Discover more from Defusing American Anger: A depolarization endeavor
Thoughts on optimal approaches to political depolarization work
How do we persuade people to help with this work? What do we ask them to do?
I spend a lot of time wondering: What is the most effective way to approach depolarization work? (And I’ll loosely define depolarization here as attempting to reduce a population’s us-vs-them animosity and contempt.)
I don’t have a confident answer to that question, because conflict is such a complex human problem with so many factors and so many possible theoretical things to work on, but I do think it’s important for people in this work to keep asking ourselves that question. I wanted to share my thoughts on optimal strategy in case they’re helpful to other people/organizations doing this work.
Here’s a summary of what this piece contains:
Why a focus on cultural change is important
Thoughts on how we convince people that depolarization work is important:
Get them to see how distorted many people’s views of the “other side” are
Get them to see how high-animosity approaches help create the very things they’re angry about
Thoughts on what we ask people to do to help with this:
Ask them to talk more about the problem of polarization
Ask them to criticize divisive behaviors, especially in their political group
Ask them to engage in good faith with the beliefs of the other side
A focus on cultural change
My own work in this area is focused more on grassroots, change-the-culture type of work, as opposed to arguing for any specific systemic changes (for example, depolarization-aimed legislation, ranked choice voting, changes to government structure, these kinds of things). This is because:
I think most systemic solutions are unlikely to succeed, simply because our system is so polarized and polarizing that most people within the system will be unlikely to try enacting such things, or unable to succeed at doing so. Also, even if systemic changes were enacted, I’m not sure they’d address the root causes of our conflict and not sure they’d substantially reduce political animosity. There’s also a chance their enactment might be another ongoing source of conflict.
I think it’s important to convince as many people as possible of the importance of this work. This is what creates the political capital: the bottom-up pressure to change things. People who see this work as important will then persuade more people, who will in turn persuade more people. And some of the persuaded people will be influential and be powerful forces in persuading other people (or in working on various other solutions, including systemic changes). In short, I think we need to reach some sort of critical mass of people working on this problem, as that’s how cultural change happens.
I don’t necessarily believe this is optimal—again, I’m uncertain about most things—but it is work I see as being hugely important while also being extremely underserved. It is low-hanging fruit I think.
Getting people to see depolarization as an important endeavor
Before you can ask people to help with depolarization, you must get them to see polarization as a major problem, and see depolarization endeavors as important work. How do we do this?
To make the case to people, you must work hard on overcoming common objections. These can be objections downplaying the seriousness of the problem, like “We’ve always been divided: the problem is exaggerated.” Or they can be partisan objections, like “The other side is so horrible: of course we’re divided, as we should be,” or, from the most polarized people, “We need to be more polarized, so we can defeat the bad guys once and for all.”
I think overcoming objections is key to this work, and is also something that I think many people in the depolarization space don’t do enough. So that’s what I spend a lot of my time on (for example, with pieces like this one aimed at common liberal-side objections, and with a lot of Twitter responses I make to angry us-vs-them posts). We must confront the most common objections head on, and the more we tackle them, the more people will start thinking, “Okay, that makes sense, let me look into these thoughts a bit more.”
Get people to see our distorted perceptions of each other
When it comes to the main ways we get people to see why polarization is a problem, one of the main ways is getting more people to see how distorted and overly pessimistic our narratives often are about people on the “other side.” This means delving into a lot of nuance about what people in both groups actually believe, and showing how pessimistic, worst-case-framings about the beliefs of people on the “other side” often miss the more rational and well meaning explanations for those beliefs.
Part of my own strategy in that area is to attempt to show how some of the things we’re most angry at the “other side” about are things that are also true of people in our group. For example, election distrust by people in both groups is a standard and unsurprising result of extreme polarization. For the 2016 election, at one point 42% of Democrats said they thought Trump was not a legitimate president, and this idea was echoed by quite a few influential Democrat leaders and pundits. (If you’d like to understand why those views are wrong and dangerous, I address them in my book, in the election section.)
When I talk about this specific aspect, a common objection from liberals is: “Why are you focusing on that when Trump did so much more to deny and overturn an election than any Democrat leader?” To that I’d say: seeing how polarization creates high election distrust can help us see aspects of ourselves in the “other side,” even as we may think “they’re much worse” or “their leaders are much worse.” It helps us see our shared humanity, in how us-vs-them anger warps our views of each other, and drives us to unreasonable rhetoric and behaviors. Seeing this can help us engage more respectfully and productively, and move us to create more persuasive arguments (even as we may strongly disagree and even as we work hard for what we believe in).
