Two hundred years ago (August 24, 1814), the British burned the U.S. Capitol and White House to the ground. This took place at a time of an intensely divided American government -- where rancor, bitterness, and profane curses were commonplace in Congressional debates between Federalists and Republicans.  Yet, these same Members of Congress stood together to turn back the British and rebuild Washington.

Polarization and intense difference hold sway today too. Shall we come together or let the house burn down?


One of the inspiring lights of that earlier era was Dolley Madison, remembered as the country’s  first “first lady.”  She took it upon herself to provide a context for engagement that cut through the animosity of the time. She redesigned the White House, carving out grand social spaces, to make it possible for people to meet together.

Dolley was a master at facilitating the informal conversations that naturally produced compromise and conciliation—you might say a “dialogue party.”  Her soirees were open to all – friends and enemies. She enlisted most of the Members’ wives and daughters, leaving calling cards all over the city.  When the war broke out with the British, attendance at Dolley’s parties climbed from about 300 to 500. Less than a month after the White House burned down she found a temporary official residence and soon after restarted her social engagements. People around the country rallied to her steadfastness and refusal to retreat.

Contrast this with our situation today.

Some years ago the wife of a prominent Democratic senator received some disturbing news. She learned that a number of her friends, Republican wives, had been told by party officials not to socialize any longer with Democratic spouses.

Many legislators today make it a point of pride that they do not have formal residence in Washington, DC. They sleep on a couch, are present Monday to Thursday and then fly home to their constituencies and families. The socializing, and informal mixing of political leaders has faded into memory. Kennedy’s Camelot parties and Katherine Graham’s dinners seem to have no modern equivalent. The decline predates Obama, who does not hang out with the opposition, and also Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonWhat did the Founders most fear about impeachment? The Hill's Morning Report - Tempers boil over at the White House Chelsea Clinton says she's not considering a bid for New York House seat MORE, who famously did.

While many would say it is helpful to leave behind an inbred Washington culture, something more has been lost -- the means of engaging and resolving polarization. What is most missing is a deep vision of why we should bother.  Compromise is easily branded as capitulation, the loss of our ideals, even our very identity. Sticking to these is framed as noble. Many appear to be happy to let our collective house burn down rather than come together in some new way. Yet the founders saw the requirement of working together as a necessary element in the challenge of perfecting ourselves and our nation – compelling us to go beyond traditional and prejudicial ideas and think freshly – and created a system that required it.  Built in was an implicit commitment to the larger project of sustaining the nation, and to the informal processes that protected it.

What we need now is to apply these same principles in our context -- to transform our own polarization.

We need first to step out of the action-reaction cycle. We readily get locked in a kind of collective “thinking fast” to use the term coined by psychologist Daniel Kahneman. We react habitually, using a largely automatic system of thought that makes intuitive snap judgments based on the heat of emotion, memory, and our hard-wired rules of thumb.  Our brains have another mode, a deliberative system that thinks “slow,” checks the facts and does the analysis, listens for what is new. We must suspend our “noble certainties”, our fixation on our opponent and begin to reflect.

We also need to move beyond our conviction that rational debate alone delivers results. As Thomas Jefferson once put it: “I never yet saw an instance of one of two disputants convincing the other by argument.”  We gain insight when we take our minds off the subject in which we have been immersed.  We need incubation space, and even more, safe space, in which to connect, reflect and talk together – beyond point making and debate. Without it, we lose the ability to resolve the polarizations with which we are dealing – in whatever field.

When we find a way to create a protected environment for conversation and deeper connection we very quickly gain perspective we did not have and did not think we needed. The extremes we insist upon – fueled by our emotional reactions – lose their venom. What we want is not mere compromise – which sounds so uninspiring – but a shared purpose. To catch a glimpse of a purpose larger than our differences opens the door to real insight and effectiveness. But this only comes when the conditions for it are cultivated. What is the larger purpose to which we commit now?

Some are now reaching for this. In Washington an organization called “No Labels” has brought together 80 congressmen from both sides of the aisle. Their goal: “stop fighting, start fixing.” Cynics roll their eyes. But the structure beneath it works: identifying a sense of larger purpose, building on informal exchange, slowing down the habitual reactions, thinking together, looking for pragmatic new ground and acting upon it.

Political socializing may have been the last dying remnant of our connection to an age that lived on informal ties and a fear of the memory of tyranny. But that era has passed. We need a means of transforming our inevitable and predictable differences. Without it they rage on. With it, they are the fuel for an immense creative project.

What we need are individuals of character, like Dolley Madison, who employ these very real skills—which are replicable and transferable---to allow opposing parties to come together, to hold it together through thick and thin, and to build a new house where all are invited and welcome.

Isaacs is senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management and author of Dialogue and the Art of Thinking Together.