instead of feeling outraged, we ask more questions and we start to learn how a regular person could feel the way they do.
Listen to people who dismiss Trump’s lies and learn they are convinced that all politicians lie—and that they have dozens of examples.
Listen to people who think eliminating student loan debt is a terrible idea and learn the story of how they paid off the loans of their three children by working two jobs for eleven years.
Listen to the people who came to the United States illegally and learn the story of how they escaped unimaginable conditions and couldn’t wait for legal entry.
Listen to a person who has a large gun collection and learn that it’s the same to them as somebody else’s precious baseball card collection.
If we could get a critical mass of Americans to listen hard—and to consider that what they assume about others just might be wrong—it could transform our country. We could stop the paralysis in Washington, we could turn down the heat, and we could get so much done.
If you are up for the journey, this book will get you started. It will help you understand why people love Trump’s rallies, why voters don’t care about cozying up to Vladimir Putin, why most Republicans think Democrats are radical socialists, and how our attitudes play out across the issues of the day. It will tell you why Democratic Congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene are symbols of the same problems. And, if you are up for taking a deep breath and having a dialogue with someone you think you can’t tolerate, you will get some guidance for how to get started.
Here is what I know: we are not merely Black or White, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, Southern or Northern. We are complicated, flawed human beings who are not always rational—and we are trying to move forward in life in the best way we can. Along the way, we pick up beliefs and influences that shape who we are. If we choose to judge each other solely by a box that we checked, we are missing the story. We are missing humanity.