In August 2022, I (Peter) received an invitation from the Mitch McConnell Center in Louisville, Kentucky, to visit for a few days and work with their 40 undergraduate McConnell Scholars on bipartisanship. Frankly, I was a bit shocked to receive this request. A progressive-leaning Democrat, I was triggered by the Center’s namesake, and felt immediately suspicious, picturing the snare-trap screaming matches I had seen set on Tucker Carlson’s show on FOX. Nevertheless, after a few days of highly-ambivalent consideration, I agreed to attend. (As a professed “bridge-builder,” it would be hypocritical for me to decline.)
Despite the nausea I experienced on my flight down South, I was ultimately stunned by what I found. There, in the center of the University of Louisville, which I discovered to be a bastion of progressivism, was the thriving McConnell Center, founded by the one and only former Republican Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. Its establishment at the University had been roundly resisted by faculty across the campus and local media at the time of its founding in 1991—and continues to draw protest—but the University President at the time overruled them and instituted the Center under his own auspices. More importantly, I was warmly welcomed by the Director of the Center, Gary Gregg, and found the group of students there highly diverse in race, religion, ethnicity, and political ideology, and generally eager to learn from the liberal likes of a Columbia Professor.
The hard truth about America today is that Red and Blue Americans need each other desperately. As outlined in a recent World Bank Group report, our nation is today facing multiple, overlapping and compounding global crises, which quite simply require all hands on deck. Despite the calls by 41% of Biden voters and 52% of Trump voters for their states to secede from the Union to form their own separate country, it’s just not happening (like many divorcing families, we simply can’t afford to separate).
One of the worst consequences of our current political climate is the spike in feelings of alienation many of us are experiencing in our relationships with family members, neighbors, former friends, and coworkers who differ from us politically. Today, over half of Americans report struggling with such tense divisions in their own families.
We found this increase in estrangement to be a pervasive problem when we piloted our Political Courage Challenge last summer. Most of our group had absolutely no one in their networks on the other side of the divide that they felt they could reach out to and speak with. Others did know people across the chasm, but when they reached out, they were either completely ignored by them or immediately rebuffed—a rather demoralizing experience.
So, the final two weeks of our Political Courage Challenge focus on finding ways to help the left and right in the U.S. come together – both in talk and action. Week 3 prepares us to speak with others across our divide—to hear them and be heard by them, while Week 4 offers pathways to build on these connections and engage in bipartisan groups to begin to address shared community concerns. We have found this one-two combination of bipartisan dialogue and action to be a mighty force. Here’s some examples of how we approached it:
Breaking up with our love of blame
If you are like us, your day is riddled with minor incidents of blame and harsh judgment. We often find ourselves criticizing others for double parking, riding recklessly on a bike, or gossiping loudly on a cell phone. Don’t even get us started about our reactions to inane political comments from the extreme wings. To some degree, this is related to our current addiction to blame and outrage, which is reinforced daily in our neural circuitry and is a central driver of the vicious cycle of polarization we are trapped in. Regardless, hair-trigger blame makes it harder to listen to and hear others.
So, we began by taking the Blame Intensity Inventory, a short survey that presents potentially blameful scenarios and explores how extreme our tendencies to blame others are currently. Higher scores on this survey have been found to be associated with more hostile responses to perceived offenders, as well as higher levels of “malicious satisfaction,” or gratification upon learning that an offender has suffered gratuitous harm.
Peter: It was no surprise that I found blame to be a strong habit for me. I feel hard-wired for it today. After I took the Blame Inventory I journaled, “I reacted very differently to each of the scenarios, depending on my assumptions of mitigating factors. However, this was an intellectual exercise. Had I been in a high physiological state of arousal for each (triggered), my responses would have been harsher across the board.” So, for the rest of the day, I carried paper and pen with me and made a check mark each time I became aware of blaming others for acts big and small. The final tally was 43 moments of blame—that I was aware of!
Navigating our reactions to tense political conversations
When you find yourself in a tense political conversation, do you dig into it or run away? Do you tend to present facts and figures to make your case or mostly rely on your passion for the issues? Do you tend to shut down and stonewall when others disagree or find yourself running on and on about your sense of the matter?
These days, you’d have to be crazy not to get a bit anxious when engaging in conversation with opponents on the other team. Studies have found that experiencing higher levels of anxiety makes us more inclined to experience or instigate conflict, and being engaged in conflict, in turn, tends to make most of us feel even more anxious. When this happens, many of us respond to disputes in more extreme and harmful ways, which can place additional stress on our relationships. But being somewhat aware of our tendencies in these situations can help. So, next we completed the Conflict Anxiety Response Scale (CARS), and then reflected a bit on how we tend to react to political differences that make us uneasy.
