Will the 2024 election rip America apart? Here’s how we can hold it together.
The difference in this presidential election cycle is how raw and bruised we Americans are already feeling toward each other, after years in which the ‘rage meter’ has been dialed to 11.
Kristin Hansen | Opinion contributor
Originally published in USA TODAY on Wed, Jan 31, 2024
Six years ago, I quit my private sector job and moved into political bridge-building work based on an animating idea: I really love America.
I love the idea of “one nation under God,” the spirit of “e pluribus unum” and our aspiration to be “a more perfect union.” This in turn surfaced an important, adjacent idea: Loving America also means loving Americans.
In the wake of the 2016 election, I found myself fervently rejecting the idea that millions of us should demean or despise millions of others based on how we voted. And I feared that the overwhelming forces of division in our political, media and social media spheres would rip America asunder. For the first time in my professional life, I experienced something that felt like a calling and decided to respond to the fear, rather than simply shove it down.
Fast-forward to 2024. My work − and the work of thousands of bridge-builders across the country − is still animated by the fear that our country is becoming hopelessly divided, which can only end badly for all of us.
One of America’s many enviable qualities is our relentless drive to improve. Unfortunately, for several years now a lot of American ingenuity has gone into “improving” the potency of our political, media and social media platforms to scare, enrage and divide us.
Yet, I also feel hopeful, because I know that millions and millions of Americans − young and old, urban and rural, richer and poorer, black and white, red and blue and purple − also deeply love our country and know in their hearts that we must overcome these forces of division and find our way to a beloved future in which we can all thrive.
If so many millions of us love America, then how should we demonstrate that love? How should we express our fervent hope that America and its plentiful gifts will long endure?
And, how the heck do we do it in 2024?
Partisans try to exploit Americans’ political divide
In this combative election year, a cacophony of voices on both sides of the political divide will urge us to express our love of country in the most partisan of ways. Invoking deeply felt American values, from freedom and liberty to justice and equality to democracy and pluralism, political and media operatives will draw our focus to the existential stakes if “they” win instead of “us.”
One could argue that every presidential election cycle presents our choices starkly, with these same operatives weaponizing apocalyptic rhetoric to attract audiences, raise money and turn out energized voters. And in fact, turning out to vote is one of the most important ways we can all express our love for America and our hopes for its future. Vote, please vote, by all means vote! (And vote in primaries, when most elections actually get decided.)
The difference in this presidential election cycle, however, is how raw and bruised we Americans are already feeling toward each other, after years in which the “rage meter” has been perpetually dialed to 11.
That leaves us more vulnerable than ever to partisan exhortations that our fellow Americans want to destroy the country, undermine democracy, dismantle capitalism, take away our freedoms or tear down our institutions. In this year’s sharp-elbowed rhetorical sparring, Americans aren’t just being divided into “us” and “them,” we are pitted in an epic, historical battle between “good” and “evil.”
Our national civic fabric, so badly frayed, may simply start to unravel this year as the rage and fear purveyors rip out one fragile stitch after another.
In 2024, I feel the same certainty welling up in me that I felt in 2016. The biggest threat facing America this year is not the person who will occupy the White House after November’s election. The biggest threat is that we Americans will emerge from this year with a dangerous lack of affection toward one another, threatening the intactness of our relationships, our communities and our country as a whole.
Should we simply wait until next year, when all the toxic dust has settled, to repair this beautiful but ragged American patchwork quilt?
If you share my sense that a year from now is too late, then ask yourself, what does it mean to love, cherish and protect America now, in 2024?
We can work together to bridge political divide
Here are some ideas. In 2024, in our hearts, our words and our actions, we can be stitchers of America’s civic fabric, repairing rips instead of making them worse.
We can express our love for this exceptional country, and our belief that we can still achieve a “more perfect union.”
We can give grace to our fellow Americans who vote differently from us, and be genuinely curious about how their personal experiences and moral foundations have led them to their deeply held political convictions.
Does all of this sound hopelessly naive? Perhaps. But it sounds a lot better than what I’m hearing from friends and colleagues across the political spectrum, each day:
“If (insert candidate name) wins, we’re doomed.”
“I don’t feel like an American, I just feel like someone who lives in (insert state name).”
“Our family’s working on a plan to move to (insert country name).”
“I think America’s best days are over.”
“I think we’re heading for civil war.”
“I think we’re f$%&*d.”
C’mon America, where’s that relentless drive to improve? Let’s shake off the fatalism, resignation and sense of impending doom. Let’s overcome the forces of division and commit ourselves to a shared American future. Let’s buckle up, ride out 2024 and remember to love our fellow Americans along the way.
After all, we’re still one big, beautiful, cacophonous country – striving always to become more perfect – no matter who wins up and down the ballot in November.
We, all of us, are America.
Kristin Hansen is executive director of Civic Health Project, a nonpartisan grantmaking organization empowering Americans to overcome the forces of division. Kristin is also is a board member of Listen First Project, a co-chair of More Perfect and a co-creator of the National Governors Association’s #DisagreeBetter campaign.