Another month, another government shutdown close call.
As politics has grown more and more partisan, Americans have become accustomed to Washington gridlock.
But we should not be complacent about the level of toxic polarization poisoning public life right now. We should see it for what it is:
Study after study documents the fraying of our social fabric in real time. Trust in major institutions — like the federal government and the Supreme Court — has plummeted to historic lows, and so has trust in our neighbors. Republicans and Democrats increasingly view the other side not just as misguided but as “immoral” and “dishonest.”
The proportion of Americans who believe political violence is acceptable has reached new highs. Threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold since 2016, while threats against federal judges have doubled. We are blowing past all the failed democracy checkpoints at an alarming rate.
Americans are better than this.
Government must be better than this.
That’s why governors of both parties are working together to bridge the partisan divide. Through a National Governors Association initiative called “Disagree Better,” we’re reminding Americans there’s a healthy way to debate.
We’re inviting everyone to join us. Politician or voter, red state or blue state — we all have a role to play in lowering the temperature.
We’re not looking to change anyone’s political beliefs. But it’s critical we find a way to tone down political animosity and back away from the brink.
That may sound easier said than done, but there is solid science guiding the way. Stanford and Dartmouth university researchers have tested depolarization strategies, and they found that one of the most effective methods to reduce toxic polarization is simply Republicans and Democrats appearing together in joint messages.
NGA vice chair Jared Polis, D-Colo., joined me in a video modeling tactics families can deploy over Thanksgiving with their “MAGA uncle” and “woke niece.” Governors from Indiana, Kansas and Missouri followed suit, and we have more bipartisan programming on the way. We’re calling on other elected officials and candidates to join us: members of Congress, state legislators, mayors, city council members — even presidential candidates.
For private citizens, consider volunteering in your community. Disagree Better is holding events in multiple states this year, and we’re incorporating a service project into each one. Why? Depolarization experts identify service as one of the most effective ways to reduce animosity and emphasize our common humanity.
Research is clear that participating in service activities breaks down barriers and improves mental health. A variety of organizations offer service and engagement opportunities specifically designed to foster dialogue and understanding in settings from schools to workplaces to faith communities. The Disagree Better website has a list. Or get a jump on New Year’s resolutions and take the Polarization Detox Challenge designed by Starts with Us — one of several groups with tips to help repair relationships with family and friends that have been strained by politics.
The good news is we aren’t actually as divided as we seem. Those same surveys that show so much polarization and distrust? They also reveal that the left and right are wrong about each other. Voters attribute extreme views to the other side that they don’t actually hold. Groups like More in Common are tracking this Perception Gap, and the results are eye-opening.
We all know what’s driving the misperceptions. Social media algorithms and the conflict entrepreneurs driving radio and cable ratings have every incentive to highlight the most divisive voices. But those combative voices represent a tiny sliver of the population. Analysis from the Pew Research Center found a quarter of X (formerly Twitter) users generate 99% of political messages.
The polarizing minority may be louder than the exhausted majority. But we can turn the tide if we work together.
We can learn from President George W. Bush, who said, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” And we can learn from President Bill Clinton, who said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.”
Underneath the bickering, everything that’s “right with America” is still there. A Constitution that remains a marvel and inspiration to the world. The strength we gain through the diversity of our 50 unique states. The way we come together in a crisis.
It’s time to recognize toxic polarization as the emergency that it is. It’s impossible to solve any of our challenges — from inflation to immigration — until we solve this one.
Let’s get to work.
Spencer Cox, R-Utah, is the governor of Utah and the chair of the National Governors Association.
Part of our Opinion series The American Middle, this essay is about learning to disagree and find healthy ways to debate our points of view.