Where Progress is Being Made Now

A movement is taking shape driven by the widely shared feeling that the polarization and vilification taking place today are profoundly damaging to our country. A July 2019 poll from the Gallup Organization reported that Americans' pride in our political system, which for generations has stood as a source of inspiration for the world, has hit a new low. When asked to rank eight aspects of U.S. government and society that make them proud, our political system was dead last, and by a large margin.

Our conflicts have become toxic. A recent survey asked Republicans and Democrats whether they agreed with the statement that members of the opposition party "are not just worse for politics, they are downright evil." According to a New York Times op-ed No Hate Left Behind, "Just over 42 percent of the people in each party view the opposition as 'downright evil.' In real numbers, this suggests that 48.8 million voters" have embraced vilification as an integral part of their political perspective.

These passions are making the cooperation and compromise essential to democratic functioning impossible. Vilification in particular is creating an atmosphere of distrust and loss of collective confidence that permeates nearly every aspect of life. A movement to counter these destructive sentiments has emerged, and today it is growing rapidly to involve a great variety of groups and activities all over the country.

A Sampling of Unfolding Successes

One of the most robust of the current efforts is the Bridge Alliance. It is a network of nearly 100 organizations with a combined three million supporters. They advocate a stronger voice for citizens in the political process while at the same time emphasizing that respectful, civil discourse is needed for effective problem solving. There is considerable overlap between the movement to build common ground and the movement to make our democracy work. The Bridge Alliance, while focusing on bridging divides, maintains an Overview of the Democracy Field. It is a continuously updated database of all "known work for healthy self-governance." It also offers a robust calendar of the conferences and related events offered by member organizations.

If you are looking for constructive face-to-face interactions across divides, Living Room Conversations is a great place to begin. They provide an easy structure for engaging with those with whom we may not agree. These conversations can increase understanding and reveal common ground. You can start a conversation and use one of their Conversation Topic Guides to help navigate.

The National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation is a network of innovators who use dialogue and deliberation to promote cooperation across the divides that obstruct action. NCDD offers a clearinghouse for thousands of resources and best practices, and it sponsors an annual national conference. They also offer free 1-hour online programs called Tech Tuesdays focusing on how dialogue proponents can take advantage of online engagement tools. You do not have to be a member of NCDD to participate.

The Mediators Foundation builds bridges across divides to prevent and reduce conflicts and promote collaboration. They promote methods to increase our capacity for peaceful, creative problem solving, and they do so in ways intended to motivate participants to become more aware and engaged citizens. The Foundation provides fiscal sponsorship to organizations and projects that further their mission. Their site offers an overview of their many projects as well as an extensive collection of videos.

Essential Partners promotes "constructive dialogue where conflicts are driven by differences in identity, beliefs, and values." They offer training workshops as well as customized facilitation and consultation services for particular communities. Essential Partners also provides training guides, including its Guide For Conversations Across the Red-Blue Divide.

Many more organizations with many more details about activities and opportunities for involvement are available from Organizations Building Cooperation.

Looking Ahead: Growing Effectiveness

The growing roster of organizations and burgeoning army of volunteers and supporters actively working on bridging divides and taming antagonisms represents the most direct evidence of the prospective success of this movement.

As with our assessment of the prospects for making democracy work, there is evidence of strong concern by citizens well beyond those currently engaged actively. Many Americans think we are too polarized, and they believe that the growing hostility across our divides is bad for our country. This concern is an encouraging albeit indirect leading indicator of likely future movement growth.

There is debate among experts about the extent and nature of political polarization in America. Most feel that it is a significant and worrisome trend, but polls suggest it may be exaggerated in the public mind. This is difficult to evaluate. The perception of strong and hostile polarization may be to some extent self-fulfilling.

It isn't at all difficult to see how perceived polarization could increase actual polarization. If I think somebody disrespects me, whether they really do or not, I'm very likely to return the disrespect I believe is being directed toward me (and probably with a ratchet up in intensity). The person on the other side, if he or she feels no disrespect or anger initially, will likely perceive what you think of as a response as instead unprovoked hostility coming from you. It is in the nature of feuds that nobody really remembers how they started. Both sides, of course, feel strongly that the other started it.

This is how reciprocally reinforcing animosities can become a race to the bottom. Millions of Americans are awakening to this danger, and want to get off this downward spiral before it crashes.

Types of Bridge-Building Activities

Join & Volunteer With Existing Organizations - Many of the organizations active in this arena offer volunteer opportunities. Some may be doable from anywhere, others may require you to be near an organization's office. Some of the organizations have chapters, and that raises the possibility of volunteering with a local chapter or even, if the circumstances are right, starting a local chapter.