Pearce: Tense political conversations create an edgy internal struggle for me. I fight to maintain a posture of curiosity against my inclination to judgement and intellectual critique. I try my best to embrace the stress as a personal challenge, a test to pass. When I succeed, the insights gained from curious questions and the deepened connection with another person are a fantastic reward. When I fail, I miss out on that reward, continue to sit in heightened anxiety, and feel more estranged from people I care about.
Peter: I go right into my head in triggering political discussions, and look vigilantly for flaws in the logic of my opponent’s argument. However, I am also often sitting on and waiting to unleash a torrent of righteous indignation—a “Got you!” feeling. At some point, if we hit a stalemate, I often shut down, stonewall, and look to exit the conversation (and sometimes the relationship) altogether. This is exactly what I encourage others not to do, but are hard tendencies for me to shake.
Research has found that moving physically in sync with others—ideally outside in nature and side by side—can help us forge deeper social bonds than merely sitting and speaking together. This can be particularly helpful when the conflict you are stuck in seems to have settled into your brain pathways, which makes it harder to even consider the other person’s point of view (such as a pro-Trump versus never-Trump conversation). The neurological rewiring effects of physical activity enacted with another person have been found in research with everything from marching bands and sports teams to dance groups and combat units. People seem to connect more deeply when physically moving together.
Peter: I did exactly this last summer with a neighbor of mine—an ardent Donald Trump-enthusiast—when I asked him to go for a walk with me in the park. Although we had lived in the same building for more than a decade and had often shared pleasantries with one another, all of the friendly conversation ended abruptly in 2016 when he shared his infatuation with Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.
I tried my best to hear him out while we walked. Despite some pre-meeting stomach problems, I found that moving together outside, side-by-side, with my neighbor helped me to be able to hear and better understand the context and history of his opinions. I recommend this highly as I found that moving in sync together outside helped both of us open up more to each other’s experience in a way that had felt impossible before in the confines of our building.
Dismantling the incentives that divide us
When we speak with groups around the country today about depolarizing our nation, we often face hard questions about the deeper sources of our divisions: “Isn’t this all really driven by money—spiraling economic inequality, the selfish business models of social media, and greed in politics?” “What about the fact that this country was built on slavery and white supremacy, which has never been adequately addressed?” “Isn’t it true that the disinformation campaigns run by bots from Russia, Iran, and China are making our hate of one another?”
They have a point.
One of the hardest truths about America’s current state of pernicious polarization is that many of its main drivers are hard to know how to affect. These include the business models of most major social media platforms that intentionally sort us into partisan tribes and prey on our sense of outrage for profit; the politicization and entertainmentization of many of our large news media outlets that seem to value attention-grabbing and market share over accurate, ethical reporting; the high-stakes, winner-takes-all forms of partisan politics that result in a cult-like “party over country” mentality; and the devastating effects of decades of runaway inequality in America that has left countless citizens feeling excluded, abandoned, ridiculed, and so enraged that they’d rather tear down our institutions than try to reform them. We will never escape the grip of such a system of forces through civil conversation alone.
The good news today is that there are a great many “bridge-building” organizations across the U.S. – about 8000 – that are working with bipartisan groups to point citizens in the direction of tackling these divisive incentive structures. Typically, they begin with cross-partisan dialogue (not political debate!) in order to establish a baseline of understanding and interpersonal trust, but then move on to identifying shared concerns in the group, and even to mobilizing the groups to take action to address the larger sources of the problems. Groups like Hope in the Cities, Essential Partners, Search for Common Ground, and countless others offer this “dialogue to problem to action” approach. Others work in different sectors to address the drivers of polarization, such as Solutions Journalism, which works to depolarize news reporting, and Convergence, who works in the business sector and with congressional staffers and legislators on The Hill to do the same.
Even in Congress, the bipartisan Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress has been working for the last two years to offer recommendations on how to dismantle the culture of disdain, dysfunction and division we have been witnessing spike in D.C. This committee ultimately offered House leadership over 100 recommendations for structural changes to bring down partisan enmity in Congress—such as the proposal that they stop the long-standing practice of sending first-year congresspeople off to participate in “war councils” against each other’s parties—before they even meet with those on the other side!
In a similar vein, the Political Courage Challenge encourages us all to join bridging initiatives to help address our divisions today. It recommends choosing a polarizing civic issue that concerns us, learning more about the issue from reliable sources, and then locating and engaging with bipartisan groups working to make a difference. We have been doing so by working with others on the right and left to help bolster and grow a vast bridging movement across hundreds of politically diverse organizations throughout our nation.
America has a long road to travel to dismantle the many incentives that divide us and mend the harms and hate that are real. Fortunately, there is a vast and growing community of pro-America bridge builders hard at work strategizing about bringing our nation into better alignment. It will take all of us across the political spectrum navigating through our many differences—if we can learn to tolerate them—to together forge a more perfect union. Join us.
Nonprofits Starts With Us, the Listen First Coalition and the Bridging Movement Alignment Council are together employing the Political Courage Challenge as preparation in the run-up to The National Week of Conversation. Follow this link to learn more.