for the people

People hold placards at a rally in front of the US Supreme Court to call on the Senate to pass the For the People Act, on June 9, 2021, in Washington DC. (Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images)

Freeing the Muzzled Majority--Beneath "Polarization," Surprising Unity

Americans are not divided on democracy.

Laments over America's political polarization mount. "Actions of the president and his party are pulling us further apart," argued Senator Tim Scott (R-S.C.) responding to President Biden's address in late April. "Polarization is the story of American politics today," observes Fareed Zakaria of CNN.

Such framing obscures the real threat--the attack underway on democracy itself. Merriam Webster defines democracy as "government by the people, especially rule of the majority." So defined, it is not merely Democrats that Republicans appear to be fighting as they pursue legislation undermining majority rule. Democracy itself is their target: "Overall, legislators have introduced at least 389 bills with restrictive provisions in 48 states," reports the Brennan Center. They restrict voting and much more.

Focusing on our divisions can blind us to the considerable evidence that the majority of Americans align on many key challenges we face today.

Earlier this month a Statement of Concern from more than one hundred democracy scholars across the country decried that such legislation "could entrench extended minority rule."

So we should be alarmed but not surprised that in its 2021 annual ranking of countries by their political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House found the US dropping significantly, from 94 to 83, placing us between Morocco and Romania.

Moreover, focusing on our divisions can blind us to the considerable evidence that the majority of Americans align on many key challenges we face today.

Here are twelve big ones:

  • Nearly eight in ten Americans favor limits on both raising and spending money in Congressional campaigns.
  • Eighty-four percent of Americans agree that politicians have too much economic power, and 82 percent agree that the rich and big corporations have too much power.
  • Six in ten of us believe that upper-income Americans do not pay enough in taxes, while 64 percent are bothered--either "some" or "a lot"--that corporations are not paying their fair tax share.
  • Seventy-eight percent of Americans, including 80 percent of Republicans, oppose the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling unleashing even more money in politics.
  • Eighty-four percent favor paid family leave, and two-thirds support a $15 federal minimum wage.
  • Most Americans-including 70 percent of Republicans and 92 percent of Democrats-favor closing gun-sale loopholes by enforcing background checks for private gun sales and at gun shows.
  • Seventy-seven percent of Americans now believe the US should prioritize the development of renewable energy over expanding fossil fuel production, and 68 percent favor increased federal spending on green and renewable energy.
  • Seventy-one percent favor changing the healthcare system so that any American can buy into a government-run health care plan if they want to.
  • Seventy-one percent think that most immigrants living in the United States illegally should be offered a chance to apply for legal status.
  • Seventy-one percent are against overturning Roe v Wade.
  • Seventy-seven percent agree that racism is a serious problem in the U.S. and 72 percent say racism is a serious problem in policing.
  • Regarding For the People Act (H.R. 1 and S 1.)--with strong democracy-protecting measures addressing voting rights, money in politics, and gerrymandering-- Data for Progress's new survey revealed that two-thirds of likely voters are in favor.

Here we see that in critical ways, the narrative of a divided nation is false. It's taken hold in part perhaps because it taps into a human tendency to construct dichotomies--to adopt black-and-white thinking when faced with stress and uncertainty. But the framing harms us, as it undermines hope and stymies action.

So, if you are surprised by these wide points of unity, consider a critical lesson. While often we hear that "seeing is believing," for humans the opposite is true: "Believing is seeing." We see what we expect to see. If we're constantly told we live in a politically divided world, we risk seeing only evidence that confirms this frame.

Let us free ourselves by embracing our wide areas of agreement. In so doing, we stoke hope and find courage to act.

Now is the moment. Acting on our unity, we can heed the Brennan Center's call: "Americans' access to the vote is in unprecedented peril. But Congress can protect it. The For the People Act, passed by the House and now awaiting action in the Senate, would block many of the state-level restrictions that have been or may soon be enacted into law."

Inspired by our impressive unity, we each can sign the open letter to Senator Joe Manchin--sponsored by Equal Citizens--calling on him ensure passage of the For the People Act now. Manchin's claim that he needs bipartisanship to pass HR1 has already been met! Americans are not divided on democracy.

We can make our voices heard. They are part of a beautiful harmony.

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