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Can Opportunity Heal Our Divided Politics?

by Ben Miller   •  

Americans believe that our country is more divided than at any time in our history, apart from the Civil Rights Era, according to a new national survey. This report offers a sobering assessment of the gridlock and lack of civility that has plagued Washington D.C. in recent years. But it also serves as an opportunity to join together on an issue most Americans care about passionately: jumpstarting the American Dream and expanding economic and social mobility to more Americans.

Shortly before the Fourth of July, the results of The Atlantic/Aspen Institute American Values Survey were released. The title of The Atlantic’s article – “The Divided States of America” – underscored the survey’s results: Sixty percent of Americans polled believe that America has grown more politically and socially divided in the past decade. Yet 96 percent of Americans say unity is either “somewhat” or “very important” to them.

Politics, by and large, are responsible for these divisions. Ronald Brownstein, writing for The National Journal, called the current U.S. Government “a political system losing its capacity to create common ground between party coalitions divided along economic, racial, generational, and even religious lines.” Where in the fractured American political arena is it possible to find common ground? In Washington, it can seem impossible even to agree on priorities for the country, never mind solutions.

Yet outside the Beltway, a different picture emerges. The same Atlantic/Aspen study that showed that Americans have fairly clear ideas about what they care most about. Forty-six percent think reducing the gap between the rich and the poor is “very important” to American unity, and 35% think it is “somewhat” important. Only 19 percent of those polled rated economic equity as “somewhat” or “very unimportant.”

Fifty-nine percent believe equality of opportunity helps make America more unified – more so than free speech, freedom of religion, patriotism or even democracy itself.

A shared belief in equal access to the fundamental institutions of our society regardless of wealth or minority status and to the ladder of economic opportunity are powerful unifying themes. This belief forms the foundation of the American Dream. As a diverse nation, we don’t claim a common ethnic identity or pray to one God or share thousands of years of history. We share instead the idea that no matter where anyone is born, no matter what their advantages and disadvantages, they should be able to work hard and succeed. It’s the promise of American citizenship. It is no surprise, then, that it is also a source of our national unity.

We know that today, the American ladder of opportunity is broken. Good people with differing political views agree, and want to fix it. The passage of the bipartisan American Dream Accounts Act in the Senate earlier this summer is a hopeful step toward that goal. We can all work to expand  opportunity and we will accomplish incredible things together while simultaneously sowing the seeds of unity and possibility in our political sphere.


Ben Miller

Intern, Opportunity Nation 

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