Extreme polarization does not just make for unpleasant Thanksgiving dinners with relatives who don’t see eye to eye on politics. A growing body of evidence has shown that polarization and tribalism can weaken the very foundations of democracy. It seems like almost every day an op-ed appears lamenting that the United States is the most divided it's ever been. Whether or not this is true is beside the point. One need only to look at the gridlock that has seized the highly partisan Congress to see that there are, in effect, two Americas: one red, one blue.
But focusing only on the negative news about polarization can lead to demoralization and a sense of helplessness. Even if you are concerned or passionate about politics, hearing only about what’s going wrong can make you feel discouraged. Therefore, the stories in this collection highlight solutions to the issue of social and political polarization. Members of American civil society are not waiting for Congress to bridge the divide; these stories represent instances where citizens are able to break down partisan divides and reconnect on a human level, showing something so simple, yet so powerful: a willingness to talk.
Click here for more stories in the Solutions Story Tracker on Democracy.
- With one of your own communities in mind (school, church, hometown) consider some dominant structural drivers of polarization. You might begin with "gerrymandering;" define the term and discuss how it contributes to political polarization.
- After reading the piece by David D. Haynes about bridging the red and blue divide, explain the motivations behind the founding of the nonprofit organization Civil Politics. Explain the goals, tactics, and challenges that have characterized the organization’s work. Can you identify other groups or organizations that work to promote civil discourse? Does your university engage in any such actions? If not, is this model something that could potentially work at your school or university?
- Now, let's consider the interpersonal and social factors that fuel polarization in politics. Can you find different causes when you examine tension between two individuals versus two groups in your selected community? For example, consider the role of media filter bubbles. What are they and what is their significance?
- Choose an Issue Area or a Success Factor related to decreasing polarization. Then, create a collection and select at least 4 (or more) stories from the Solution’s Story Tracker that relate to your topic. If working in groups, each group can present on the issues and solutions they found most compelling.
- Journalism is a collaborative practice: reporters are writing for their community, but they also depend on community members as sources for information. Indeed, the very purpose of journalism, according to the American Press Institute, is to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies, and their governments. With that in mind, SJN wants to help connect news readers and journalists. Beside the name of the journalist on any of our story pages or the results page of the Solutions Story Tracker, you’ll find a Twitter icon that will link you directly to the journalists profile. Tweet at them with questions or compliments about their piece - you might be surprised by how much writers want to engage with their audiences! Don’t forget to tag us too (@soljourno) and use the hashtag #journalistintheclassroom if you are reading as part of an academic assignment.
- “Gerrymandering” refers to the process of drawing district lines in a way that gives favor or advantage to one political party over another. Gerrymandering can be done along partisan lines, aiming to reduce the influence of one political party over another. This can be achieved by “packing” opponents into a smaller number of districts, or by “cracking,” which spreads a small amount of voters from the opposing side across many districts, diluting their influence. Racial gerrymandering, in particular, refers to gerrymandering in which districts are drawn to reduce or prevent a minority community from gaining representation. To familiarize students with the process of gerrymandering, you may wish to have them engage with this simplified simulation: found here. In addition to skewing political representation and reducing the public’s faith in the fairness of the political process, gerrymandering along partisan lines also makes it less likely that representatives will have consider diverse viewpoints or moderate their views to appeal to a diverse pool of constituents. Having districts that are largely ideologically homogeneous, therefore, increases political polarization by reducing the need to compromise and moderate viewpoints in political campaigns.
- Political polarization and the idea of confirmation bias suggests that individuals will seek out and agree with information that aligns with their pre-existing beliefs. The algorithms that drive user experience on social media platforms tend to play into individual confirmation biases by favoring content that a user is more likely to find favorable and agreeable, based on their observed habits. Read more here.
- Civil Politics is a non-profit organization founded about a decade ago by academics interested in reducing the volatility of political discussion. According to the article, Civil Politics aims to “Build relations with people who think differently and emphasize cooperative versus competitive goals.” In sum, building trust among different groups of people facilitates understanding and promotes productive discourse. Civil Politics helps by conducting research and advising organizations about the best practices to facilitate discussion—for instance, motivating people to “schmooze” at events with food. Another organization, the Zeidler Center, employs methods such as “listening circles.” Once people engage in facilitated discussions, they tend to feel more open and understanding; however, roadblocks remain when it comes to getting people interested in the first place. Surveys show that many are reluctant to engage with those who hold opposing viewpoints. Educators should encourage students to participate, or organize, a facilitated discussion at their school or university. If such an organization is already doing work at your institution, encourage students to learn more and participate. See also, Civilpolitics.org
- In addition to party affiliation, biases also characterize relationships between law enforcement and communities of color in the United States. Students can discuss the impact that recent discussions of implicit bias, especially as demonstrated by law enforcement officials, have had on the tone of discourse in the US. Have students consider the argument made in the article, that the characteristics that define relations between communities of color and law enforcement are not exactly the same as the characteristics that define relations between predominantly white communities and those of color.
- Answers will vary—for more on creating collections, click here. For more on Success Factors, click here.