Tackling The Difficult But Urgent Task Of Depolarizing America

Tyler Durden's Photo
by Tyler Durden
Monday, Apr 01, 2024 - 11:40 PM

Authored by Adeline Von Drehle via RealClear Politics,

The North Hall of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Ridgefield, Connecticut, acts in 2024 much like the town of Gettysburg acted in 1863: as a space to handle our differences as citizens of the United States.

Braver Angels is one of several grassroots organizations to crop up over the past few years that places focus on the depolarization of Americans. They host debates – like the one at St. Stephen’s – where people on different sides of the political aisle can come and respectfully argue with one another under the watchful eye of a moderator. Their volunteers lead workshops, like “Skills for Disagreeing Better,” in which attendees are taught how to navigate a conversation with a political opposite. Members can attend weekly lunches and TED-esque speeches.

“We are not trying to make everyone a moderate,” said Jessie Mannisto, Braver Angels’ director of debates. “We want to take the emotion out of politics – what we call affective polarization – while we address the difficult questions that are facing us as a society so we can function as a single country.”

Affective polarization refers to the phenomenon where one’s feelings toward members of their own political party trend positive, while their feelings toward the opposing party become increasingly negative. Readers will be deeply familiar with the sensation, even if they’ve never heard its name before.

It is affective polarization that leads a conservative voter to think of their liberal counterpart as a morally corrupt person, and the liberal to return the favor by slinging insults ending in “-ist” and “-phobic.” On a personal level, it can dissolve friendships and family bonds.

While it can be unreliable to gauge how divided a society is by looking at numbers alone, polling shows a historically polarized nation.

The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions doubled in two decades from 10% to 21%, according to Pew Research Center. In 1965, about 65% of married couples had the same party registration. Today, the figure is greater than 85%. Republicans and Democrats were asked by political scientists Lilliana Mason if they agree that members of the other party “lack the traits to be considered fully human – they behave like animals,” and about 30% in both parties agreed.

If numbers aren’t your thing, some anecdotal evidence ought to bolster claims of a deep American divide.

There have been three impeachment inquiries and two impeachment trials in seven years. News juggernauts like MSNBC and Fox have been written off by one side or another as completely biased. An estimated 30% of Americans believe Biden’s 2020 win was illegitimate, and about 2,000 of those people felt so strongly about this fact that they stormed the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., in attempt to stall democratic processes.

This isn’t the most divided time in American history, though people like to say it is. Your neighbors probably aren’t ready to take up arms against you. But this growing problem feels important enough to some that they would seek out an organization like Braver Angels.

One woman, Rachel (who preferred her last name be left out), decided to search for a depolarizing organization when she noticed she was completely surrounded by like-minded people in a world she described as “fully liberal.” She found it difficult to express her views to her parents, who live in a conservative Illinois town.

I would like a society where people with disagreeing viewpoints talk to each other and get to know each other,” said Rachel. “It’s so easy to demonize each other when you don’t know each other.”

The hope is that by getting people together who disagree with one another and facilitating “repair in citizen-to-citizen relationships,” as the Braver Angels website puts it, there will be less animosity between political parties. 

We might be able to take an example from a historical social experiment in which the psychologist Muzafer Sherif divided Boy Scouts into two camps. At the end of one week, they learned there was another group at the far end of the campsite. Each group was irrationally disgusted with the other, and the ice only thawed when they were forced to problem-solve together.

This is kind of like what Braver Angels and organizations like it are attempting to do with the American public. By hosting events where a passionate liberal can have a calm, respectful, face-to-face conversation with their conservative counterpart, volunteers hope to mend our fraying republic.

One powerful thing we do is dissolving stereotypes,” said Justin Conner, a Braver Angels workshop facilitator. “Asking yourself why someone thinks differently from you can stimulate self-awareness as the listener. Then ask, where do I see truth and value in what they’re saying and where are some of my ideas flexible?”

It is incredibly easy to dismiss a post on X or leave a nasty comment on someone’s Facebook page. It is much harder to demonize a person you have spent one or two hours having a civil conversation with, whose eyes have met your own. This is the goal of a depolarization organization.

“It really is about creating compassion for different perspectives, and depolarization results from that,” said Conner. “Instead of trying to attack the other side, we want to have a much more healthy and robust debate of ideas, which is in many ways the foundation of the country.”