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Editorial: Thanksgiving, a time to be grateful our differences aren’t as deep as we think

Tubplayers from Bridgemen Lowndes High BValdostGa. Ronald McDonald Thanksgiving Day Parade along State St. Chicago. Thursday November 22 2012. I

Tuba players from the Bridgemen Lowndes High Band in Valdosta, Ga. in the Ronald McDonald Thanksgiving Day Parade along State St. in Chicago. Thursday, November 22, 2012. I Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: December 24, 2012 6:12AM

Listen, you Rachel Maddow wannabe, put aside your politics this Thanksgiving and take a seat at dinner next to your uncle, the Sean Hannity wannabe.

Yes, it might not go well, especially if you bring up the vegan thing. Mourning the turkey’s violent death won’t bring it back to life.

Then again, you might remember while passing the gravy how your uncle taught you to ride a bike, and he might remember how you shoveled his walk when he had the flu.

We are told we are a divided country and, you know, it’s true. The people who do studies can prove it. But we are not as divided as we may think, our differences not the deal-breakers that some radio talkers would have us believe. Studies show that, too.

Better yet, there are ways we can find common ground and sensible solutions to big problems, if we only give it a shot.

How divided are we? Consider where we stand on Barack Obama. A Gallup poll taken weeks before the Nov. 6 election found Obama is one of the most polarizing presidents in history, his performance approved by nine out of 10 Democrats but by just one in 10 Republicans. No other president in at least half a century ever suffered from such a big gap .

It gets worse. Everyday Americans feel more hostility toward people of the opposite party than at any time in at least 40 years, according to surveys taken by the American National Election Studies. And those differences play a big part in where we choose to live, where we worship and with whom we go bowling.

In 1960, about 5 percent of Americans would have been upset if their child married someone from another party, reports Politico, citing a Stanford study. In 2010, that rose to nearly 40 percent.

But here’s the better news: We disagree most deeply on cultural issues, such as gay marriage and abortion, but the great majority of us are not bent on imposing our moral vision on others. Political operatives may try to exploit these divisions on social issues, but studies show most Americans are far more concerned about practical matters such as jobs, taxes and crime.

The problem for most Americans, says John Gastil, professor of communications at Penn State, is that they don’t have the time or inclination to become experts on complicated issues like the economy, so they turn to others for guidance. And the people they turn to most, naturally, are those who share their “broad cultural outlook.” So if a politician shares a voter’s views on, say, gay marriage, he or she might be trusted to have the right views on economics.

The more we appreciate how “soft” the “foundation of conflict” really is, Gastil says, the more it becomes clear we can reach consensus on big issues.

Gastil’s work is devoted to encouraging a jury system approach to public debate, with small groups of folks from all walks of life absorbing lots of information and working out pragmatic solutions. Endless studies of juries show that the more good information people get, the less they lean on cultural crutches.

Gastil envisions, among other intriguing ideas, a “national deliberation day” during which Americans across the country get together in small and diverse groups and work through public policy issues.

More immediately, we all might try climbing out of our comforting cultural echo chambers. And cease-fire on the Twitter wars. Nobody can fix anything in a 140-character tweet.

On this Thanksgiving, one American’s delicious roasted turkey is another American’s tragically slain bird.

But both of those people are Americans, with much to be thankful for.

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