A conversation with More in Common’s co-founder, Tim Dixon
The holiday season at the end of such a tense, tumultuous year feels like an open invitation, if not a demand, to reflect on the importance of thoughtful, constructive dialogue. Whether you’re preparing to engage with challenging relatives or simply aching for a break from conflict at work or in the news, there has never been a better time to take stock of the divides we face as individuals and as a nation, and what role we can play in bridging those divides.
We recently sat down with Tim Dixon, a co-founder of More in Common, an organization committed to building “more united, inclusive, and resilient societies in which people believe that what they have in common is stronger than what divides them.” Their work includes robust research, coalition building, and on-the-ground action. Tim and More in Common are widely respected as thought leaders in this work, and we’re grateful to work alongside their team.
Tim has been a fan of StoryCorps’ work for a long time. An economist by training, he has always understood the value of people’s stories, and the harm that can be done by unnecessarily dehumanizing inherently human processes, like education and politics. Tim first connected with StoryCorps while making long commutes from Sydney to Canberra while working in Australian politics. Tim was an economic advisor and speech writer for two Prime Ministers, and found the StoryCorps podcasts a useful way to rest his brain and recenter himself amidst constant political conflict.
Our teams more recently connected over a groundbreaking report published by More in Common’s U.S. team. The report, Hidden Tribes of America, received nationwide attention for its frank, evidence-based assessment of not only what is dividing us, but also where we can find common ground. The report gave a much-needed refutation to two harmful misconceptions about U.S. society: that our problems are simple (“there are two teams and they hate each other!”), and unsolvable (“and we’re too divided to heal!”).
The “50/50 split” we’re told exists so unequivocally in the United States is an oversimplified, unhelpful, and ultimately inaccurate story. The Hidden Tribes report unearthed a different story, Tim told us: “While the divisions are very strong, it really is not a story of a 50/50 split. A majority of Americans are exhausted with conflict.” The report coined the phrase “Exhausted Majority,” which the authors use to describe 67% of people in the U.S. who identify as ideologically flexible, pro-compromise, tired of U.S. politics, and feeling forgotten in political debate. They feel trapped in a system of conflict in which they don’t feel like they fully belong to any team.
The work of More in Common and One Small Step naturally complement each other in building bridges across these extreme, but not impassable, divides. Hidden Tribes is just one example of the robust research portfolio Tim and his team have developed to help us map and more deeply understand the individuals, ideologies, and experiences that make up society. One Small Step helps to, as Tim put it, “humanize people with differing view points.”
We spoke with Tim at length about what our teams are learning about bridging these divisions. He emphasized a point well-illustrated by the Hidden Tribes study – the need to strengthen our understanding of the many identities that make up each person. “We’re never just one thing,” Tim said. “You’re not just a Republican. You’re not just an evangelical. You’re not just a climate activist. We all have multiple identities.” But in this moment, it’s pretty clear that one identity – political ideology – is being elevated above everything else. This reductive, monolithic approach is deeply harmful on both an individual and a social level. Tim’s approach is exactly aligned with One Small Step’s: bridge-building. Through an honest understanding of complex identity, start with what we have in common. We were both raised on farms. We both left our hometowns for college. We both love football. Establish a simple foundation of trust, and from a place of trust, you can begin to engage with the ways you are different. When people are reduced to one aspect of their identity, difference is the only thing we see. We’re cast in opposing positions: one person is team Red; another is team Blue. We know this way of thinking is unhelpful, and Tim and his team have shown it’s not even close to accurate.
How do we establish connection, build a foundation of trust, while still engaging in authentic discussion of our differences? We share our stories. We share our stories to disrupt the belief that disagreement is all or nothing, that to be different is to be opposed. We share our stories to restore belief in a universal, baseline connection, remembering that being really different is nowhere near the same as being completely different. Tim said it best:
“As someone who grew up in another country, I have always loved that boundless optimism that has historically characterized Americans all across the country in different ways. And I still find it among Americans from all walks of life, from small towns to big cities. But it’s never felt more absent from the media and in our national life than it does right now. To get out of the moment we’re in, people will have to start believing in themselves and start believing in other Americans again. And how do you do that? We are living in information environments that are distorting our view of the world. Our information silos and the partisan media exaggerate the number of people with extreme views and don’t give voice to the large number of people who want to build bridges, to see each other as human beings again, to play a part in dialing down the culture of contempt. We are stuck in information loops. But the one thing that can cut through is stories. The stories coming out of One Small Step are a really important way forward. They’re a way out.”