Mandell: We are not as divided as we think |

Mandell: We are not as divided as we think

Steve Mandell
For The Aspen Times

At times, it seems we can’t heal what divides us.

Sixty-six percent of Americans believed that the political divide increased during the previous year, according to an August 2022 poll by The Economist magazine and YouGovAmerica, a respected data analytics firm. More than 40% believed that civil war will break out in the next 10 years.

Sadly, our political differences can make it difficult to maintain relationships with friends, family, and neighbors.

Political extremism can be defeated when voters become aware of the danger. But today, many remain unaware or only dimly aware of the dangers of extremism invading formerly safe places like schools, libraries, even places of worship.

Yet there is growing evidence that we are not as divided as we think if we identify and focus on the common values and traditions we share.

Extremism tries to replace these values with a warped version. It promotes intimidation and threats of violence as examples of free speech. It rejects responsibility to the community in the name of freedom. It would replace our tradition of independence with a slavish loyalty to an authoritarian, all-knowing leader.

The 2020 presidential campaign experiment: Robb Willer is a social psychologist who directs the polarization and social-change lab at Stanford University. He and co-author Jan Voelkel conducted a series of experiments during the presidential campaign leading up to the 2020 election. Their findings are relevant to Republicans and Democrats, showing that conservatives and moderates will increase their support of a Democratic Party candidate when the candidate’s campaign explains policies in terms of the common values they share.

Voelkel and Willer conducted two large-scale experiments measuring levels of support for an imagined 2020 Democratic Party candidate they named Scott Miller. They tested three sets of values: one based on conservative values, like patriotism and tradition; a second based on liberal values, like social justice and equality; and a third, a control group offering a technical emphasis on growth and employment.

When the Democratic candidate’s policies were linked to conservative values, conservatives supported the candidate by 10 to 13 points more than when the candidate pushed liberal values or the control group’s growth and employment values.

Not only were conservatives more likely to vote for the candidate, but they also thought he was more likable, competent, and principled. They were also more willing to support his campaign. And, importantly, support for the imagined candidate did not decline among Democrats even when the candidate pushed conservative values instead of overtly-liberal values.

These ideas work — not just for Democrats running for office, but also for moderate and conservative Republicans who seek to challenge extremists in the primaries.

The core values we share:

The tradition of independence. For generations, living in the rural West meant self-reliance. Help from the government often wasn’t available. That fostered a widespread belief that the federal government should stay out of our lives as much as possible. Of course, some might point out that federal programs like rural electrification transformed the West. But side by side with federal aid, the belief in self-sufficiency and neighbor-helping-became part of our DNA. But now the desire for independence collides with extremists who want to use the powers of government to intrude into our personal relationships, our bedrooms, and our privacy in general.

Individual responsibility to our communities. For generations, we have understood that each of us has a responsibility to the communities where we live. It’s true whether we’re talking about litter, vaccinations, protecting our public lands, or respecting the rights of neighbors. But extremists think “freedom” means they can do whatever they please regardless of the harm that causes others and to the sense of community.

We have a long tradition of cooperation. Most of us know that some give and take is necessary in order to make things better — the horse-trading we’ve been doing for generations. But extremism rules out compromise and finding workable solutions. Extremists imagine that considering both sides is a weakness and a waste of time.

If we refocus on the above core values, we can overcome extremist politicians and make progress on many issues, including climate change, inadequate health care, government intrusions into our personal lives, economic development, and turmoil on our public lands. Let’s do it together.

Next: The most important — and difficult — step to overcome extremism.

Steve Mandell is a politically-independent researcher and writer living in Montrose and is a former research director for a Fortune 500 company. He can be reached at


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