Overview of Cooperation Initiatives

Many Americans share a growing conviction that the hostile polarization currently dominating our politics both makes little sense and prevents us from dealing successfully with critical challenges and opportunities. On the other hand, many have had the unsettling experience of reaching across a divide with what they sincerely believed were good intentions only to find their efforts rebuffed, or even in some cases prompting an increase in anger. Many come away from such interactions feeling powerless or even hopeless about the prospects of finding common ground.

The good news is that the attitudes and skills needed for success can be cultivated and can be learned. They are within the reach of most activists. In this arena, some of the most significant steps can, and in fact must, be undertaken by individuals acting as individuals.

Almost everyone has a story of failure. A brother, a father or grandfather, an uncle or cousin, or a long-lost high school best friend is "on the other side." (And yes, it seems like it is usually a guy.) There are countless tales of woe, stories about trying to "reason" with such a relative or friend only to find oneself sliding into a hostile argument. Learning or inventing new and better ways of engaging in such discussions is a key part of finding common ground.

The Spectrum of Cooperation

For all efforts, from individuals to large groups, we can and should affirm a wide spectrum of efforts to find common ground.

At low end, this means transactional but stressed tolerance temporarily imposed to accomplish some specific end. It would be unwise to dismiss this as inadequate. Yes, in the long run, it won't be sufficient. But along the way, working together, even if grudgingly, can result in unexpected shifts. Working face-to-face to accomplish a shared goal breaks down hostility. It may seem like water wearing rock, but it happens. "Those folks aren't so bad," we think, and pretty soon we're on the slippery slope to actually liking them.

Moving up the ladder, we can form cross-divide alliances that are more enduring than one-off transactional accommodations. We may find, especially in a local face-to-face process, that our areas of agreement are larger. Our agreement on better schools, or on maintaining community facilities, can lead to greater ongoing flexibility on, for example, how we should pay for these things.

In any process of reconciliation, there are likely to be many intermediate stages along the way. How it works depends on the barriers present in any particular local circumstance. It may be racial, religious, or ethnic barriers to cooperation that must be overcome. Or it may be scars left over from previous conflicts. Ego attachments to points of view are almost always a challenge. The skills to overcome ego issues involve allowing individuals an easy face-saving way to change their minds without ever admitting they had been wrong. (It follows that gloating about being right is always wrong.)

At the upper end of the spectrum of cooperation is found trust and the earned presumption of good faith. Perhaps we will even find ourselves resonating to Lincoln's plea in an even more divided time: "Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature." In personal interactions, when the grip of hostility is broken, who knows what bonds of affection may become possible?

Also found at the upper end could be a genuine intellectual rapprochement. This may involve a partial reconciliation or synthesis of views, with remaining areas of disagreement not merely tolerated but welcomed as sources of insight and wisdom.

Increasingly, the sciences of cognition are revealing a human nature that sometimes conforms to conservative expectations and sometimes conforms to liberal expectations. As our understanding grows, we will increasingly be able to identify under what circumstances conservative assumptions will be closer to reality and under what other circumstances liberal assumptions will be closer. At the end of this path lies a complete restructuring of political thought, a new paradigm transcending the left-right split.

Published: July 2019
Revised: June 2023

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