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Election Day Can Unite Us, If We Let It

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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Good movies stay with you. Great ones change you.

“One Vote” changed me. The movie follows six people and the lengths they go to cast a vote, or help others to vote, leading up to Election Day in 2016. Each voter has a different experience and a unique story to tell. Each knows voting is a sacred privilege.

Most remarkably, the film hardly mentions political parties, campaigns or candidates. Instead, it presents voters as truly committed, even heroic — whatever their background, wherever they’re coming from, and however they actually vote.

Our country and communities need to come together, and celebrating voters is an obvious place to start. We should all agree that voting is a civic act to be commended and protected.

That said, it’s daunting to imagine coming together — around anything — these days. Millions of dollars are being spent to debate and divide, with no matching effort around creating common ground.

The division takes a toll, especially when it stokes fear, preys on emotion and undermines legitimacy. The market for anger, vilification and fearmongering is lucrative and, unfortunately, booming. Like a shadow, it blocks out our humanity and areas where we agree.

But occasionally, there is evidence that Americans have not given up on one another. Take “Trust and Distrust in America” — a July 2019 report from the Pew Research Center.

The researchers found that nationwide, 93% of Republicans and 94% of Democrats agree it is very or somewhat important to improve the level of confidence Americans have in the federal government. Further, 93% of Democrats and 92% of Republicans agree it’s important to boost the confidence Americans have in one another.

It’s extraordinary to think that nearly 19 of 20 Democrats and Republicans could agree on anything in this environment. It’s really extraordinary that so many people on both sides share a thirst to come together and fix our government and democracy.

That change can start with us.

We should focus on solutions at least as much as problems. Research has shown that Americans’ trust in elections actually increases when government officials, influencers and media figures highlight solutions to electoral challenges and difficulties, such as stories of voters overcoming barriers to the ballot box.

We also need to practice empathy for other perspectives and experience, as the film “One Vote” does so well. All of us want to have a say and to be represented. Our stories are much more interesting and powerful than the data points and partisan labels we’re often reduced to.

And we must face, but not succumb to, the perverse incentives that often drive conflict-ridden speech and divisive social media posts. The market for our attention seems to reward those who inflame partisan differences despite what most Americans may believe or want.

But most of us do not seek to traffic in division, just as most politicians do not revel in disdain for their opponents. More than ever before, every individual has a platform to share perspectives and help shape conversations. More of us ought to use them to uplift and elevate the conversation, and highlight stories of people working to create stronger communities and a stronger nation.

Republicans and Democrats will continue to disagree about priorities and solutions — but we cannot let appropriate partisan differences cede what remains of our common ground.

We should start by coming together as voters, casting and celebrating our vote while acknowledging that no matter which candidate we support, we’re all deeply vested in our nation’s great democratic experiment.

This should be the focus of Election Day. It can bring us together, if we let it.

Susan T. Nold is director of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, Laredo Morning Times, Waco Tribune Herald, Abilene Reporter News, and Lubbock Avalanche Journal.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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