Can elections heal rather than divide?

Published 10:18 am Friday, March 1, 2024

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“Elections, when done right, are tens of millions of tiny healing moments.” 

I read that line on my LinkedIn feed and immediately stopped scrolling. I’ve been dreading 2024 for several years, in fear of the increasing division in our country.

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But what if we flip that narrative? What if we look upon 2024 as an opportunity to change our national dynamics, deliberately using the coming months to create American connection? 

It’s possible. Research shows that we are so divided into our tribes that we don’t really know each other. One study found Republicans believed 30 percent of Democrats are atheist or agnostic. The reality? Only eight percent of Democrats identified that way. Democrats believed that 38 percent of Republicans earn more than $250,000. The facts? Only two percent did. 

There’s a lot more common ground than we think. We need to get to know each other again. Understanding our neurobiology helps. We are hardwired to sense threat if we feel isolated, looked down on, or treated unfairly. We shut down or lash out – not great for our communities.

Fortunately, we also are hardwired to thrive when we feel connected, respected, and treated fairly. We feel safe and open to collaboration and creative thinking. 

How can we deliberately use this election year to reduce our sense of threat and increase our feeling of connection and community?

As individuals, we can get curious about this amazing country of ours. How do other Americans arrive at their points of view on issues and candidates? Ask ‘what experiences have led you to that belief?’ and see how well you can listen to learn. You’ll probably find the other person is more complicated than you expected, and they will do the same with you. You just might have more in common than you thought.

There are also things we can do at the community level to foster a sense of belonging and fairness.

– Organize small events or initiatives that bring different sorts of people together in your community. Perhaps a food drive to help those in need, or a park clean-up day as spring comes. Add some socializing time to an event that is already planned – like bringing drinks and snacks to a PTA meeting. Nurturing community works with our neurobiology, making us feel safer and more connected. 

– Hold community leaders to high standards. Urge your local candidates to pledge publicly to “keep it clean,” treating each other and voters with respect and not using hateful or divisive speech. Expecting better election talk from leaders is key to creating the communities we want for our families. 

– Support our wonderfully robust American civic culture. Can you talk with others about the importance of voting, particularly to young people? Can you join a non-partisan registration drive, such as those run by the League of Women Voters? Can you offer rides to the polls? Can you be a poll worker? All of these serve the connection and fairness needs we have, enabling our communities to thrive.

Our elections are ours to control. We can make them healing rather than hurtful. We have the tools and we have time. What can we do, starting now?

(Melinda Burrell, PhD, is a former humanitarian aid worker and now trains on the neuroscience of communication and conflict. She is vice-chair of the National Association for Community Mediation, which offers resources for community approaches to difficult issues.)