Take It From a Working-Class American: Polarization Is an Elite Phenomenon | Opinion

Ben Shapiro wants us all to get along. Yesterday, the right-wing provocateur tweeted that in order to "de-polarize American society," we should publicly say something nice about someone we disagree with. Some immediately took Shapiro to task for what they perceived as his own role in poisoning public discourse, but I like to think he was genuinely trying to bridge the divide.

If you want to de-polarize American society, begin with a simple task: say publicly that someone you totally disagree with about politics, someone who voted for the other guy, is a nice human being and people should give them a read or listen.

— Ben Shapiro (@benshapiro) July 26, 2021

The thing is, I don't know why Ben Shapiro thinks saying something nice about someone you disagree with is a novel act. I do it all the time. So do most of the people I know. Because everyday Americans are just not as divided and polarized as the elites in the political and chattering classes.

Of course, there are real differences in our nation. But while the elites are deeply divided and waging a culture war among themselves, the working class people of this nation—everyday Americans like you and me—are just not so divided. Or rather, our differences don't define us in that way.

There is no denying that we live in different worlds. This is a vast country and it is natural that different regions would have different needs and even different values. And yet, polling consistently shows what those of us living in working-class America know first hand: Americans are more united in what matters to them than they are divided.

A 2020 survey conducted by the Carr Center at the Harvard Kennedy School found that roughly equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans felt there was a right to clean air and water, quality education, protection of personal data, and even affordable healthcare. 71 percent of all respondents believed "Americans have more in common with each other than many people think."

And yet, we are consistently told that we are a nation divided. We have politicians fanning the flames of division on both sides of the aisle. But it's not just politicians who are profiting off our division. We live in a media environment that profits by dividing the working class. Our constant outrage at one another drove ratings for cable networks like Fox News and MSNBC to new highs, in turn producing record profits for their capitalist shareholders and incentivizing them to continue stoking division. Folks like Shapiro have made a cottage industry out of our polarization— you get a "leftist tears" mug if you subscribe to the website he founded—while pundits like Tucker Carlson spend night after night dancing precariously close to the flames of white nationalist conspiracies.

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And of course, pundits like Rachel Maddow and Joy Reid drum up division and polarization on their side, too. They keep viewers tuning in to hear the party line. And the party line is that the other half of the country hates them. As a result of these divisions, Americans are increasingly alienated from one another. Another Pew Study found only 2 percent of Biden voters thought Trump voters understood them "very well." A similar portion of Trump voters thinking the same of Biden voters.

And still, the highly polarized picture painted by Shapiro and others in the media is hardly an accurate one. Party politics is but one aspect of American life. When you look at the material wants and needs of the average American, we are not all that divided.

I know this is true from personal experience. I have lived in five states. From the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago to the shores of the North Carolina coast, the people I've met all broadly want the same things: a loving family, loyal friends, a safe home with food on the table and a hope in their hearts. We all want a strong sense of community. A vibrant public life. An honest job with a fair wage.

When I go down to the coffeehouse, I don't ask my fellow caffeine addicts if they are Democrats or Republicans. At family gatherings, I am more interested in discussing my cousin's new job than I am the new administration.

The truth, inconvenient to the elites of both parties and the media, is that we really aren't all that different. The Black bus driver in Chicago has more in common with the white coal miner in Kentucky than he does Oprah, and the white coal miner in Kentucky has more in common with the Black bus driver than he does Donald Trump.

We, the working class of this country, need to recognize that yes, there are real fissures we need to address. Our shared oppression and exploitation in a market driven by high profits and low wages, our desire for equitable healthcare and good schools and affordable housing, our demand for a more just economy: These are things which unite us as a class.

What divides us is not so great that we cannot shrug off the yoke of division and unite to demand a better future for all of us, regardless of which side of this culture war we've been fighting on.

Skylar Baker-Jordan writes about the intersection of identity, politics, and public policy based. He lives in Tennessee.

The views in this article are the writer's own.