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OpinionColumnistsMichael Dobie

There really is common ground

Between the political extremes are many more who share faith in America.

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Friday in Mesa, Ariz. Photo Credit: AP / Matt York

Feeling exhausted?

You’ve got company.

Many of us are worn out by the war between left and right.

We see it in our workplaces, our families, our social circles, even our houses of worship. We watch and hear it play out on TV and radio.

We’ve divided ourselves, and at the extremes we don’t just have different opinions and values, we have different premises and facts. We’ve rejected the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, who counseled a similarly divided nation in 1801 that “every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.”

Now our differences are hard-set, and we’re aligned in different tribes. We know what and who “we” are, and what and who “they” are.

Or perhaps not.

New research suggests we’re not divided neatly into bands of red and blue banshees. It’s more subtle than that. And the implications are that we might not be doomed to boil in our own venom. Or, at least, that we have a chance to avert that fate, if we want to take it.

The results are from a large study on polarization in America called “Hidden Tribes.” The international nonprofit organization More in Common, using data from an 8,000-person poll by YouGov, found that we’re divided into seven tribes.

At the extremes are the hard left (8 percent of the nation) and the hard right (6 percent), and each is nearly homogeneous, in the same way. Tribal members are mostly white, well-educated, active voters and campaign contributors with a sturdy presence on social media.

These two groups — all of 14 percent of our increasingly diverse nation — dominate the conversation. And they’re ripping us apart.

Closely allied with the hard right, the study found, is the slightly less intense “Traditional Conservatives” tribe (19 percent), which also is almost entirely white.

Between those two fringes is two-thirds of the country that wants something new. Or something old again — like civility.

The study calls them the “Exhausted Majority.” And they’ve had it. They’re done with the screaming. They’re not rigidly ideological. They believe in common ground. And they’re not often heard.

The Exhausted Majority comprises four tribes along the liberal-conservative spectrum, including one called the “Politically Disengaged.” These tribes believe in the bromide that we have more in common than what divides us. That’s because they’re focused on principles, not policies — like freedom, equality and the right to pursue the American dream.

While the ultranationalist hate group Proud Boys and the anti-fascist protesters known as antifa engage in a violent Manhattan street brawl that’s supposed to typify American division, most of the country is sadly shaking its head.

When our political leaders mirror our loudest voices, they no longer represent the most voters, only the loudest ones.

The Exhausted Majority, the study notes, wants to “to return to the mutual good faith and collaborative spirit that characterized a healthy democracy.”

The survey found greater agreement among Americans than would be suggested by, for example, the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings. More than 80 percent of us agree that racism is at least a somewhat serious problem. Three-quarters believe that people brought to the United States illegally as children should have a path to citizenship via military service or attending college. Four in five think Americans are offended too easily by what others say. That’s stuff we can build on, and the survey said it only scratched the surface on these issues.

Of course, a study is just a study. Making it work in real life is something else. Steering this ocean liner of a country between our tribal icebergs won’t be easy. But a lot of us want to try. And if we don’t, we’re sunk.

Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.

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