I also think these comparisons can help people more clearly examine their own side’s behaviors through a different lens. For example, it can mean Trump voters coming to think, “I thought the election-denial from Democrats was very bad, so maybe I don’t want to act that way.”
Another example of this would be conspiracy-theory thinking: there is a lot of overly paranoid thinking on both sides of the aisle, even as people may think it’s more of a problem on one side or the other.
Examining our general human tendencies towards unreasonable team-based animosity and fear doesn’t excuse bad behaviors, as some think: I think it helps people on both sides see it more clearly, and helps make the case for why they might want to avoid it.
Some people, when they hear these points, will think, “Okay, you have points about our distorted perspectives of each other, but I still think one side is much worse.” And my response to that common objection is: “You can see polarization as a major problem while still thinking one side is much worse.” Wanting to work on depolarization doesn’t mean you think “both sides are the same”: all it means is that you can see significant ways both groups contribute, and significant things for both groups to work on. Conflicts are complex, and hard to analyze, and we should embrace some humility, and be aware of our instincts to blame the other side for everything and our instincts to avoid examining our group’s role.
Show them how us-vs-them animosity creates some of the things they’re upset about
Finally, one of the most persuasive arguments to a politically passionate person for why they should want to work on depolarization is that us-vs-them animosity helps create the very things they’re upset about. Our us-vs-them fear, anger, and hate shift our views, make our stances more extreme, make us less willing to embrace nuance on issues, and make us less willing to compromise and more hardened in our stances.
Simply put: for people who want to combat extreme and dangerous views on the “other side,” I’d make the case that working on depolarization is the most effective way they can do that. (If you’d like to hear more about that idea, I have a podcast episode focused on that.)
Getting a foot in the door
This is hard work—maybe the hardest work—especially when it comes to making the case to our more polarized and angry fellow citizens. We should see our goal as mostly trying to get our foot in the door, in terms of trying to make people see a different perspective, and see some of the points above. We are trying to get them curious to learn more, and to self-examine their own internal us-vs-them framings.
Seeing the goal this way can help us justify more light and persuasive approaches—as opposed to approaches that righteously judge all the divisive things various people are doing and saying. I think many people already think a lot of people around them, on both sides, are divisive—I think many are just waiting for guidance on what we do about that.
What do we want people to do?
Reducing people’s internal us-vs-them animosity is a good thing: it leads to them behaving in less polarizing ways, and leads to them being less likely to support and endorse polarized/polarizing rhetoric and behaviors.
But we shouldn’t be content with internal depolarization. For maximum effect, we must ask ourselves: For the people who want to actively help with this problem, what do we want them to do? What are the levers most of us easily have within reach that might help with this problem?
This is an important question because it helps us focus our efforts on specific calls-to-action. It helps us more effectively influence the culture. And the easier the ask is, and the more accessible it is, the more people are likely to do those things.
I think we want people to do these three things:
Talk more about the problem of polarization
Push back on divisive rhetoric from people in their own political group
Engage with the more rational beliefs and frustrations of the “other side”
Below are more details about these approaches.
There’s a good chance you’ll find these ideas counterintuitive: you may feel that they go against your instincts of what is needed to “defeat the bad guys.” But our instincts in these areas so often lead us wrong. In my book Defusing American Anger, I argue that it’s precisely our social instincts in these areas that lead us down the path of increasing polarization, and what make solving these problems so hard. To combat polarization, we may find that we need to do things that are counter-intuitive, like the approaches below.
We want people to talk more about polarization
Examining polarization means examining the idea that both sides are contributing to the problem in some way, and examining ways in which both sides can help lower the conflict. And a polarized environment mean that few people want to do that. Many people will instinctually feel that talking about polarization hurts their side: our natural instinct is to say “it’s all their fault”: discussing ways that we or our group can help can seem to give the other side “points.”
The nature of extreme polarization is that it creates an environment that makes it hard to talk about the problem of polarization. This is one of the self-amplifying aspects of the problem.
The more we talk about polarization, the more we’ll help people see the landscape more clearly. When people have a better understanding of how common a problem polarization is—not just right now but throughout history—and start to see it less as an American problem, or a Democrat-Republican problem, and more as a human problem, they’ll be more emotionally distanced, and less easily triggered. They’ll take a wider view of the problem.