Support Specific Reform Initiatives - Several of the reforms can help moderate conflict, or remove or reform processes that by their nature seem to encourage the kind of competition that builds hostility. For example, replacing partisan redistricting with non-partisan commissions helps all sides feel the process is fair, and conspicuous fairness can act like kryptonite to the escalation of hostility.

Embrace & Promote Civility Practices - You will find such practices described in detail by several of the organizations profiled as promoting common ground. This may seem like too little to ask, "mere" civility, but it can be surprisingly difficult for some, and the effort will surely sensitize you to the presence of any uncivil impulses lurking within you. Practicing impulse control may be helpful with interactions, but more surprising, your hostile attitudes may mellow with the effort.

Cultivate Your Skills & Attitudes - Conferences, training programs, and written and video materials can help you cultivate the skills and attitudes that will make you more effective in communicating across divides. For much more on this, visit our article on Strengthening Your Skills. It is no accident that this point comes before the points below. Watch out for overconfidence bias, and if in doubt, pay at least some attention to growing skills and cultivating attitudes for success before attempting direct engagement across divides.

Start Or Join A Bridging Conversation Group - One good way to try your hand while simultaneously growing skills and cultivating helpful attitudes is to take part in Living Room Conversations. These structured conversations occur within a framework in which people on all sides are trying to talk constructively, and thus they can be an ideal point of entry into this unfamiliar realm of bridge-building.

Start A "Just You & I" Bridging Conversation - Many people have relatives, neighbors or co-workers on "the other side" of important issues, but many have also learned through painful experience to steer away from topics likely to precipitate hostile reactions. Pain without progress seldom seems worth repeating. Yet with substantially improved skills and better attitudes, such conversations need not be hopeless. To be clear, these skills and attitudes have nothing to do with "winning" a logical fact-centered argument. They have instead everything to do with utilizing emotional intelligence to avoid arousing defenses and to establish good will. Your partners in conversation must feel that you are approaching them with respect and expressing ideas in good faith.

Bridge Building Written Communication - People can use communication channels such as blog posts, online article comments, social media, letters-to-the-editor, and call-in talk radio to promote bridge-building, to reduce the intensity of existing local conflicts, and to articulate the benefits of speaking respectfully to people with views opposing your own.

Call Out Media Promotion Of Conflict - Conflict attracts attention, and commercial media is in the attention grabbing business. Local media, newspapers, radio and TV stations, as well as national and online media, should all be held accountable for exaggerating disagreement and encouraging conflict. The media could cover disputes in a way that promotes useful dialogue rather than the counterproductive "talking past each other." This should be pointed out publicly, forcefully, and repeatedly.

Promote Cooperation Inside Underway Organizing Processes - If you are involved inside an ongoing community process, such as a bond election or a public referendum, be the promoter of unity, of setting differences aside to pursue a common goal. Take the side of the whole group by taking the side of no faction. A similar approach can be used inside community organizations, service clubs and the like. Organizations, like communities, thrive on cooperation, so be the person promoting success through unity. (Of course, sometimes things get proposed that are simply wrong. In such cases, opposition will be the right choice.)

Utilize Assistance Services - Several of the profiled organizations offer assistance to local communities in the form of facilitation services and/or training programs. Some also offer consulting in support of local advocates of cooperation. You can suggest the use of these resources to others in your community.

Push Local Leaders To Become Civility Advocates - Most leaders welcome the role of bringing people together. You can push your local community elected representatives and many others who play leadership roles in your community to speak out against polarization, vilification, and the related sentiments having such a corrosive effect on communities. This is a moral issue, and it is the responsibility of community leaders to model behaviors and leadership styles based on positive and unifying community values. "Let's work together more effectively" should be the rallying cry of leaders everywhere. But, like everyone else, leaders often need to be reminded of the values they are expected to embody. Once reminded, they should be encouraged to be brave and speak out.

Support Public Education Clarifying What Makes Self-Government Work - Advocacy is needed on behalf of history and civics curricula and adult focused public education that explains the role of compromise and the interplay of norms of restraint and temperance in American political life and history. We need a national discussion about the practices of successful self-government.

Community Envisioning - Many advocates of greater cooperation have found that long-term community planning or participatory visioning processes can promote helpful exchanges across divisions and thus promote greater unity. Such exercises can also inflame divisions, so they should be undertaken thoughtfully and with expert assistance.

Community & Trust Building Initiatives - Individuals can directly engage community antagonisms and divisions with the intention of reducing hostilities and promoting constructive discussion of divisive issues. Don't try this at home, kids. Seriously, seek experts to consult, advise and assist if you want to take this on. Done poorly, such efforts can do more harm than good.

Published: July 2019
Revised: June 2023

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