Once again, America finds itself in the midst of a crisis in the wake a tragic death at the hands of law enforcement. The country has been to this point in recent years with other crises: school violence, an immigration emergency at the border and mass shootings. At each juncture, politicians have prevented progress by failing to stand on common ground. They’ve become adept at convincing citizens the country is too divided to make progress.

It’s at best disappointing how Democrats and Republicans in Congress have set aside many points of agreement relating to law enforcement reform in order to fight political battles on the differences. The vast majority of Americans believe at least some reform is required at the federal level. Yet, nothing is being done.

The transitional justice organization Beyond Conflict launched an unprecedented research project in 2018, the Beyond Conflict Polarization Index, with leading brain and behavioral scientists to assess the psychological factors that fuel polarization. 

They’ve found gaping chasm between political perceptions and realities. In their latest report, researchers showed that “Americans incorrectly believe that members of the other party dehumanize, dislike and disagree with them about twice as much as they actually do.” They continued, “In short, we believe we’re more polarized than we really are — and that misperception can drive us even further apart.”

On issues from immigration to gun control, the perception of the policy divide by both Democrats and Republicans seems vast, but Americans actually have more than enough common ground for compromise, reform and progress.

The study concluded, “Political polarization, when left unchecked, poses a serious threat to American democracy. ... In extreme cases, political polarization can undermine the legitimacy of democratic norms and institutions, increase the risk of political violence, and ultimately unravel a country’s social fabric. Toxic polarization occurs when polarization moves beyond disagreement and becomes primarily about identity.”

It is time for politicians to stop asking “What is in my political interest?” or “How can I serve my political identity?” and instead ask, “What is in the best interest of those I represent?”

When you hear politicians say, “We are just too divided,” send up the red flag and sound the alarm. In the majority of situations, it simply isn’t true. Citizens must reject these political excuses and stop donating to candidates, campaigns and organizations driven by division and fueled by fear-mongering of “the opposition.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the nation to judge each other on, “the content of our character.” He was calling on every American to engage in conversations of unity and progress that transcend the color of our skin, faith tradition, education, profession and political affiliation.

What began with a declaration on July 4, 1776, ultimately led to Philadelphia in 1787 where the ultimate freedom ensuring governing document, the Constitution, was produced, in part because of what the founders called a “Great Compromise.” It could not have happened had the founders focused solely on their differences or the divide.

A truly great compromise is not about abdicating principles, shrinking from a debate or buckling to political pressure. It requires courage. It requires the kind of trust that is forged in the pursuit of the common good and a willingness to positively engage with those who disagree. 

Division paralyzes. Unity of purpose, not oneness of thought, propels progress. 

On a weekend when America celebrates its founding, the current occupants in Congress, and every citizen, ought to remember that at every turn in this nation’s history progress has come when people set aside differences and begin conversations with points of agreement.

For America to remain strong, there should be no room for “them.” But there is clearly room for all of “us.”