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Opinion: Disagree Better: As governors of Colorado and Utah, we want to tackle toxic polarization

As Democratic and Republican leaders, we know we won’t always agree. But Americans — politicians and voters alike — need to be reminded there is a healthy way to debate.

Nov 15, 2023

As the Republican governor of Utah and the Democratic governor of Colorado, we disagree on all kinds of issues. But as the chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association, we listen and learn from one another, and work through our differences to find bipartisan solutions to the problems our states face — from water to housing to energy.

No cause unites us more than this: Toxic polarization is tearing this nation apart, and we have to do something.

So we’ve launched a campaign called “Disagree Better.”

This movement is not about pretending there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats. It’s about reminding Americans — politicians and voters alike — that there’s a healthy way to debate.

Through public events, service projects and other efforts, Disagree Better is inviting governors to model a more positive and optimistic way of working through policy problems.

The response has been great. Governors from both parties are appearing at events together, recording videos with political opponents, and coming to the table to seek bipartisan solutions to some of our most intractable issues.

It’s a more visible version of the bipartisan work we do together every day behind the scenes. But we’re going public for several reasons.

First, we aim to help Americans overcome the “perception gap” that’s driving so much of the hate and distrust poisoning our politics. The perception gap isn’t the gap between what Republicans and Democrats believe; it is the gap between what Republicans think Democrats believe and what Democrats think Republicans believe.

Researchers from Dartmouth, Stanford and the University of Pennsylvania tracking survey responses have found that average Democratic and Republican voters are much more closely aligned than they think they are.

In reality, the far right and the far left combined equal just 14% of the population, according to a study by More in Common. Most of us don’t occupy the extremes on the ideological continuum.

Second, the mistaken beliefs Americans hold about “the other side” are leading us down a dark road. A new survey made headlines for its shocking finding that a growing number of Americans — in both parties — believe that political violence is acceptable.

Violent undercurrents aren’t confined to survey answers. Since 2016, threats against members of Congress have increased tenfold, while threats against federal judges have almost doubled. Threats and harassment against local elected officials — like school board members and county commissioners — have also skyrocketed.

It’s not an exaggeration to say our democracy is at risk. Alarmingly, multiple nonpartisan international organizations have declared just that — classifying the United States as a “backsliding democracy.”

We have to lower the temperature. And everyone can help.

A number of national organizations are tackling toxic polarization in thoughtful ways. One America, New Pluralists, Starts with Us, and Unite are just a few of groups that are fanning out in campuses, churches and communities to engage Americans in constructive dialogue and service projects — two strategies proven to bridge the divide.

The group Braver Angels has a college program aimed at teaching the next generation to discuss political disagreements with empathy and civility. Their work was on display this week at a debate they facilitated at the University of Denver. You can find an expanded list of ways to get involved on the Disagree Better website.

We’re also calling on elected officials at all levels to join the campaign. We’re starting with governors, but the invitation is open to everyone: members of Congress, state legislators, mayors, city council members. Make a video or an ad with a member of the other party — it can even be your election opponent.

Heading into another historically divisive election, we know we won’t persuade every candidate to join us. But if enough of us participate, we can create a critical mass of counterprogramming to remind the nation that a lot more unites us than divides us. And there is nothing more unAmerican than hating fellow Americans.

The most divisive voices may get the most attention, but there’s an exhausted majority out there. And we can make a real impact if we work together.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 and reelected in 2022 and is the vice chair of the National Governors Association. Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, a Republican, was elected in 2020 and is chair of the NGA.


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