We want people to push back on divisive behaviors in their group
When we’re in a conflict, the last thing we want to do is criticize people on our side, as we feel that hurts our group and helps the other side. But actually, in-group dissent, when witnessed by the other group, has been shown to lower animosity, by showcasing the complexity and humanity of the internally dissenting group (one study on this).
In a highly polarized conflict, it’s very hard to influence the “other side.” We can, however, influence people who are politically similar to us. So many of us spend our time righteously judging the “other side,” not realizing that we are making them stronger with our righteous judgment. As Jonathan Haidt put it, “During a culture war, attacks by each side make the other side stronger.” To improve our culture, we need less people focused on attacking the “other side” and more focused on criticizing the unhelpful behaviors of people in their own group.
I’d also say that, when that criticism is made, it should include an explanation of the goal: we should explain that the criticism is made as an attempt to lower our divides, and an attempt to help the person being criticized. For example, that might look something like saying, “My fellow Democrat Senator, I actually agree with your stance on this issue, but what you just said about Republicans was uncalled for, and insulting: not all Republicans are racist and misogynistic, and when you speak in those ways, you amplify our divides and make it harder for us to achieve our political goals.” (This gets back to the idea of talking more about the nature of polarization in general.)
(For more on these ideas, see this piece I wrote about the importance of criticizing divisive behaviors in one’s own political group. You might also this talk with Braver Angels co-founder Bill Doherty about the use of the internal-dissent concept in some of their activities.)
What about those people who don’t feel they belong to either group? These are often people who are sick of politics, and who say things like, “Both sides are crazy; I don’t pay attention.” We need to also speak to this disheartened group: we should try to make them feel that they can play an important role in creating a more sane, rational world. We should see it as important to try to make them feel hopeful, as opposed to exhausted and disheartened. We can try to show them that their lack of team-based thinking can be valuable, and can be something to be proud of.
We want people to engage more with the other side’s beliefs
When we’re in conflict, the last thing we want to do is engage with the other side’s more angry and judgmental beliefs. Our instinct is often to insult and mock those beliefs or, if we’re feeling generous, to ignore them.
To combat polarization, I think we’ll need more people to try to engage, as much as they’re able, with the more rational ideas and frustrations of people on the “other side.” To be clear: this does not mean engaging with the most extreme, most divisive views of the other side. It means engaging with the beliefs that it’s possible for many rational and well meaning people to have (this will be subjective: as with all this work, it will come down to people’s views of such things).
For example, for the transgender topic, it would mean Democrats trying to engage more with rational, well meaning criticisms, as opposed to portraying any criticism or pushback to Democrat-side stances as due to bigotry and hate.
On the Republican side, it would mean more Trump-supporting politicians being able to handle hearing criticism of Trump without acting as if all criticism of Trump is unfair, or is simply politically or emotionally motivated.
One can engage with the other side’s beliefs and take them seriously while vociferously disagreeing with them and arguing against their ideas. But for many people, they will instinctually feel that even engaging with the “bad guys” gives them legitimacy and gives them “points.” When in fact, more honest and good-faith engagement will serve to lower animosity and actually be more persuasive. It will serve to pull our divergent narratives a bit closer together.
For an example of what this approach might look like in the real world, I wrote a depolarization-aimed speech I’d like to see Biden give.
I think the path forward lies in more people taking these approaches, and swallowing their pride, and seeing these approaches not as weak or unhelpful things, but as very strong and powerful things.
The more people take these approaches, the better off we’ll be
The more people take these approaches—criticizing divisive rhetoric on their side and engaging with the other side’s beliefs—the more we’ll move the needle I think. These approaches can play out in many ways: it could be journalists and pundits and politicians doing these things, or it might be regular citizens doing these things in their social media feed, or it might be novelists and playwrights implementing such approaches in their work. These basic approaches can take many diverse forms, all acting to tamp down our our us-vs-them anger—kind of like the graphite rods that lower the nuclear chain reaction in nuclear power plants.
And these basic approaches can play out with people proposing various systemic solutions to the problem, too. For example, that might look like a school system implementing a curriculum that involves examining the nature of us-vs-them polarization, and the ways in which social media might contribute to polarization, as a way to innoculate young people against these tendencies.
Hopefully you’ve found these ideas useful in your own depolarization work. If you have other ideas you think I’m missing, when it comes to cultural change efforts in this area, I’d love to hear from you. My ideas are always evolving, and I definitely do not have high confidence I’ve got the best approach. I think getting many people to work on the problem, however they do it, is our main goal, and much more important than deciding on what the “right” approach is (as we’ll never all agree on that anyway).