One of the most divisive presidential campaigns has resulted in one of the most divided outcomes. So where do we go from here?
Despite the political polarization the election results suggest, the sociologist Wayne Baker of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, believes there is a path forward to greater unity. Mr. Baker is the author of United America, a book based on combined data from four national surveys of a cross-section of Americans. His conclusion: Americans are surprisingly united in the values and beliefs they hold dear.
“Every day angry voices decry something in America’s changing culture and political movements. They claim America has lost its way. Collectively, this daily friction erodes our belief that America rests on common ground,” he says.
Mr. Baker found 10 “core values” on which the majority of Americans can agree. They are respect for others; equal opportunity; freedom; security; self-reliance and individualism; getting ahead; pursuit of happiness; justice and fairness; symbolic patriotism and critical patriotism.
Mr. Baker’s research was conducted before the rise of President-elect Donald J. Trump and the lead-up to the presidential election. But he says he believes the core values that emerged still hold true because the original surveys included a broad swath of the American electorate and were conducted over a period of years. A total of about two dozen values were cited by survey participants, but 10 consistently emerged as being strongly held.
“These core values have resilience and roots that go back a long time. My suspicion is that they will continue to persist,” Mr. Baker says.
Mr. Baker argues an impression of deep social division has been fostered by a “highly vocal minority that is not representative of a broad swath of the American public” and whose views can be “easily blown out of proportion.”
“We assume that public conflicts and the ill-tempered rhetoric of our political leaders mean that most Americans are just as hostile and divided,” he adds.
Having just re-read United America in the wake of the presidential contest, I believe discussion of the 10 core shared values can serve as a springboard for healing. Parishes, community centers, schools and retreat centers would be appropriate venues to start the discussions. Mr. Baker recommends gathering people of different socioeconomic levels, racial backgrounds and political views, including those who voted for Mr. Trump and those who voted for Hillary Clinton, he adds. Free study guides for kick-starting these discussions are at unitedamericabook.com.
“What I’ve always preached is that we get much farther by starting with what we have in common,” he says. “I would say get people together from the far left to the middle to the far right” of the political spectrum. He calls this an attempt to “bypass the political apparatus.”
Here is a more detailed rundown of some of the key values Mr. Baker identified:
Respect for Others – A high percentage of Americans place a premium on respect and also kindness, which they identify as a leading character strength. There was an interesting experiment conducted recently where a woman wearing a Trump T-shirt showed up at a Clinton rally with a dog she claimed had been separated from its owner. She did the same wearing a Clinton T-shirt at a Trump rally. People quickly jumped in to help the woman reunite the dog with its owner, despite knowing she was from their opponent’s political camp. It seemed all could agree that kindness toward dogs and dog lovers superseded political differences.
Equal Opportunity – Ninety percent of Americans told Mr. Baker this was an important value to them, though the United States has had a sketchy history in this area. Just ask African-Americans, Native Americans, women before they had the right to vote and today’s undocumented workers. Still, a majority told Mr. Baker they believe everyone deserves access to jobs, education, the voting booth and an equal shot at success regardless of race, religion or gender. Most Americans said they recognize, however, that equal opportunity does not always result in equal outcomes.
Freedom – Mr. Baker found it is not an abstraction for most Americans but a value learned early in life and manifests itself in the right to work, to protest, to worship as one chooses.
Security – Americans want security but in a post-Sept. 11 world are struggling with how to balance that value with freedom and respect for others, as was so evident in the 2016 campaign’s talk of a Muslim travel ban to the United States and a moratorium on accepting Syrian refugees.
Self-Reliance and Individualism – This value dates back to the country’s founding and its national identity. Most Americans recognize that it has to be considered in relation to the building of community.
Symbolic Patriotism – Love of country is both emotional and tangible. Most Americans unite around certain symbols including the flag and the national anthem—witness the uproar when athletes refuse to stand for the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner” or someone turns his or her back to the flag during the Pledge of Allegiance.
Getting Ahead – Americans place a premium on success and believe it should not be tied to age, race, gender or other factors. They experience getting ahead as a major motivator in life and see this value as relating to self-reliance and equal opportunity.
The Pursuit of Happiness – An ingrained value as old as the Declaration of Independence. There is a streak in this value of materialism as well and the sense that the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification is a “proper goal in life.” Still, Mr. Baker found an awareness among Americans that there is a sometimes a false happiness associated with material comforts.
Despite Americans’ insistence on pursuing happiness, he found Americans ranked 16th among 97 nationalities that were asked in one survey to rank their happiness level. Danes ranked themselves the happiest people on earth. Mr. Baker says democratization and increasing social tolerance are among the key contributors to societal happiness.
Justice and Fairness – The phrase “justice for all” is engrained in the Pledge of Allegiance. Although the nation has not always lived up to this ideal in its history, Mr. Baker found that Americans do hold those twin values in high esteem. Americans want a justice system that is fair, and blind to social and economic differences. They say they want the rule of law to apply equally to everyone. Americans see these twin values as the foundation for creating harmony within society.
Critical Patriotism – This value is likely to become more prominent in the wake of the recent presidential election. While they love their patriotic symbols, Americans also want to safeguard the right to criticize their government, its policies and their leaders. Mr. Baker says critical patriotism is a kind of “tough love” Americans exercise on the country.
They see this value as the best hope of keeping America true to its ideals.
In the conclusion to United America, Mr. Baker throws out a challenge to all Americans well worth remembering in the transition to a new administration. “Become a source of civility yourself,” he says. “Dare to build common ground. Our challenge is to live up to these core values and to put into practice what we hold most dear.”
Judith Valente is America's Chicago correspondent.