To Get Unstuck, America Needs to Build Relationships Outside of Politics
By Morgan Lasher – Vice President of Marketing, Unify America
Imagine two college students from different schools with contrasting political leanings or backgrounds having a conversation about some of the most challenging issues in America.
Sound like trouble or an awkward conversation? That’s what the students expect, too. To their surprise, they find more agreement than anticipated on topics such as immigration, free speech, climate change, and safety.
Helping the Next Generation Dismantle the Polarity of Politics
This unlikely dialogue is successful thanks to the work of Unify America’s Unify Challenge College Bowl. Unify America is a cross-partisan nonprofit on a mission to build problem-solving skills. It has partnered with professors and staff members at more than 70 universities for our Unify Challenge College Bowl. Students from across the country register for the Unify Challenge on our website and provide their political leaning, where they live (metropolitan, rural, suburban area), political party, and their race. The primary factor for a match is a student from another university who is politically opposite. Sometimes, people who are more politically aligned but are different geographically or demographically are matched. In a video conversation, they talk through a survey of topics about goals for our country.
These face-to-face meetings among students—strangers who may never have otherwise met—prove that we’re not that far apart when it comes to goals for our country. The reflections of College Bowl participants illustrate this point:
“This challenge made me realize that even though we have different opinions, we can still work together by listening to each other, showing respect, and genuinely attempting to understand each person’s perspective. I believe I will be more likely to interact with those who hold opposing views in the future.”
“The experience shed light on the fact that opposing political parties must begin to have more productive conversations about current issues if we hope to resolve them anytime soon. With more college students participating in this experience, perhaps my generation will work forward on dismantling the polarity of politics as we know it.”
“I was surprised by everything! I came in with no expectations and was blown away by how engaging, unique, and eye-opening this experience was. I learned a lot about myself and my own beliefs, as well as people in general.”
According to our survey, 83% of participating students rated the experience an eight or higher on a scale of 1 to 10. Fifty-four percent said they were more likely to vote in the midterm elections after taking the Unify Challenge, and over 70% said they feel more hopeful about the country.
Professors, too, have reported the impact of the Unify Challenge College Bowl across their diverse classrooms. “Generally, they [students] were surprised how not different they were from people,” said Dr. Leah A. Murray, executive director of the Walker Institute of Politics & Public Service at Weber State University. “To me, this is the best way I’ve been able to do what I think is so important, which is getting young people to talk across all the differences, not just political differences, but geographic differences. I think it’s pretty powerful.”
Unify America’s Success Goes Beyond Higher Education
In addition to the Unify Challenge College Bowl, we host a nationwide Unify Challenge twice a month, open to anyone. One of our many success stories took place in May 2022. As part of the Ginsburg/Scalia Initiative, the Colorado Department of Law hosted The Colorado Unify Challenge. It brought hundreds of Coloradans from across the state to talk about issues affecting Colorado. Four months later, fittingly, on Constitution Day, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser, in partnership with former Colorado Secretary of State Wayne Williams, released a documentary that captured discussions from the Unify America Colorado Challenge. Weiser aptly stated when the documentary was released, “Take a look at what respectful engagement looks like and pass it on.”
Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, put it another way in his book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion,” “If you really want to change someone’s mind on a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. And if you do truly see it the other person’s way—deeply and intuitively—you might even find your own mind opening in response.”
In our Unify Challenge research, we’ve learned we’re not that far apart. For example, 96% of us, across political ideologies, agree that “we should make sure that all Americans have access to high-quality, affordable healthcare.”
Many Challenge participants agree that we, as a nation, should be able to know and determine who comes in and goes out of the United States and that we should give all children the opportunity to rise to the level of their potential.
The common thread among Unify America participants is that when people interact with one another in person or on video, they commonly converse with respect. Thousands of people have joined these Challenge opportunities since they were launched in 2020. We have not received a single behavior complaint. Combative individuals and trolls tend to avoid this form of direct communication and hide behind the keyboard.
Changing the Way that We Solve Problems
While it is not part of our Unify Challenge dialogues, political discourse in this country can often be combative. We develop tactics fit for fighting and simply hope something productive emerges, instead of civilly discussing and collaboratively problem solving. Given our failures to peacefully and productively discuss politics at the kitchen table and in the classroom, why do we expect a government of the people to do any better?
The vision that guides Unify America is simple. We want to coach and empower everyday Americans to participate directly in civic decision-making at all levels of government.
Unify America is driven by the bedrock belief of its founder Harry Nathan Gottlieb, “that there is a process by which we can become better and in so doing our country can become better.” Ask yourself: If we can agree on goals for our country and future generations, why would we demonize each other over tactics? We want the same result! We need catalysts who are committed to unifying America. We’re hoping that’s you.
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Morgan Lasher has spent her career building marketing strategies and co-creating communities. She's led and worked alongside teams responsible for social media, content creation, advertising, public relations, and communications. After a stint as a strategic management consultant and a creative magazine leader, she founded an Ohio-based marketing agency in 2017, focused on amplifying people and organizations on a mission.
People sure need to wake up to this fact of life because we will fall if divided!