Op-Ed: What if we aren’t as divided as they say? Someone is benefitting from polarization, and it’s not us.

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By Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

April 23, 2024

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Board of Elections voted unanimously to dismiss the claims of an “audit task force” that’s spent years trying to find evidence of voter fraud.

The unanimous vote that there was simply no fraud to be found was remarkable because votes that are often more partisan in nature usually split along party lines. This vote was different—all the members, Republicans and Democrats, were in agreement.

Certain people spent years trying, desperately, to prove that there was fraud in the last election. No doubt, they’re disappointed that there was no fraud at all.

It’s a strange instinct to want things to be bad and to feel disappointed when they are not.

But this perverse instinct drives so much of our politics today—and it’s fueled by politicians who use our mistrust and division for their own political gain.

Headlines would tell us that we are more divided than ever. One can see why: When it comes to our values and beliefs, 70% of both Democrats and Republicans think that our country is “greatly divided.” A month before the 2020 elections, eight in ten voters said that our differences were about core values, not just politics, and that the “other side” would bring “lasting harm” to society.

Americans seem to hate each other, with little room for forgiveness.

We know we feel divided, but are we actually? There are many areas where Americans overwhelmingly agree. In the summer of 2020, Americans expressed such widespread consensus on racism’s pervasiveness that pollsters heralded it as one of the largest agreements in the history of polling. 76% of Americans overwhelmingly agreed that racism remains “a big problem” in our society.

It’s not just broad ideological statements on which we can reach consensus, but also the minutiae of policy. In North Carolina, the overwhelming majority (72%), including a majority of Republican voters, supported Biden’s Build Back Better plan (Data for Progress, August 2021) which did not pass, and the majority of voters, again including a majority of Republicans, supported Medicaid expansion (NC Child, November 2021)—which did pass just last year.

Given this evidence, why does division rather than consensus occupy our collective imagination? Our media consumption is notoriously partisan, social media algorithms reward contention, and we are a country haphazardly forged out of serious cultural, regional, and historic divisions. Significantly, our unyielding two-party system dissolves any nuanced debates into battle lines.

Here in North Carolina, we all want what’s best for our community. Good schools, affordable housing, a decent wage, the ability to get medical care when we need it. By talking to each other, and through listening, North Carolinians and other Americans who are in a community together can find plenty of common ground.

Talking across differences does not mean compromising one’s political identity or values, nor is it a “centrist” position. Instead, politically disparate people can be persuaded to work together toward mutually satisfactory outcomes regardless of politics.

I have seen this first-hand. In Cabarrus County, where Down Home North Carolina worked to fund an eviction prevention program. In Haywood County, where people worked across differences to fight plans to build a new jail.

If we talk to each other about solving specific issues, instead of using markers of political identity, we can find common ground. When we share, listen, and engage with each other, then the markers of political identity, which tend to essentialize an opposing side, dissolve.

It’s not simply “nice” to communicate across divides—it’s incredibly strategic. If you are marginalized, poor, or working-class, it’s a straight-up necessity. There is no other way to build power and get what our communities need.

Divisive politics benefit no one except those who are already in power—that’s why it’s encouraged from on high. Politicians and media outlets alike feed off this polarization, benefitting from the clickbait of conflict. History shows that polarization increases the power of those in a position to broker it.

However, history also shows how powerful we are when we put the idea that we are insurmountably divided aside and work together as neighbors.


  • Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

    Gwen Frisbie-Fulton is the communications director at Down Home North Carolina, which organizes with working-class people in rural communities across the state. This column is syndicated by Beacon Media, please contact [email protected] with feedback or questions.



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