How do we create social cohesion but still maintain the strength of our diversity?
How do we break down the barriers of tribal partisan identity that are dividing our country?
What does mass depolarization look like?
There are smart people from many disciplines grappling with these questions. Over the past year I’ve been scouring their writings and talks, looking for potential solutions and clarity on where my line of work – community-driven placemaking – fits in.
Specific or actionable solutions have been hard to find. It has astonished me at how many smart people offer insightful analysis, but kick-the-can with what to do about it.
For example, Ezra Klein’s terrific book Why We Are Polarized is one of the best summaries of America’s current condition, but Klein gives admittedly precursory treatment to potential solutions.
C’mon now. Social fragmentation and polarization deserve our urgent problem-solving attention. We need to be grappling with this challenge, identifying solutions that work, and scaling-up those strategies.
So I have unearthed some solutions that I would like to share here.
For the moment let’s put aside political or structural solutions, like eliminating the filibuster or implementing ranked choice voting. These technical fixes, while important, are the branches and leaves of the problem. We should direct our gaze at the roots.
The solutions I have found generally settle into three groups.
First, many suggest that the solution is to look inwards. That we need to cultivate compassion, empathy, curiosity, and gratitude in our hearts first. For example, if we were just kinder or more civil with each other, or we knew how to have better arguments, we could cross over the chasms that divide us and create a more cohesive society.
I admit that these ideas resonate with me. As a practicing Zen Buddhist, my teachings draw a clear line between the state of our inner world and the outer world. As that almost cliched Ghandi quote goes: “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”
However, although I believe there is a place for this inward work, I am skeptical of its efficacy at this point and time for our country.
Hasn’t this essentially been the aspiration of every major religious and spiritual movement for, er, millennia? Can we really expect a mass kumba-ya to save us?
A second group of solutions point to some tipping point of social issues or events that will help us abandon our differences for a common cause. Such “superordinate goals” could encourage us to see each other as human beings, not as competing tribes.
For example, Robert Putnam in his latest book, The Upswing, outlines how the social urgency of the 1920s progressive movement shepherded us out of a similarly polarized era.
Or, as has happened in other failing democracies, an intervention of some external force provides the impetus. Perhaps an act of war on American soil would do the trick? Or an alien invasion that unites humankind?
Sadly, I believe we are beyond a point where a superordinate goal would suffice to reverse our trajectory. Case in point: could there be a more pressing collective threat than climate change or Covid? If that isn’t doing the trick, I’m not sure what will.
And although I am looking forward to one day making contact with aliens, I’m not willing to wait around for some uniting external force to descend upon our shores. Or risk a Reichstag event.
The third and final group of solutions is the most promising.
These solutions are rooted in social psychology and directly address how we are wired to sort people into groups and how this is linked to our social identities. Polarization has put these human processes on steroids, hardening and antagonizing the differences between us.
The most compelling concept is Intergroup Contact Theory, developed in the 1950’s by psychologist Gordon Allport, and studied, tested and revised through hundreds of subsequent studies.
According to Contact Theory, the right social interactions can soften the hardened boundaries of our group identities. It can reduce prejudice and open us up to new emotional connections and ideas with people who are “other” to us.
Contact Theory takes four conditions to work. Differing groups must be: (1) of equal status who (2) are working towards common goals with (3) no competition between them and (4) the support or relevant authorities.
In application, Contact Theory is the real physical action of meeting face-to-face and working together towards a greater goal. It means putting people in the same room to tackle shared problems or generate a better future.
The greatest opportunity to apply Contact Theory is the places where we live – our neighborhoods. That’s where we share common ground with so many different people.
Neighbor-level action also addresses the root causes of our polarization and division, namely a long-term deterioration of social connection, belonging and trust.
Together we can build our collective self-esteem, generate bottom-up economic prosperity, and create new-narratives of community success. With that foundation underneath, people are less likely to look for meaning and belonging by turning to online groups, conspiracy theories, or political extremism.
Although audacious, it’s perfectly possible to scale-up the application of Contact Theory. Look around and I am sure you will see a zillion opportunities.
Plus there is untapped motivation to put this into action. For example, a recent study in the UK revealed that 60% of people are willing to work together to improve their neighborhood, but only 3% ever do.
If we can loosen the grip of our polarized and divisive culture by working towards new local futures, we will introduce new social identities that cut across our partition political ones: