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Polarization has put America's democracy in peril. But on this Election Day, there are reasons to be hopeful that the US can heal.

  • According to a newly commissioned poll, there are issues that Republicans and Democrats are deeply polarized on — including racial justice and the economy.
  • This polarization is dangerous for our democracy, but there is some hope.
  • There are basic freedoms and ideas Republicans and Democrats can agree on. Building off of these values, we can work to rebuild and heal our nation.
  • Maya MacGuineas is the president of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and a founder of FixUS.
  • Mike Murphy is Chief of Staff for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and the Director of FixUS.
  • This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

It's no secret that political partisanship and discord have trumped compromise and conciliation in Washington, DC, and among many Americans. A new Ipsos poll sponsored by FixUS confirms that America is a nation at risk. But the results also give reason to hope.

Beneath its ruinous divisions, the foundations of an American nation still stand, with strong agreement on the values, hopes and aspirations that people hold for themselves, their families and their communities.

Americans are deeply divided

First, the bad news. Democrats and Republicans might as well be living in different countries when it comes to their opinions about the current state of the nation and the problems most in need of immediate attention. Asked about the economy, 81% of Republicans described it as "strong and growing," a view shared by only 37% of Democrats. 

85% of Republicans believe their nation provides jobs and opportunities for all and 65% believe that the country ensures racial justice. The comparable numbers for Democrats are 35% and 22%. One thing Republicans and Democrats agreed on is that America is divided. Americans ranked "being united" dead last among the attributes that define the state of the country today. 

The perception gap over the country's priorities is just as stark. Thirty-three percent of Democrats' cited healthcare affordability as the country's first or second priority, as opposed to 19% of Republicans. Democrats rated climate change as next on their list at 22%, followed closely by improving racial justice at 21%. Neither of these issues got out of single digits for Republicans. Having a strong and growing economy ranked tops for Republicans at 32%, followed by putting America first at 29%. The numbers for those issues for Democrats: 19% and 8%, respectively.

But there is good news

So, what's the good news? Beneath the churn of policy divisions, a set of core national values ranked high among all Americans, regardless of party.

Free speech (81%), equal justice under law (80%), and the opportunity to succeed (80%) were ranked extremely or very important across the population. Not all national values fared as well. Republicans and Democrats have drifted far apart on the value of patriotism and faith and religious liberty. While the two values ranked highly with Republicans, a gap of 30% has opened up between the parties on the former and 20% on the latter. 

Where unity among Americans shone through was at the personal, family and community levels, where Americans share the same simple goals, regardless of party affiliation, age, gender, race, income or where they live.

Strong majorities rank being healthy (80%), having financial security (74%) and having a loving relationship with a spouse or partner (67%) among their highest goals. Safety is by far at the top of the list of community priorities for Americans. Personal values also reveal a striking degree of unanimity: being honest (90%), hard-working (83%), and independent (80%) were ranked as extremely or very important to Americans as a whole.

What all this tells us is that if America is to heal, it will have to heal from the bottom up. Americans have lost trust in their institutions. The prospect of going back to a more gentle age in Washington doesn't seem likely, no matter what the result of the coming elections. People who want change are going to have to take matters into their own hands.

Real change will require deep and meaningful citizen engagement. Discussions held around the country by a number of organizations, including our own, have shown that Americans can handle the truth, cope with disagreements and seek common ground even where deep divisions exist.

Every day, Americans work hard together to solve problems. They extend a hand to neighbors in need. And they do so simply because it's the right thing to do. That's why these conversations work, and why they need to continue and to expand across the country. 

Within our communities lies the power to engage in open and honest discussion, to listen with an open heart to those with different points of view, and hold America's leaders to the same standards. While this poll made clear the country's divisions, it also reaffirmed that an American nation lives on in the hopes, values and aspirations of its citizens. It's time to rediscover that nation.

Maya MacGuineas is the founder of FixUS and president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington, D.C. Mike Murphy is the director of FixUS and chief of staff at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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