Around the Nation
9:11 am
Tue February 28, 2012

A Nation Divided: Can We Agree On Anything?

Originally published on Tue February 28, 2012 5:09 pm

Like baseballs in a batting cage, the controversies that divide us just keep on coming. Fast and unpredictable.

Last month it was the flap over the Susan G. Komen foundation and its move to cut financial support of Planned Parenthood. The resulting imbroglio dredged up deeply held convictions among Americans about women's health issues and "cause marketing" that, in this case, has resulted in profits for companies promoting breast cancer awareness and research through pink and omnipresent product tie-ins.

This month it's the Girl Scouts. Bob Morris, a state representative in Indiana, has created a kerfuffle by denouncing the Girl Scouts organization for "sexualizing young girls." The campfire-building, cookie-selling sorority, he wrote in a letter to his state Legislature, "has been subverted in the name of liberal progressive politics and the destruction of traditional American family values."

Next month it could be church bells, butterflies or baseball. There's just no telling.

Do Americans disagree about everything? Are we such factious and fractious folks that we just naturally start arguing and choosing sides whenever something comes up? Are we always contentious, never content? Always warring, never loving? Have we reached such a pointed, poisoned, partisan point in our history that any topic, once it rises to the surface of national dialogue, triggers angry standoffs on Facebook and Twitter and everywhere else?

In fact, there are things Americans agree about. We will get to some of those shortly. But, as professional mediators say about conflict resolution, before we can talk about the resolution we must first identify the conflict. And, phew, we've got an abundance of conflict in this country.

'Warring Tribes'

Half of Americans, according to a recent Gallup poll, believe the country's economic system is unfair. The other half disagree. Half of Americans think the nation "achieved its goals in Iraq," CNN reports. Half of Americans, the Christian Science Monitor notes, think we should attack Iran to stop its nuclear program. Half of Americans, according to a just-released USA Today poll, say President Obama "is too liberal, and Americans are inclined to say they disagree with him on the issues that matter most to them."

Oh, the president's favorable rating at the moment? Fifty percent, of course.

Congress, like the country it represents, is also a disagreeing group. The Salt Lake Tribune describes the august body as "warring tribes" focused not on finding a solution to the rising national deficit but on "placating their respective political bases and angling for re-election. ... Some days it seems that either major party would gleefully let the United States implode if it could grab a moment's political advantage over the other."

Americans cannot agree on: When life begins and whether extreme criminals should be executed. The roles of the government and the responsibilities of the individual. The best places to live, the worst places to work, historical accuracy, futuristic predictions, who deserves better, who deserves worse and on and on.

How will we ever resolve our differences?

"People tend to agree based on perceived self-interest," explains Rhonda Hilyer, president of Agreement Dynamics, a conflict resolution company in Seattle. "When I work with divergent parties I help them embrace the concept of enlightened self-interest, which means that to maximize the achievement of one's self-interest, it is usually necessary to recognize the self-interest of others and to seek solutions that support all parties' interests to some extent."

Hilyer's client list includes Boeing, Microsoft and the city of Los Angeles. When she is asked about some process that could possibly help Americans find common ground, she goes all macro. She uses two inconsonant groups of elected officials as illustration.

"For example, one group of elected officials may believe it is important to reduce the size of government by eliminating public sector jobs and lowering compensation for remaining employees," Hilyer says. "Another group of electeds may oppose such cuts because they are believed to compromise public safety and will lead to a brain drain if compensation is not competitive."

Both sides can argue that they have taken the moral high ground, "and gridlock often results," Hilyer says. "Or they can focus on a more enlightened form of self-interest by recognizing that they both want to ensure that citizens have basic public services so they are safe, can engage in commerce and transportation, be educated and skilled and afforded the rights inherent in a free society."

Once this broad agreement is understood, she says, "then a creative process is undertaken to determine how these interests will be met."

Hmmm. Sounds simple enough.

But, Hilyer points out, the odds are against such evenhandedness. "Because we don't teach children or adults how to advocate constructively, much less how to collaboratively resolve differences," she says, "we continue to become more polarized and dysfunctional."

Agreeing on how to learn to agree could be a little tricky.

God And Mathematics

Believe it or not, there are things that all Americans agree on. And by all Americans, we mean a vast majority — more than 90 percent.

"I would say that 90 percent plus is pretty close to full agreement, given the normal 'noise' that we find in polls, wherein there is never 100 percent agreement with anything," says Frank Newport, editor-in-chief of the Gallup polling firm.

Here are a few areas of national accord:

  • More than 90 percent of Americans believe in God or in some form of universal power, according to a 2008 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.
  • More than 90 percent of Americans believe that future generations should be prepared for the ramifications of living in a global society, according to a 2007 report by NAFSA: Association of International Educators.
  • More than 90 percent are proud of the members of the U.S. military who served in Iraq, a CNN/ORC International poll finds.
  • More than 90 percent of Americans agree that the development of good math skills is essential to success in life, an Ogilvy PR survey revealed in 2010

So God, globalism, troop support and math — these are things all Americans can agree on.

"We have several other issues on which 80 percent of Americans agree, such as, I believe, giving tax credits to manufacturers to bring back jobs from overseas," Newport says.

And when he is asked if Gallup has found any one salient issue that really brings all Americans together, Newport says there is one: More than 90 percent of Americans believe it was right to kill Osama bin Laden.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.