As the news came in that Vice President Biden would be the 46th President of the United States, scenes of joy and disappointment erupted throughout the country. At Lafayette College, where I attend school, reactions to the election were also divided. Many students felt that Vice President Biden’s presidency would be the return to normalcy the country needed, while others felt that President Trump’s loss was a great blow to America.
In an election that turned out more voters than any other in over a century, it was easy to get wrapped up in the bitter rhetoric of the fight for the White House and lose sight of the places where Americans share common ground. For, while it often seems like Republicans and Democrats hold polar opposite views on every key issue, the reality is that Americans of both parties agree on much more than divisive media rhetoric and an unproductive Congress would have us believe.
For several years now I have been a member of The Mill Series, a non-partisan and apolitical organization that invites speakers from across the political spectrum to Lafayette College to expose students to a diverse range of viewpoints in the hopes that it will open up genuine dialogue. I was originally hesitant to join, worried that I would face backlash from my friends for joining an organization that welcomed speakers with political ideologies so deeply different from my own. However, I, like many others, came to the conclusion that engaging in dialogue with those posited as my ideological opponents was ultimately more important, and more productive, than giving in to polarization and divisive rhetoric.
Though I disagreed with many of the speakers the Mill Series invited over my four years at Lafayette and the program was frequently controversial, I always learned something from listening and engaging. I was also frequently (and pleasantly) surprised to learn that there were many beliefs I and my fellow Mill Series members shared despite our vastly different political affiliations. Growing up in a political bubble and listening to the polarized rhetoric of the media and a dysfunctional Congress, I hadn’t realized that I could have so many points of overlap with people who voted so differently from myself.
Today we live in a society where many of us don’t realize that we are not so different from our fellow Americans. In fact, we share many of the same beliefs and priorities — commonalities that are reflected in polling across the country. For instance, there is widespread support among the American people for improvements to the nation’s crumbling infrastructure. According to a 2018 Quinnipiac University poll, 84 percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats support “increasing federal spending for roads, bridges, mass transit and other infrastructure.”
High percentages of Americans from both parties also agree on a number of key strategies to increase economic opportunity and reduce inequality. According to a 2020 Ipsos poll for Public Agenda and USA Today, 83 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats support the creation of “good jobs” by upgrading America’s infrastructure, while 86 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of Democrats are in favor of implementing training programs to give adults the skills they need to obtain quality employment. Seventy-one percent of Republicans and 86 percent of Democrats would also like to see support for high-quality and affordable childcare for all families. Comparable levels of bipartisan support exist for proposals to fund research in technology and science, and to incentivize the creation of high quality jobs in communities that need them through tax incentives for businesses.
Support for renewable energy is another subject on which there is a surprising amount of consensus among Americans of all political affiliations. Nationally, 93 percent of Democrats and 80 percent of Republicans support funding research into renewable energy sources, including majorities in deep-red Alabama, deep-blue New York, and reddish-purple Texas. Similarly high percentages of both Democrats and Republicans back strong government support for clean energy sources like wind and solar power.
Could broad agreement on public policies actually translate into meaningful change? While partisan gridlock has stalled most action in Congress, there are a few glimmers of hope. Large majorities in both the Senate and the House recently passed a landmark piece of conservation legislation in the form of the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act, which realized a longstanding aim of the conservation movement by guaranteeing full and permanent funding for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. And around the country, conversations like those happening in the Mill Series are providing an important first step towards a country where the many things we agree upon are held in as much importance as the many things we don’t.
Given how much ordinary Americans agree on, the inertia, gridlock and partisan bickering we routinely see among policymakers is all the more frustrating. What we actually need is for elected representatives to listen to the people they represent and work to translate those areas of agreement into policy. While there’s no doubt that we are still a deeply divided country, we can do better than to acquiesce to the belief that our different positions prevent all progress. Despite our deep divisions, we’re more alike than we might think, and focusing on these areas of agreement will be key to rebuilding a sense of common interest and a shared vision of a better America.
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