“My country is tearing itself apart. I must do something…but what, exactly?”
These were the thoughts running through my head during the 2016 election. It seemed our country– and my Facebook feed– was full of vitriol. It couldn’t lead to good governing, and it couldn’t be healthy for people to constantly be outraged.
Yet what was I supposed to do? What was the country supposed to do? Here’s where I’ve landed about polarization about three years later, simplified into Twitter’s 280 characters:
This is mostly an emotional problem between the political parties. We increasingly loathe, resent, and distrust the other side, often fueled by social and news media’s divisive messages. We rise again with widespread messages of commonality and respect, and commitment to trust.
If this sounds right to you, and you need no more convincing, feel free to jump to the end, to the section, “Solutions from the Better Angels Media Initiative, and How You Can Help.” Otherwise, let’s unpack this conclusion.
Polarization is Mostly an Emotional Problem
First, I say polarization is “mostly an emotional problem.” The moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt says the mind is like an emotional and intuitive dog with a rationalist tail. The emotions and intuitions come first. They drive us, and our more “rational” minds often serve as a “press secretary” to try to justify our underlying emotions to others.
Experts even have a term for this emotional aspect of polarization: “affective polarization.” We should primarily be targeting this emotional, affective aspect of polarization. Meanwhile, polarization of policy preferences (“issue polarization”) should not be as much of a focus. It is not the goal to create a country of centrists. Addressing emotions may end up resulting in less issue polarization anyway, because some overlap with the other political side will be seen as normal, rather than uncomfortable or even anathema.
Humans have some capacity for regulating their emotions and behaviors, but this is very tiring, especially when Americans have busy lives with so many priorities. Thus, depolarization should strongly emphasize improving the underlying emotions and intuitions themselves.
Polarization is Between Groups, Especially the Political Parties
Then I say polarization is “between the political parties.” I make it about groups. Humans are tribal. Being tribal can be wonderful, providing belonging and identity. Without some tribalism, we couldn’t be sports fans, or identify meaningfully as part of a community or as Americans. Yet when it is pushed to the extreme, when we become hypertribal, it infects interpersonal interactions and impedes the ability to productively work together. Individual personal problems can often originate at a group level. As emotions between groups worsen, people search for evidence to confirm they are right and the others are wrong, question others’ motivations and their character, and see the other side as wrongdoers or enemies. Additionally, they can begin to develop a love for their own group, a love that essentially blinds people to their group’s faults, and lead one to believe almost any information that supports their team.
The groups are Reds and Blues. While there are a few ways to define Reds and Blues, the first-order division should be between Republicans and Democrats. If polarization is mostly an emotional problem, then it is about more than intellectually liberal and conservative ideologies. The political parties account for more than 90% of American adults once those leaning toward a party are included. (The voting patterns of “leaners” are barely different than those fully in a party.)
We Increasingly Loathe, Resent, and Distrust the Other Side – But We Can Aim for More Trust
Next, I say “we increasingly loathe, resent, and distrust the other side.” The first term to note is “increasingly.” There is a “feeling thermometer” that shows how dramatically emotions Republicans and Democrats feel toward each other have worsened over the past few decades. The feeling thermometer tests for feelings of coldness or warmth toward another group or person. The average warmth toward the other party fell slowly between 1980 to 2000, declining from the high 40s to about 40 (with 100 being the warmest and zero the coldest). Since then, the decline has accelerated, plummeting to the mid-20s in 2016. And as recently as 2008 and all the way back to the 1970s the most common answer was “50” – a neutral feeling – but the most common answer is now zero.
It is important to identify the specific emotions to target. A main question is whether depolarization should most concerned about loathing or rage, which can be visualized using the late psychologist Robert Plutchik’s simply gorgeous Wheel of Emotions. I argue it should be loathing for a few reasons, which also lead into the other issues of resentment and distrust. Loathing involves unproductively feeling the other side is worthless and or much less than, while anger and rage (if well-targeted) can be very productive at enacting useful change. Loathing and its somewhat less extreme variant “disgust” can directly relate to dehumanization, with potentially dangerous consequences for conflict and violence. Constant outrage is problematic largely from a personal health standpoint.
The opposites of loathing or disgust also offer insights. Since loathing involves “looking down on,” there will inevitably be a group that feels “looked down upon.” Especially if they feel less powerful, this group that feels loathed and looked down upon can develop resentment toward those they see as demeaning and disrespecting them. Resentment plays a large role in our politics today. Additionally, the exact opposite of disgust on the Wheel of Emotions is trust, a key ingredient in a well-functioning society. In fact, I believe trust with the possibility of admiration should be the “North Star” of the depolarization movement.
