Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Unifying Our Country

How to bring Americans together.

This is a time when our country seems divided in ways that cannot easily be bridged. There is the top two percent and the bottom 98 percent. There are Republicans and Democrats. There are minorities and majorities. There are citizens and illegal immigrants. There are white supremacists and groups that value diversity. It seems like society is divided into multiple groups that dislike or even hate each other. At times, it seems that we will never be able to overcome the divisions in our country and unite all citizens into one nation.

What is constantly being demonstrated is that it is much easier to divide than it is to unite. It is possible, however, to unite our country through the systematic implementation of positive interdependence. Interdependence exists when two or more people (or entities) depend on each other so that their outcomes and fate are correlated. Morton Deutsch, in the late 1940s, noted that there are two types of interdependence, positive and negative. Positive interdependence is the perception that a person depends on others in a way so that he or she cannot succeed unless the other persons do and vice versa. Negative interdependence is the opposite; if a person succeeds, all others fail. In order for a democracy to function, citizens must perceive positive interdependence among all citizens. Societal members have to know that they "sink or swim together."

Today, many Americans seem to have lost the sense of positive interdependence among citizens. Many of our politicians are more concerned about dividing citizens and creating animosity among them than uniting them. In order to unify our country, widespread positive interdependence must be reestablished and reemphasized. There are a number of ways to structure positive interdependence among citizens of our country.

First, we unite the country by establishing compelling goals that all members of our society willingly commit themselves to achieve. Positive goal interdependence exists when citizens commit themselves to mutual goals that are compelling enough to ensure that all citizens will work together to achieve them. Historically, such goals have included winning our independence from Great Britain, building a democracy, striving to fulfill the promise inherent in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, solving the problem of racism in our society, and making sure all citizens have the opportunity to work themselves out of poverty. We are all united through our mutual commitment and mutual efforts to achieve our overall joint goals. Joining together to achieve mutual goals is the heart of a well-functioning democracy.

Second, the country may be united through establishing a national identity as an “American” that binds all citizens together. An identity is a consistent set of attitudes that defines "who you are." Identity interdependence may be created by establishing a mutual identity through group symbols such as a pledge of allegiance, flag, or national anthem. Creating positive identity interdependence among citizens means that each person’s view of themself unites them with all others who have a similar national identity. This mutual identity is reaffirmed every time we say the pledge of alliance or sing the national anthem. Doing so reminds us of our unity and of our shared goals and aspirations, our shared dedication to the basic values expressed in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, and our shared love for our country. It is reaffirmed when we have the same heroes, such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington.

Third, citizens may be unified through realizing that the resources of all citizens are needed to achieve the goals (i.e., resource interdependence). Citizens at some time have to recognize that each person alone does not have the resources needed to achieve valued goals. Resource interdependence exists when citizens realize that in order to achieve their goals they must depend on the resources of others. Building a national economy, ensuring all citizens have the ability to communicate with each other, traveling from one part of the country to another are all examples of goals that require the resources and contributions of many citizens to achieve them.

Fourth, citizens may be united through perceiving that they all receive the same rewards and benefits when national goals are achieved (i.e., reward interdependence). It may be structured by (a) having citizens celebrate their joint success (such as the 4thof July celebration) or (b) giving each citizen a tangible reward for successfully working together to complete a joint task (such as getting a tax cut for cleaning up city parks).

Fifth, structure task interdependence by creating a division of labor so that one group of citizens have to complete their actions if the next group of citizens is to complete their responsibilities. An example is when some citizens gather and present information so that other citizens can make informed decisions.

Sixth, structure role interdependence by assigning citizens complementary and interconnected roles (such as representative, senator, president) that specify responsibilities that the country needs in order to complete the joint tasks.

Seventh, highlight that all citizens need to participate in the democratic processes if the processes are to work. Democracy requires committed work by each citizen. Joint participation in the processes of democracy (such as political discourse) can build a bond among citizens that binds them all together. In a democracy, citizens come together to make decisions about what policies and courses of action to adopt, hopefully through consensus but usually through majority rule.

Different groups may propose different policies, laws, regulations, and action plans for the society as a whole. Through elections, citizens decide which competing candidates will be elected to office and what competing policies will be established as laws. The elections occur on the basis that electoral defeats are neither permanent nor intolerable. A group’s ideas may be defeated during one election, but in the next election, their ideas may win.

In summary, if leaders and citizens wish to unite the citizens of our country, they must establish competing joint goals, a mutual identity, awareness of dependence on each other’s resources, awareness that one is rewarded only when all are rewarded, divisions of labor involving all citizens, giving citizens complementary roles, and encouraging all citizens to participate in the processes of democracy. It is through ensuring such positive interdependence exists that citizens can become aware of their unity.

More from David W. Johnson Ed.D.
More from Psychology Today