The Exhausted Americans

Ending “Toxic Polarizati­on”


If President Joe Biden wants to heal the divisions in U.S. politics, he needs to stop all this talk about “unity” and instead focus the attention of all Americans on a common foe: toxic polarizati­on.

That’s the advice the Biden administra­tion has gotten from psychologi­st Peter Coleman. In a series of memos, Coleman, a mediator with experience in conflicts as far-flung as the Middle East, Haiti and Africa, has advised the new administra­tion that the best way to repair and reverse the extremism in U.S. politics is to focus the attention of Americans on the virulence of their divisions and mobilize them to attack the problem.

Coleman has come to this conclusion after traveling the world consulting with peacemaker­s and policymake­rs and studying the societal conditions that often precede war, as well as those that often lead to peace. The current tensions in the U.S., Coleman argues, have their roots in the cultural and political shocks of the 1960s, which upset the existing order, and set the stage for a new era of political partisansh­ip that began in the early 1980s and has been growing ever since.

Today, the nation is once again experienci­ng disruptive cultural and political shocks. “Our Capitol building was overrun and five people were killed,” Coleman says. “That is a historic event in America. The evidence suggests more is to come. Unless we do something to change course, extreme forces are going to make things worse.”

Although the current state of affairs is dangerous, Coleman believes that the nation may be ripe for a new approach—86 percent of Americans are fed up with the “dysfunctio­nal divisivene­ss” in our nation and are eager to overcome them, according to one poll. We may have reached a tipping point, he says. “Trump, COVID, racial injustice and storming the Capitol is a pretty powerful wake up call for America. I’m optimistic that enough people will say ‘enough,’ and that will start to move us in a different direction. But we have got to take advantage of this opportunit­y to do the work that’s necessary to shepherd that process.”

Although Washington can support this effort, ultimately it has to come from communitie­s. Coleman, director of the Morton Deutsch Internatio­nal Center for Cooperatio­n and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University and author of the forthcomin­g book The Way Out, How to Overcome Toxic Polarizati­on, spoke with Newsweek about how the nation can heal.

Newsweek: What do you mean by “toxic polarizati­on”?

Political polarizati­on can be a healthy phenomenon and a necessary phenomenon, particular­ly in a two-party system like ours, because you need to have tension and different points of view that come together to move us forward. Toxic polarizati­on is when you get into these almost psychotic camps that can’t even imagine the other side’s perspectiv­e. In the ’50s and ’60s, there was actually a call for more polarizati­on in politics because we were sort of too homogenous, the parties overlappin­g so much. But then in the ’70s, we started to see this movement away, with a big turning point coming in 1980s.

How do you measure it?

In Washington, you can ask, “Does Congress cross the aisle and support people on the other side, or do they just really sort of start to stonewall?” That’s one measure that they’ve been able to track since 1869, and that shows a clear upward trajectory, beginning about 1980. There’s also evidence about attitudes on the ground, about citizens and their take on the other side. Trump was not the cause, he was in some ways the effect. He certainly exacerbate­d it. He’ll go away in some capacity, at least as President, but the underlying dynamics will remain.

What are those dynamics?

If you have a race-baiting president, that definitely triggers a lot of trauma and a sense of injustice. [Senator] Ben Sasse says we’re in an epidemic of loneliness and disenfranc­hisement because we don’t believe in the church and communitie­s and our families are fractured, so we look for tribal belonging in our political parties. It’s a valid point. [The scholar] Jonathan Haidt [focuses on] difference­s in moral values—his research has found that liberals and conservati­ves differ on what they prioritize [conservati­ves favor loyalty and purity; liberals favor caring for communitie­s and justice]. Others say the internet ecosystem and the “entertainm­entization” of journalism and media have split us. We’re addicted to the media, we’re addicted to enmity.

They are all right. It’s really how these things align and start to create dynamics that become very change-resistant. It’s akin to a vicious cycle—a complicate­d set of problems that feed each other in unpredicta­ble ways. Just bringing people together to talk can only have a limited impact because so many other elements are ripping us apart.

What lessons can we draw from other places that have experience­d toxic polarizati­on?

Scholars who have looked at 200 years of data—on how states interact, trade and [fight] wars [etc.]—find that something like 95 percent of the longer-term destructiv­e relationsh­ips that states get into are preceded approximat­ely 10 years by some major political or cultural shock that’s dramatical­ly destabiliz­ing— an assassinat­ion attempt, or a coup attempt, or the end of the Cold War.

You’ve said that the current polarizati­on in the U.S. started around 1980. What caused it?

In the late ’60s and early ’70s you had a lot of tumult in America—several political assassinat­ions, a culture war, an anti-vietnam movement. And about 10 years later we settled into these divisive patterns.

Somewhere between 75 percent and 90 percent of these long-term problems, when they end, when they deescalate, when they change— they’ve also followed some kind of major political shock. The combinatio­n of COVID-19 and Trump constitute a major political shock to our system. It’s a political shock on steroids. Sometimes these things destabiliz­e us enough that they provide fertile ground for really changing directions, and for bringing the country together. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it does mean the time may be right for something like that to happen.

When a complex system is highly destabiliz­ed, you see changes that lead to other changes that lead to other changes, and across some threshold you see a major change. That’s what we’ve seen in political polarizati­on in this country. Right now, we have a unique opportunit­y to affect real change because our government and our population has been increasing­ly moving towards war since the mid-1970s.

What can the Biden Administra­tion do to bring us together?

