Addressing our culture of contempt will require a social movement
The 2020 U.S. presidential election is over. Yet a large swath of our nation — including the sitting president — is refusing to accept the outcome. We are a nation deeply divided, perhaps even more so than we thought on Nov. 2.
President-elect Joe Biden should be commended for immediately appealing for national unity and bipartisanship, and for attempting to combat the deluge of divisive rhetoric spouting from the White House. However, the roots of our runaway division are complex and decades-old. Acute levels of partisan enmity in our electorate, divergent realities spun by dueling media ecosystems and a deep investment in the status quo of many political elites make it impossible for any lone president to heal our divide. It is simply beyond the reach of executive leadership.
Yet it is the defining issue of our era. Extreme levels of polarization and contempt are not only toxic to our personal health, relationships and communities, but they also impair our ability as a nation to unite against the existential crises threatening our survival. When extreme natural disasters like COVID-19, wildfires and hurricanes fail to unify and are instead used as partisan weapons, reunification seems a pipe dream.
So, what is our torn and weary nation to do?
We must build a national solidarity movement from the bottom up. The good news is that research suggests we are well on our way to meeting a few basic conditions necessary for realizing such a movement.
We have widespread discontent. Studies have shown that the best time for societies mired in conflict to reset their direction is when the disputing groups see their situation as chronically stuck, with “victory” unlikely for either side, and they are experiencing enough pain, regret or dread right now to seek an alternative path. Fortunately, most Americans are currently miserable. Today, about 86 percent of more moderate Americans report being exhausted by the contentiousness of our politics and looking for a means to compromise.
We see mobilization of the miserable moderate middle. This large majority of fed-up Americans is fertile soil for growing a movement. Today, political and ideological extremists rule our body politic. They tend to be more politically engaged, more likely to vote, more active on social media and are more likely to hold tribal, overly simplistic views of central issues. When these extreme “wings” of the electorate run the show, we see runaway polarization, and trying to talk and reason with these hyper-partisan true-believers typically goes nowhere. Thus, any social movement aimed at bridging divides should focus first on mobilizing our middle — the population that is currently more disengaged from politics but has the potential to regain control of our runaway train.
We must target our toxic polarization. Research has long established the unique mobilizing power of framing goals as threats versus opportunities. It is way too early to ask people to unite or heal after decades of enmity and division culminating in Trumpism. This will simply enrage and repel too many on both sides. However, highlighting the deleterious effects of our divisions on our personal health and wellbeing, as well as that of our children, families, communities and nation, would be much more likely to incentivize a period of détente and cooperation. If a joint problem-solving initiative takes hold and proves fruitful, the language can eventually shift to one of tolerance, healing and reunification. But aiming too high too soon will likely backfire.
Most important, we must bolster our communal immune system. Research on international peacebuilding has taught us that many of the most effective and sustainable interventions that help communities transition out of conflict come from within. They are local initiatives that spring up in response to specific community concerns or tensions and manage to navigate extraordinarily difficult circumstances. These groups are labeled positive deviants because they are able to address problems and increase wellbeing in places where most others fail. 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.
Fortunately, today there are thousands of bridge-building groups across our country that fit this bill. Many are focused on promoting and facilitating community dialogues across the red-blue chasm. Others work in various sectors, like journalism, education, technology and health care to bring interested parties together across ideological divides in service of promoting progress through compromise. Most importantly, however, these groups can help participants create bipartisan alliances that are crucial to combating the structural incentives that divide us. This step is critical to substantive change. We will never talk our way out of this division, there must be structural change.
Biden can’t heal our divided nation, only we can. Of course, a new administration can help stem the tide of divisiveness and aid the good works already happening across our country. However, achieving national solidarity will require a network of smart, tolerant leaders willing to work tirelessly to build bridges across our divide. We as citizens, working together with a common vision, can take back our democracy and eventually heal the tattered soul of this nation.
Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict. He is the author of “The Five Percent: Finding Solutions to Seemingly Impossible Conflicts.”