Jonathan Gruber -

Jan 15, 2022

The Challenge of Caring for Others Across Difference

A Data-driven Look at the State of Caring in America

A few weeks ago, the U.S. marked the anniversary of the January 6 insurrection, the first time in the nearly 250 years since the nation’s founding that a violent mob had attempted to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power. In the year since, threats to the survival of the American experiment have only grown. A raft of recent surveys, articles, and books paint an ominous picture: growing contempt across party lines, deepening demographic anxiety, divergent views about the reckoning on race, heightened risks of political violence, and mounting threats to free and fair elections. In November, the United States appeared for the first time on a closely watched list of democracies that are “backsliding”. And a question that may have seemed alarmist not long ago – whether the U.S. could descend into some form of civil war – is now a topic of serious discussion.

The gravity of these trends makes it tempting to see the signs of menace and decline as the entirety of the story. Yet, there are also signs of hope and possibility, which need to be amplified to mobilize those of us who are exhausted by the toxic political climate and long for a better future. Sticking solely to “crisis framing” of any issue – in this case the idea that America’s democracy is on the brink of catastrophe – fuels a sense of fatalism. Instead of indulging in wishful thinking, it’s vital to be clear-eyed about the dangers at hand. Doing so also means elevating the data, real stories, and practical solutions that point to viable ways forward.

A new report from our partner Making Caring Common offers some kernels of hope and complicates the narrative that we are a people coming apart. Do Americans Really Care For Each Other? What Unites Us—And What Divides Us paints a vivid picture of caring in America: how we value caring, how we enact it, and – crucially – whom we care about. The upshot? While we have a long way to go in creating a culture of mutual concern across our differences, the data reveal a mix of bright spots and blemishes when it comes to caring. The report helps shed light on where we are as a country and what’s needed to shore up the human side of our beleaguered democracy.

Below is a summary of headlines with excerpts from the report’s key findings, which are based on a few online surveys across 2020 and 2021 (most findings are from a survey conducted in April 2021 of a nationally representative sample of 2,625 Americans).

The heartening news: caring is widespread, even across the political divide

Caring is a core value for a large majority of Americans, and they engage in various prosocial behaviors that bring that commitment to life. Two critical points stand out:

“About two-thirds of Americans report that it’s ‘very important’ or ‘important’ to them to be caring, and high percentages of Americans report engaging in caring acts, including helping a neighbor, going out of their way to express gratitude, or reaching out to someone who is lonely.”

When asked what they want said about them at the end of their lives, Americans across race, ethnicity, economic class, gender, and political orientation were most likely to rank ‘that I took care of my family,’ ‘that I was kind,’ and ‘that I tried to do the right thing’ as most important.”

In contrast to the dominant media narrative, Americans do care about each other across the political divide and see uniting the country as a priority. Here are some of the key findings:

“Approximately two-thirds of respondents either ‘agreed’ or ‘completely agreed’ with the statement, ‘In the end, I care about all Americans, regardless of their political views.’

“When asked whether they would prefer to live in politically homogeneous or politically diverse neighborhoods, almost two-thirds of respondents preferred a politically diverse neighborhood.”

“We gave respondents a thought experiment: ‘Would it be a good idea to peacefully divide the country in two, with one country being Democratic and the other Republican?’ Only a small percentage of respondents were in favor (8%).”

“Only 15% percent of survey respondents reported being interested in talking about political issues with someone they generally disagreed with, but when we asked respondents if they would be interested in these conversations if they would ‘be listened to respectfully,’ the percent interested jumped to 61%.”

The unsettling news: people are not engaging in “harder forms of caring”

People care little for others outside their close circles of family and friends, including those from other racial or ethnic groups. And while they see racism as a major problem, they are not self-aware about their own biases, especially when it comes to race:

“Americans have biases and stereotypes of many kinds, but only 9% of respondents view themselves as having biases or stereotypes they need to work on against Black and Muslim Americans (26% and 27%, respectively, responded ‘maybe,’ and the remainder responded “no”) and even fewer respondents believed that they had biases against other major racial, ethnic, and religious groups in the U.S.”

“Both Republicans and Democrats are far more likely to believe that they’re less racist than people in both their own political party and the other party. Eighty-nine percent (89%) of Democrats reported that they're ‘less’ or ‘much less’ racist than Republicans, and 69% of Republicans indicated that they're ‘less’ or ‘much less’ racist than Democrats.”

“About two-thirds (66%) of respondents thought they were ‘much less’ or ‘less’ racist than the typical person in the country and only 4% thought they were ‘more’ or ‘much more’ racist.”

People are not extending care to others they see as misguided or feel conflicted about; moreover, people are inclined to put their own happiness over caring for others:

When asked “whether they would feel bad for people who don’t take the COVID-19 vaccine and end up hospitalized; only about half of respondents expressed substantial levels of concern.”

“Americans are far more likely to prioritize their own happiness over caring for others, and they’re far more invested in cultivating their children’s happiness than their children’s caring for others.”

Promising strategies for strengthening caring in America

How can we enlarge the glimmers of hope and address the areas of concern that appear in the data? The report ends with an overview of promising strategies that could help Americans build the skills and the resolve needed to engage in more difficult forms of caring. These include wrestling with our biases in a range of settings, finding ways for people to connect across difference with meaning and joy, creating conditions that enable constructive and respectful conversation across difference, bringing people together in common cause, challenging hypocrisy or moral lapses in our own party, highlighting the bonds that unite us, and combining a “moral narrative” that foregrounds decency and fairness with concrete actions that activate those ideas. It’s also crucial for parents and educators to prepare the next generation to engage with and care for those who are different from them.

Many organizations and leaders are advancing these strategies with rigor and creativity, including those in the New Pluralists Field Builder community. Toward the end, the report lists annotated links to more than forty organizations, tools, and resources that you can explore and draw on in bringing these strategies to life. If you count yourself among the exhausted, concerned, or hopeful (maybe all of the above), now is the time to embrace and enable the harder forms of caring that are vital to healing our democracy.

Jon Gruber leads Einhorn Collaborative’s Building strategy. Learn more about our work in Building and more about Jon. Sign up to receive our monthly newsletter and be the first to read Jon’s blog posts.