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Forum Don’t listen to the pundits: We’re not that divided

January 18, 2019

Watching TV news, listening to political candidates, or reading comments below an online article, it feels as if our country is tearing apart along every seam. We’re in a hyper-partisan environment that seems to be spreading from our federal government down through state and local governments.

Despite this feeling of political fracturing along traditional party lines, I don’t believe we’re as divided as it appears. When you remove the labels and focus on the issues, many Americans are in agreement. Here in Connecticut, just this past election, while many candidate races were very close, it was a total blowout when voters were asked about issues directly. This year’s ballot questions asked voters to make critical decisions on transportation (question 1) and the environment (question 2) and both passed with over 85 percent support.

Listening to political pundits, you’d think that it’s impossible to have that many people agree on anything. On the issues, however, Americans agree on the vast majority. For example:

77 percent of Americans support limiting campaign contributions, according to Pew Research.

71 percent support increasing transportation spending, according to YouGov.

83 percent of voters wanted to keep net neutrality rules, according to the University of Maryland.

61 percent back term limits for Supreme Court justices, according to Morning Consult/Politico.

On many controversial issues, common ground exists without the partisan hype. According to a Quinnipiac Poll, 97 percent of Americans support universal background checks for all firearm purchases and nearly 83 percent support a mandatory waiting period for all gun purchases; 67 percent believe gay marriage should be legal.

Americans generally agree on the outcomes we want for our communities and country, and there is more common ground amongst voters than what appears in the media. Tensions flare when names are thrown out, “Trump” “Clinton” “Kavanaugh” “liberal.” But on the issues, nearly everyone wants to live in a country that judges you on what you do, not who you are at birth — a country that rewards hard work, provides enough economic security to raise a family, reigns in corporate greed and lets workers retire after devoted careers. We want health care for our families and reasonable working conditions from employers.

So, what can we do to ensure our nation’s political dialogue reflects what citizens want to discuss and focuses on a government that will work for all of us? The realignment requires that we all get engaged. Here are four suggestions to get started:

1). Demand respectable conduct from the politicians you choose to support. We must not support candidates that attack opponents with name-calling, lies and cringe-worthy attack ads. The conversation must focus on issues, not glorified bullying masquerading as political debate. Support candidates who say what they will do, not what their opponent won’t do.

2). Talk politics with your peers. Avoiding political conversations, as is often suggested, is the wrong approach to maintaining a healthy and vibrant democracy.

Engage in conversation about political issues, especially with those outside of your ideological bubble. It’s critical that we are able to have reasoned conversations across the aisle. Our conduct in these conversations should be held to the same standard we should hold our politicians to: civil, issue-based and data-driven.

It’s not always easy to talk politics with those whom we think we have nothing in common, so set some guidelines for the discussion early on. Only make claims you can support with data and credible sources. Most importantly, you may realize you have a lot more in common than you think.

3). Get involved. Our democracy works best when citizens are engaged in the political system. Find a candidate you support and volunteer for the campaign. Joining a campaign can be a good way to communicate policy issues to leaders.

Politics doesn’t stop after Election Day; the real work begins when elected officials head to town hall, Hartford or Washington. Now is the time to keep pressure for policy changes you want to see. Call or write to your elected representatives frequently, making your expectations clear.

Consider joining a nonprofit or political advocacy organization that is fighting for what you care about — be it the environment, health care or marriage equality. Elected officials will be more likely to listen to a group of motivated and engaged stakeholders rather than individuals.

Consider running for office or seeking appointment to a local board or commission. If you don’t have time to commit to a cause or candidate, then donate. Every dollar from the public matters to advocacy groups and organizations.

4). Vote. Ultimately, it is up to all of us to clean up our democracy. While we had record turnout for this past midterm, it is still not enough. It is difficult to hold elected officials accountable when between a third or half of all voters do not show up. Candidates end up listening disproportionately to special interests and their partisan bases.

This year will be a local election, where decisions with the most impact are made. If a majority of voters do not show up, as is typically expected, then who is to blame?

Blaize Levitan has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Connecticut and works in local government.

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