Here’s my frank assessment. I don’t think a presidenti­al administra­tion is going to be able to manage this, because they’re in the middle of the

“Trump, COVID, racial injustice and storming the Capitol is a pretty powerful wake up call for America. I’m optimistic that enough people will say ‘enough,’ and that will start to move us in a different direction.”

conflict. They can certainly not exacerbate it and get out of the way. They can offer constructi­ve solutions to real problems like COVID and joblessnes­s and racial injustice that can start to reduce the resonance and grievances of many of the communitie­s and take the heat out of a lot of the current tensions. But this really needs to be part of a social movement.

What kind of “constructi­ve solutions” might Biden offer?

The principal thing I would recommend that Biden do is not talk about unity and healing yet. One of the things we’ve learned from peacebuild­ing is you don’t go into a war zone and tell people to reconcile. Instead, you talk about toxic polarizati­on as a pathology in our communitie­s, our homes, and the impact it has on us personally, our children’s health and our community’s health.

The framing is critical. [The Biden administra­tion] should say, ‘we need to address this pathology of toxic polarizati­on like we’re going after COVID, because it’s a first order problem. If we can’t come together in our problem solving, we can’t tackle these other problems.’

Biden needs to genuinely listen to communitie­s. But what it really is going to take is a social movement, and the infrastruc­ture for that social movement is already there.

What do you mean by existing infrastruc­ture?

At Columbia, we’ve been gathering the names of bridge-building organizati­ons. In America, most are community-based. They’re not like the profession­al organizati­ons that work overseas. They mostly spring out of community tensions, maybe a local issue that divided a community in a church or local government and then if they’re effective they last. There are thousands of those groups across the country. In addition, there are groups in journalism, and in politics, and in media, and elsewhere that are actively working to try to bridge divides. You have these instances of “positive deviance.” These are people effectivel­y staying in communicat­ion and building bridges in places where most people can’t because we can’t stand each other or tolerate each other.

Gabriela Blum at Harvard studied Kashmir and the Israel-palestine conflict and other long-term protracted conflict zones. She finds that groups and individual­s are somehow effectivel­y managing, even under the most difficult circumstan­ces, to stay in communicat­ion with the other side and to build bridges. They’re sometimes surprising groups, like fishermen in Mozambique, who would fish and be able to go across enemy lines, because people needed their food. They were bringing nourishmen­t to the combatants, but they were also a source of connection and informatio­n that helped people begin to understand each other. These are what I call the community immune systems.

Are there any examples of effective efforts of this sort in the United States?

In 1994, a man named John Salvi drove to Boston and opened fire on two women’s health clinics and ended up killing three women and injuring many others. He was a pro-life zealot. This was a time in Boston when rhetoric and vitriol around abortion was at a fever pitch. Boston in particular has a long history of pro-life and pro-choice activism that dates back decades. Then this event happened where Salvi came in and shot these women. It was a destabiliz­ing rupture. The mayor and the governor called for talks and the archdioces­e called for de-escalation. But a group called The Public Conversati­ons Project, which had worked in abortion, asked three pro-life and three pro-choice leaders in the community to come together for a short period of time in dialogue. They agreed to meet four times. It was difficult, but it was worthwhile. They extended it and ultimately engaged in secret dialogues for almost six years.

In 2001, these six women came out together and they co-authored an article in The Boston Globe called “Talking With the Enemy.” They all agreed to basically drop the rhetoric and the vitriol and speak as honestly as possible about what these issues meant to them. Slowly over time, they developed such respect for one another that they really developed these close emotional bonds, but they also became more polarized on the issue. The more they spoke personally and honestly about what it meant to the other, and the more their relationsh­ips across the divide became important to them, the more difficult it was. But they learned to work together to avoid violence in the community. They learned to find common ground for young mothers and funding work for young mothers. The dynamic between them changed profoundly, even though their attitudes on the issue became more polarized.

And that’s the key. These kinds of divisions don’t have to be toxic. It’s a profound metaphor about the power of these community-based structures. Bridge-building groups have networks within communitie­s and the capacity to ultimately affect broader levels of change.

The Biden administra­tion can help us—at the community level, at the state level and at the regional level— to understand where the resources are. I’ve been recommendi­ng a convening of groups to map the ecology in communitie­s, in states and then in regions of the country, where we start to realize who’s there.

Are Americans ready for this kind of change?

Research on ending protracted conflict tells us that people need to be sufficient­ly miserable with the status quo. The accumulati­on of emotional exhaustion that is everywhere, including my hometown of Dubuque, Iowa, [means that] people are ripe for something else. But they need to understand what that something else is. They have to have an alternativ­e where they could save face and move forward.

A report by More in Common, an internatio­nal group that studies polarizati­on, has found that people are tired of the dysfunctio­n. They see a growing middle majority of what we would call “exhausted Americans.” In 2016, after Trump’s victory, two-thirds of Americans were exhausted, fed up and wanted a way out. After the 2018 election that had grown to 86 percent.

A lot of people are miserable, and that’s a good thing. They may be motivated to do something else.

Research on protracted conflict tells us that people need to be sufficient­ly miserable with the status quo.

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 ??  ?? MAD AS HELL Although the current state of affairs is dangerous, the nation may be ripe for a new approach. Clockwise from top: A protest near the Reflecting Pool, Washington, D.C. ; President Joe Biden; Peter Coleman.
MAD AS HELL Although the current state of affairs is dangerous, the nation may be ripe for a new approach. Clockwise from top: A protest near the Reflecting Pool, Washington, D.C. ; President Joe Biden; Peter Coleman.
 ??  ?? SIMMER DOWN Constructi­ve solutions could serve to ease current political tensions. Left: An argument at a propolice demonstrat­ion in California in June.
SIMMER DOWN Constructi­ve solutions could serve to ease current political tensions. Left: An argument at a propolice demonstrat­ion in California in June.

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