A Descent Fueled by Divisiveness of Social Media, Partisan Media, and News Saturation
The next statement I make is that this descent toward loathing, resentment, and distrust is “often fueled by social and news media’s divisive messages.” Social media and partisan news media like Fox and MSNBC often reinforce polarized views and negative impressions of the other side, worsening emotions and exacerbating polarization. This polarizing media environment becomes a kind of vicious circle. Those who feel more polarized often act in more polarizing ways, and they tend to be the most active on social media, polarizing others and then creating conditions where politicians benefit from themselves being polarizing, further enflaming and exacerbating the self-reinforcing cycle. Even unbiased news tends to highlight division; frequently seeing divisive content will likely make the divisions “top of mind” and start worsening views and emotions of the other side.
Better Angels president David Blankenhorn essentially identified these among 14 causes of political polarization. While the other causes he identifies often have validity, the depolarization movement should not focus much energy on them. There are already “good government” groups trying to address structural topics like money in politics, and various demographic shifts are impossible or unwise to for the depolarization movement to directly unwind, such as the passing of the Greatest Generation.
We Rise Again with Widespread Messages of Commonality and Respect, and Commitment to Trust
But we do not have to despair. The last portion of my Twitter post was, “We rise again with widespread messages of commonality and respect, and commitment to trust.” In terms of widespread messages, we know that we need to reach Americans where they are even if they do not want to expend much effort. We recognize that Americans have so much to do in their lives; frankly, “loathing the other political party less” will rarely rank above such aspects of life like earning a living, caring for family, or enjoying hobbies. Messages and stories that resonate emotionally can move people quickly. However, there is also a recognition that sometimes the depolarization movement will need to forcefully stand up to those promoting divisive messages, with the belief that these people and organizations usually have a capacity for redemption. To borrow from part of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1967 speech “Where Do We Go from Here?,” depolarization needs to have both power and love.
To address loathing, we need to highlight similarities and commonalities. These are often basics about what we share as humans and family members, being on the same team as Americans, or working together to improve communities. Commonality is not sameness; it is overlap, not homogenization, so unique identities and preferences can remain unique. Then to address resentment, we need people to tell the other side that they are respected, seen as equals, often have good character traits, and should be treated with dignity. Making these statements is probably even more important for those in positions of power to make. Finally, we especially need large institutions to show tangible commitment to rebuilding trust. For instance, the Business Roundtable in August 2019 announced that no longer should maximizing shareholder profits be the primary goal of corporations. A primary goal of reestablishing trust involves companies also looking out for their employees, American consumers, and the country as a whole.
Solutions from the Better Angels Media Initiative, and How You Can Help
Welcome to the section about what you can do. I’m most interested in how you can go out in the world and do something productive about polarization. As I mentioned in the Twitter post toward the beginning, we need to have “widespread messages of commonality and respect, and commitment to trust.”
I am the Co-Director of the Better Angels Media Initiative, which is currently targeting six “megaphones” that can spread the messages widely: businesses, intellectuals and influencers, news media, religious institutions, social media platforms, and TV / movies. Many of the institutions can also express a commitment to trust and begin working to reestablish that trust.
It is also possible to do activities outside of Better Angels. Become an influencer yourself with letters, memes, posts, videos, articles, etc. Organize groups to influence these institutions and groups. Contact your friends to tell them to do the same. Afterwards, please let us at Better Angels know about what you are doing.
Eventually, we plan to have guidebooks about how to reach out to each of these different groups, why they should care about depolarization, and what they can say and do about it.
I recognize that some of you may not have the expertise or connections, or the time to do this. Better Angels has workshops that can eventually help to rebuild relationships that may be strained or broken in your life. If you’re talking to someone of a different political party, it hopefully is possible to highlight something you respect about them or something in common, even if it’s as basic as, say, your shared interest in dogs or baseball. If you want a mantra to tell yourself as you’re bombarded with negative stories of the other side, perhaps tell yourself, “We care for our children, our communities, and our country.”
Still, I’m most interested in how you can help influence thousands or millions with your connections and determined efforts. This is a huge problem in a huge country of over 300 million. We must think and act big. America has descended into a miasma of loathing, resentment, and distrust. With your help, we will rise again.
 Haidt, The Righteous Mind, p. 1