The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion We keep moving from one wrong fight to another. Here’s how to stop.

Students attend a Fairfax County School Board meeting on July 14 amid protests over critical race theory and other issues. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)

Amanda Ripley is the author of “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped — and How We Get Out” and host of the Slate podcast “How To!”

In malignant conflicts, the kind that leave everyone worse off, there is the thing we argue about endlessly, to the point of stupefaction.

For a couple in a high-conflict divorce, it’s who gets to see the kids under what terms. For rival street gangs, it’s usually about who disrespected whom. These beefs can go on for years.

Then there is the issue that the conflict is really about, the thing no one discusses. That understory is the most interesting part — and talking about it is the only way to escape our state of perpetual misery.

Right now, American parents, politicians and educators are having the wrong fights with the wrong people about the wrong things, according to Defusing the History Wars, a new report by More in Common, a nonprofit that researches polarization. The study, based on surveys conducted this year with 2,500 American adults, is equal parts maddening and hopeful.

Republicans, the study shows, believe that most Democrats reject the United States’ founding documents and their authors, and want kids to feel ashamed and guilty of our history. That is false (as almost any Democrat can tell you).

Democrats, meanwhile, believe that most Republicans want kids to learn an airbrushed version of history that glosses over slavery and racism. That is not true, either (as most Republicans would say).

“People really think that the majority of the other party is just cuckoo on this stuff,” says Stephen Hawkins, More in Common’s director of research. “Regardless of whether you’re left, right or center, people tend to get it wrong by a significant margin.”

What is true? The survey found that about 9 out of 10 Democrats say all students should learn how the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution advanced freedom and equality — and that George Washington and Abraham Lincoln should be admired for their roles in U.S. history. That’s twice as many as Republicans typically imagine.

Meanwhile, 9 out of 10 Republicans say Americans have a responsibility to learn from our past and fix our mistakes — and that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks should be taught as examples of Americans who fought for equality. That is nearly three times more than Democrats believe. (Think you have a more accurate understanding of the opinions of your political opponents? Take More in Common’s Perception Gap quiz here.)

The new data does not mean we agree; we do not. But it does mean we are not having the right fight, the one we most need to have as a country, because we are so preoccupied with what the report calls “imagined enemies.”

The greatest disagreements in the study came over two questions: how much more America should do to acknowledge past wrongs, and whether the history of minority groups and women is treated as more important than the history of Americans in general.

“A lot of Americans are saying, ‘I believe we need to do more to address the wrongs of our past, and we don’t want to be too fixated on the past so that it inhibits our ability to move forward,’” Hawkins says. “That’s the conversation we need to be having. Most Americans want to teach slavery and Jim Crow, but they don’t want to feel ashamed of who they are.”

That is the real challenge, more important than the fate of any single school board race — or 10 of them. Can we recognize the United States’ extraordinary history without ignoring its horrific wrongs?

For my job, I interview a lot of Americans who disagree on many things. Most Americans I meet can handle much more complexity than our news coverage and political debates assume. Most of us recognize that our country is about more than one legacy. “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it,” James Baldwin wrote.

Many of our disagreements are manufactured. We are being played by conflict entrepreneurs — people and companies who exploit conflict for their own dysfunctional ends, and it is getting harder and harder to avoid their phantom traps and have the right debate.

Three years ago, More in Common did another report on the gap between Americans’ actual beliefs and our perception of each other. That study found that partisan Americans who watched a lot of news or had fewer friends across the aisle were the ones who were most ignorant about their opponents. They wildly misunderstood the other side. The rest of the country, which consumed less news, was much more accurate about who really thought what.

This report shows something new. Nearly all Americans, including the less politically engaged and more moderate among us, are seeing a distorted reality, and are worrying more than they ought to about a threat that is not really a threat. That perceived threat is what leads to violence throughout human history. When people feel desperate and afraid, when they feel they cannot trust the institutions to protect them, they tend to take matters into their own hands.

The immediate solution to this warped reality is for all of us to reject zero-sum thinking. Any journalist, politician or activist who neatly splices the world into good and evil represents a threat to our pluralistic way of life, as best as I can tell. A democracy cannot survive in the modern age alongside that kind of false fear.

What if we started recognizing this manipulation — and refused to be played? What if journalists covered the next “education war” with the goal of getting the story right — resisting fake binaries and elevating the stories of people who do not fit the false caricature? In the months and years to come, we have got to find ways to know one another again. To listen and speak our minds, with dignity and courage.

Otherwise, we will simply move from one wrong fight to another, from critical race theory to social-emotional learning to whatever imaginary schism comes next.

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