Lee Hamilton: Can Americans bridge divisions?


Disagree Better. That’s the name of an interesting initiative at the National Governors Association this year, spearheaded by the organization’s current chair, Utah Republican Gov. Spencer Cox.

The idea, in a nutshell, is to “reduce partisan animosity and foster healthy debate by modeling a more positive and optimistic way of working through policy problems,” as the NGA puts it.

It would be easy to scoff, of course.

In this era of bitter political hostility, as we head into a presidential election that is likely to prove even more negative and divisive than the last one, talk of reducing animosity and boosting healthy and constructive debate seems like a nice dream that’s got no chance of becoming reality.

But the thing about governors is that most are not dreamers.

They’re confronted every day by the nuts and bolts of making their states work.

Unlike, say, Congress, they have no choice but to tackle the issues challenging their residents, towns, cities and counties. Or as Cox put it not long ago, “Potholes aren’t partisan.”

Which means governors are also in a position to make a difference.

As the NGA writes on its page about Cox’s effort, “We need to learn to disagree in a way that allows us to find solutions and solve problems instead of endlessly bickering.

An ‘exhausted majority’ of Americans want this, and the science is clear about interventions that reduce polarization. As doers and builders, Governors are in a unique position to model what healthy conflict looks like.”

And, in fact, there do seem to be “interventions” that reduce polarization. One example comes from Cox himself.

In the 2020 gubernatorial election, as he sought to move up from the lieutenant governorship, he and his Democratic opponent, law professor Christopher Peterson, cut an ad together in which they pledged to abide by the election results.

“Win or lose, in Utah, we work together,” Peterson said in the ad.

It was a nice, hopeful touch, but it was also more than that.

That agreement between the two candidates was one of several dozen approaches noted in a Stanford University megastudy (basically, a study of studies) aimed at finding practical, real-world strategies for reducing polarization that might lead to violence.

Highlighting “endorsements of democratic principles by political elites,” the study found — with the Cox-Peterson example front and center — was one of the most effective strategies for reducing public support for undemocratic practices. So were correcting exaggerated stereotypes of supporters of the other party — basically, providing hard evidence that people’s worst fears about people on the other side of the partisan fence were unfounded — and showing them graphic evidence (including the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6) of the violence that can happen when democratic norms collapse.

There is good evidence that on the whole, Americans are closer together than we often think we are, even on some hot-button issues — and that some political leaders exaggerate division and play on our fears for political gain.

The challenge, of course, is how to lower the temperature to the point where we can hear, and even sympathize with, one another.

Utah’s Cox isn’t the only governor who’s cut an ad trying to advance that cause.

Maryland’s Democratic governor, Wes Moore, recently made one with Jack Coburn, the Republican mayor of Lonaconing, a small town in western Maryland not far from the West Virginia line.

“We can have our differences without being divisive or hateful,” Moore says, to which Coburn responds, “We can listen to the other side, ask questions, have important conversations.”

The point, they go on, isn’t that differences don’t matter, but that, as Coburn says, “We’re just saying there’s a better way to disagree.”

“And who knows,” Moore adds. “In the end we might not be as far apart as we thought.”

Now, I don’t know how much impact an ad like that can have on its own. But imagine what would happen if politicians all across the United States reached across the partisan divide and agreed that on this one thing, at least — bringing America back to its old habit of finding common ground — they can agree.

That would be political leadership worth pursuing.

Lee Hamilton is a senior adviser for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. Send comments to [email protected].

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