To end partisan gridlock, start on your own side of the aisle
This summer, I learned how daunting it is to be a tolerant, politically engaged American in these times.
Amidst the turmoil of the Jan. 6 congressional hearings, Roe v Wade outrage, horrific mass shootings and the F.B.I. raid on Mar-a-Lago, I launched and participated in a 4-week group “challenge” on reducing political polarization in America called, “The Way Out.” The nation seems locked in a toxic political crisis, descending ever closer to violence and civil war, and I saw this challenge as an opportunity for me to help address a problem that often seems insurmountable for any one individual.
In addition to preparing to meet and talk constructively with partisans across the divide, this challenge involved completing several assessments on my own political tendencies. I found the results of these surveys unnerving. Turns out I am acutely sensitive to social rejection from my peers, show high partisan conformity across distinct policy issues and am uncomfortable standing up to members of my own camp when they cross a line.
As one member of our challenge group put it, “It takes courage to risk being disliked, disrespected and disturbed.”
I am an academic who studies conflict and activism. I am well aware of the vital importance of dissent to well-functioning groups and societies and have long prided myself on my willingness to speak truth to power. But apparently not when that power is peer pressure. And I am not alone.
Today we are seeing historically high spikes in levels of affective polarization (ingroup love and outgroup contempt), partisan ideological consistency, tightness of political ingroup norms and runaway forms of pernicious political polarization. This wagon circling is especially common these days at progressive institutions like my own, where ostracizing those with outlier positions has become celebrated — a tendency long in vogue on the right as well.
The diminishing of our individual fortitude in the face of ever-tightening group taboos is a core driver of the extraordinary political mess our nation is currently mired in. Right now, the more extreme activist wings of both parties are more engaged politically than the rest of us, and so tend to hold sway over both parties’ discourse and direction, leading to rampant oversimplification of the issues and unquestioned certainty over the correct remedies. In this climate, more moderate Americans — those who might push back within their camps on intemperate positions — often disengage from politics entirely. Yet decades of research point to the perilous effects of such forms of groupthink — or lack of ingroup dissent on decision making — and how it typically feeds more severe group attitudes, norms and outgroup blame.
History has shown that in times of deep partisan distrust and division, some of the best checks on runaway divisiveness come from within political camps. Moments like this were immortalized in the stories of eight U.S. senators depicted in John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” all leaders who risked their careers by defying the opinions of their own party and constituents to do what they felt was right for our greater good. Unfortunately, political courage of this stature seems rare in Washington today.
This was the point of our challenge — political change in the U.S.A. can begin with each of us in our own homes, workplaces and communities. What are some micro-steps that all Americans can take to check our groups and serve the greater good? Here are a few evidence-based actions to consider.
Clarify your intentions. Just as we would want to engage in cross-partisan conversations carefully today, so too must we tread with care when addressing differences within our own groups. This requires that we check our habits and automatic reactions to our groups, and begin intentionally, with some degree of preparation, to help steer a new course. Ask yourself, “What is the specific change you hope to see in your group?” More accuracy? Curiosity? Civility? Compassion?
Locate allies. Next, identify others in the group that might help. Often, there are individuals, subgroups, norms, practices or policies that are already constraining the worst impulses of a group and may even be encouraging their better angels. Identify these and envision ways they may be leveraged to help keep your group on track.
Complicate the conversation. Carefully begin to practice complicating your group’s thinking by identifying and respectfully voicing inconsistencies and internal contradictions within your group’s own positions and actions (a role JFK assigned to Robert F. Kennedy in his cabinet meetings). This has shown to be an excellent safeguard against premature simplification and hasty decision-making, especially when enacted by those sufficiently respected within the group.
Ask different questions. When political news breaks, rather than joining in the rush to outrage and disparagement of the other party, practice asking questions about the circumstances surrounding the incident, the various motives behind it, and any unintended consequences that may result from it. In other words, explore the context.
Propose constructive controversy. This simple 5-step process for interrogating solutions to contentious issues has been found to promote more open and curious forms of problem-solving that foster a nuanced understanding of problems and the dilemmas and trade-offs inherent to proposed remedies:
- Split into two subgroups and prepare to debate
- Present and advocate positions
- Discuss the issue
- Reverse perspectives in subgroups
- Synthesize positions
Americans need to find a way to turn down our partisan animosity and reduce the odds of worse political violence. Of course, changing how we communicate across party lines will help, but we also need to be more mindful of how we advocate or engage politically within our groups; of the rhetoric we use, the assumptions we make about the other side, and the moral lapses we ignore on our own side when they are inconvenient. This starts with us.
Peter T. Coleman, Ph.D., is a professor at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace. He is also an expert-in-residence and founding partner of Starts With Us, a movement to overcome extreme cultural and political divisions in America. His latest book is “The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization.”