People today seem more divided than ever, over virtually everything. No matter the issue’s size or scope, people don’t miss a beat in separating and isolating others. Humans are tribal—have been and always will be—but that does not mean we cannot transcend these divisions and come together on the issues that matter to all of us.
I’ve seen it happen in my own lifetime. In college, my friends and I would attend political events of candidates with whom we’d disagree, not to be disagreeable, but to listen. I similarly recall the friendship forged by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic House Speaker Tip O’Neill on behalf of the American people. These early lessons in the importance of understanding how we act as individuals and as groups, and the power of coming together over a shared purpose are very relevant today.
At this year’s Aspen Ideas Festival, I introduced an interview between Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance and Amy Chua, a Yale professor who recently published her latest book, Political Tribes: Group Instinct and the Fate of Nations. Conversations like these are a great start to breaking down barriers.
Here are the top messages that I took away from the lively discussion between two great advocates for a more tolerant society:
The United States has always been an aspirational country
From the abolition of slavery to the movements for women’s rights and civil rights, Americans have constantly pursued a more perfect union by the standards laid out in our founding documents. Despite our differences, we are all guided by our ideas about how to make this country better. It’s why we can even have discussions like these, debating how to best help people improve their lives and communities.
Americans don’t need to set aside their tribal mentality to transcend it
This starts with the honest and voluntary exchange of ideas, which is critical to the life of any democratic society. Americans come from many different tribes, from different parts of the country and different parts of the world. We all have our own abilities and talents that, rather than be used to divide, should be used to improve society.
We can unify around different ideas while allowing all groups to flourish
Even though one person may disagree with another over a particular issue or a whole range of topics, that does not mean they cannot find common ground on something. Issues like occupational licensing and criminal justice reform have brought together people who share different experiences and perspectives but are united in their pursuit of fulfillment, whether for themselves, their families, or their communities. At Koch, we stand for solutions that help everyone improve their lives. Everyone benefits from respectful and frequent knowledge sharing.
Our differences don't have to divide
Our tribes have only seemed to move farther apart in recent decades. J.D. illustrated this point during the session when he asked members of the audience to raise their hands if they had a passport. After most hands shot up, he remarked how "virtually nobody" in his hometown had one. Even as we appear to have grown more connected as a society, we've never been more fragmented. If we can harness these differences, even just by acknowledging that they exist we become more aware. Perhaps in a small way, we can start to better understand members of other tribes.
No matter where we come from, we all have an important story to tell. Everybody wants to feel like their story is being represented in the rich tapestry of American life and culture. Storytelling has the power to bring people together across tribes. At Koch, we believe that it is important to tell stories about how our businesses and employees create value for others and to advocate for principles that unite people over a common purpose and grow more opportunities for all. Sharing these stories will enable us to help more people improve their lives.
Steve Lombardo is the chief communications and marketing officer at Koch Industries.