When The Associated Press and other news organizations asked North Carolina voters for their perspectives on the just-concluded 2020 elections, there was no shortage of disagreement.
No surprise there. After all, Donald Trump won the state by just 1.3 percentage points. Thom Tillis won reelection by 1.8 points. Most other statewide races were decided by narrow margins, too. The two major parties start with roughly comparable bases of about 46%. Variations in turnout and appeal to swing voters tip the balance, usually not by much.
So, you’d expect North Carolinians to disagree on many issues. And you’d be right. But get this: when AP asked how important it was for the next president to “bring the country together,” an astounding 79% said it was “very important.” Another 19% said it was “somewhat important.”
In other words, almost every voter believes our political discourse needs to change. We want our leaders to bring people together, not tear us apart. But what does that really mean?
As with all poll results, it is important to recognize that the precise wording of a question has a lot to do with the answer — and that we often do not interpret the same words in the same manner.
In this case, what does it mean to “bring the country together”? Some believe the problem is political disagreement itself. They believe their views on education, taxes, health care, the economy, and other issues are obviously correct. If their fellow citizens would finally “see the light,” so to speak, and adopt these correct views, that would bring the country together.
Well, yes. And if I were from Krypton, I’d be faster than a speeding bullet. But Krypton isn’t a real place (or, at least, that’s the official story — and I’m sticking to it). Nor is it realistic to expect North Carolinians, or Americans, or any human population to reach overwhelming agreement about the proper size, scope, and policies of government.
Democratic republics produce inherently contentious and messy politics. That’s what the American republic looked like in its early days, too. While the Constitutional Convention of 1787 produced a remarkable governing document for the United States, for example, it was itself the product of contentious debate and hard-won compromises. Its complex structure was designed to accommodate conflicting views: central authority vs. devolved authority, executive power vs. legislative power, the rule of the majority vs. the rights of the minority.
And consider this: what most Americans think of today as the most-important part of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, was added to appease the opponents of the Constitution who might otherwise have derailed its ratification in multiple states (and actually did so in North Carolina, which wasn’t in the constitutional union when George Washington was first elected president).
What I think most North Carolinians mean by “bringing the country together” — and what is the only meaning that yields a practical goal — is that we ought to stop reflexively and viciously questioning the motives, integrity, or intelligence of those with whom we disagree.
I think our president, lawmakers, governors, and other leaders should model this behavior for the rest of us. That’s why I helped found the North Carolina Leadership Forum in 2015. Based at Duke University, NCLF fosters constructive engagement across political difference.
Each year, we bring together some three-dozen leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors to delve deeply into a contentious issue over a series of candid conversations. Sometimes we find common ground. Even when we don’t, participants come away with a clearer understanding of why others may, in good faith, disagree with them. From mutual respect comes better behavior. We truly argue, rather than just bicker.
Want some good news? Twenty-four NCLF alumni were elected or reelected this year to statewide, legislative, or local offices. Others already serve in municipal office or exercise political influence in some other fashion.
In the coming months and years, they’ll help bring us together — which is, it seems, what the vast majority of us desire.