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For America to Succeed, We Must Find Common Ground

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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The divisiveness of this campaign season works at cross-purposes to our national interest. Human beings have dominated planet Earth, not through our fearsome physical prowess, but rather through our ability to cooperate. Put any one of us up against a bear, lion, shark, wildfire, hurricane, or even COVID-19, and we are no match. Allow us to work together, though, and we thrive.

This cooperation is needed now more than ever, because our world faces complex challenges. We are nearly a year into a pandemic that has killed more than a million people worldwide. During the past decade, powerful storms, raging fires and other extreme conditions have forced people out of their homes. Millions of people go without adequate food, shelter and clothing. Many others live in daily fear of deadly violence.

We will not solve these problems as individuals.

Yet, competition is also a deep part of the human experience. We can easily learn to identify with a group of people. Those people who are on our side (who we think of as us) are ones that we are most interested in cooperating with. We assume the best motives for us. We want us to succeed.

And if there is an us, there must also be a them. For all the charity that we show us, we are wary of them. We do not trust their motives. We do not mind when they fail. In fact, we may treat their failures as additional successes for us.

Luckily, human beings are remarkable in our flexibility for defining us and them. None of us knows who is going to win any of the contests on this year’s ballot. But, I know that we — all of us — are not going to solve the many difficult problems that face the world if we continue to focus on our divisions.

We cannot afford to carry a spirit of competition rather than cooperation from this election to the next. And we know we are capable of doing that. We have seen a competitive mindset rule politics (and the electorate) for the past few decades.

We can break that cycle, but that will require an effort to find us.

Here’s an idea. When the final votes have been cast for candidates, take down any yard signs and other partisan symbols you put up and replace them with an American flag. Let’s remind our neighbors that beneath the divisions of the campaign, we need red and blue to make a flag, and that the white stripes reflect all colors.

Then, follow up on that symbolic gesture with some conversation. Talk with people, and make an effort to reach out to the ones you disagree with. Ask them what they truly want. As much as you and your neighbors may differ in beliefs about how to achieve big goals, they are likely to want themselves and others to be healthy and prosperous; to love and be loved. The recognition that we want life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness is so deeply embedded in our history that the framers of the Constitution immediately amended it to embed those freedoms into the Bill of Rights.

If we are going to address the serious challenges that face our nation and the world, we are going to have to engage in some serious problem solving. We are going to have to cooperate. That requires finding a base of common ground that we can work from. There will be plenty of time for us to highlight our disagreements. From now until the end of 2020, let’s look for us. Start by planting an American flag in that common ground.

Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor of Psychology and Marketing, director of the Human Dimensions of Organizations program, and executive director of the IC2 Institute at The University of Texas at Austin. He is also the author of “Bring Your Brain to Work.”

A version of this op-ed appeared in the San Antonio Express News, Austin American-Statesman, and the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal.

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