Building peace in America through positive deviance

Building peace in America through positive deviance
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When the dust settles after election month, what will Americans do to pick up the pieces of our fractured society and get back to work on our most pressing problems? This is a question we all should be asking ourselves today, whatever our side of the ideological divide.

Our current culture of partisan contempt is reaching a fever pitch. Terrifying incidents of political violence are breaking out on our streets, while too many of our elected officials — particularly on the right — are questioning the integrity of the upcoming elections and inciting violence. A recent study showed that the American populace is becoming increasingly accepting of political violence, predicting “violent partisanship among tens of millions of Americans.” The ensuing battle over Justice Ginsberg’s Supreme Court seat will only fan these flames.

Of course, the current tensions — fueled by the highly divisive politics of Donald TrumpDonald TrumpJan. 6 panel plans to subpoena Trump lawyer who advised on how to overturn election Texans chairman apologizes for 'China virus' remark Biden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day MORE — are nothing new. The U.S. has been trapped in a 50-plus-year trajectory of escalating polarization and enmity, the adverse consequences of which become most evident in times of extreme need like today when we are unable to unite sufficiently and address emerging crises. This makes our divisions a problem of the first order in that they impair our capacities to problem solve as a society. When extreme natural disasters like COVID-19, wildfires and hurricanes fail to unify a nation and are instead weaponized as yet more partisan ammunition, it is a harbinger of worse to come. 


The sources of our decades of division are often misunderstood by well-intentioned groups, who focus on a few core drivers like the lack of interpartisan contact, value differences or gerrymandering. However, my study of the causes of our toxic polarization suggest they are highly complex, intertwined and often structural, meaning they are psychologically, politically and culturally incentivized. These types of dynamics create a landscape for our lives that is incredibly hard to change and readily attracts us into toxic forms of partisan enmity.

But here’s two bits of good news. First, about 90 percent of Americans are currently exhausted by the contentiousness of our politics and looking for compromise. This miserable middle majority is desperately seeking a way out. 

Second, we are living through a series of profoundly destabilizing shocks to the status quo including the unorthodox presidency of Trump, COVID-19, an economic shutdown and a historic antiracism movement, which research has shown is often a necessary condition for significant changes to occur, particularly in highly divided societies. What is needed for Americans to be able to capitalize on this period of mass misery and instability is a clear vision of a way out. 

I recommend looking to positive deviance. 

One of the lessons we are learning from international peacebuilding and humanitarian work is that many of the more effective, sustainable interventions that help communities transition out of war and other forms of extreme hardship come from within. These are often local initiatives that spring up in response to specific community challenges, some of which manage to navigate extraordinarily difficult circumstances and prove sustainable. These groups are labeled positive deviants because they are able to address problems and increase wellbeing in places where most others fail. 

Fortunately, today, there are thousands of bridge-building groups across our country that fit this bill and offer a way out. Many are focused on promoting and facilitating community dialogues locally across the red-blue divide. Others work in various sectors, like in journalism, education, technology and health care, to bring interested parties together across ideological divides in service of promoting progress through compromise. These groups often provide the guidance necessary to navigate difficult political conversations and build bipartisan alliances. They represent the autoimmune system of our nation actively fighting against the pathologies of hate and vilification and working tirelessly to grow the moderate middle. 

However, political peacebuilding is quite unpopular today, as there is boundless energy for the fight and little for rapprochement. When groups try to build bridges in deeply divided societies, they often face mounting resistance and threat. So, the work of these groups needs to be protected and bolstered.

There is a great deal that can be done to support our nascent ecology of unity. It begins with launching a national initiative to connect, support and expand to scale the many bridging groups currently working on their own. Increasing public awareness of these actors—carefully and strategically—could also motivate more Americans to join their common cause.

Efforts to mobilize and counteract our toxic state of polarization are already underway. Organizations, like Unite, which I work with, are currently working to connect the dots between these independent groups to enhance their impact. Now is the time in America to strengthen this most-essential autoimmune system in order to avert disaster and get us back on track. 

Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace.