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Can we talk?

To fight polarization, groups try the simple, painstaking process of talking it out

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Can we talk?
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A socialist, an independent, and a libertarian walked into a bar. Not a bar, actually—a fluorescent-lit Washington, D.C., conference room in November 2017. And not just the three of them—about a dozen people under age 45, wearing business casual and name tags, with backgrounds ranging from Ohio born to a Turkish immigrant, Christians and Muslims, a Trump campaign volunteer and a progressive who identified as bisexual.

The group pushed the conference room’s swivel chairs into groups of three or four. Over a dinner of wraps and cut fruit plus a few beers and a bottle of wine, they discussed economics, immigration, gun control, abortion, politics.

Ran Liu, an education technology researcher who leans liberal and co-hosted the dinner, came in eager to hear from people with differing views but was still surprised by a basic realization: “These are smart people; they’re educated people. They just believe something really different than me.”

The dinner was one in a series hosted across the country by Make America Dinner Again, a group inspired by the contentious 2016 presidential election to bring diverse people together for a meal and guided conversation about fraught topics.

MADA is just one of several groups trying to tackle America’s growing polarization by helping people talk across differences. They focus on creating opportunities to talk without fighting, to break down barriers of dislike and mistrust, rather than on finding policy compromises. The method takes many volunteer hours and doesn’t always produce clear results, but research suggests these meetings in dining rooms, Zoom rooms, and church sanctuaries can be crucial steps toward fighting politics-driven hatred.

Political polarization is nothing new in the U.S. Members of Republican and Democratic parties have grown more ideologically homogeneous—a 2014 Pew Research study found the share of Americans who express consistently conservative or liberal opinions, instead of a blend, had doubled in the previous two decades.

In 2017, Pew reported the average partisan gap in support for policy statements—“the government should do more to help the needy,” for instance—had increased from a 15 percentage point gap in 1994 to a 36-point gap. Congressional Republicans have moved right and Democrats left for decades, Pew confirmed in March.

Political polarization in the sense of policy and ideology differences isn’t necessarily bad. It reflects genuine disagreement between citizens, contributes to more participation in elections and other aspects of the democratic process, and creates opportunity for real policy change. Instead, it’s a narrower type of polarization that has researchers sounding the alarm: affective polarization, a person’s dislike, fear, and even hatred of members of other political parties.

And affective polarization is also on the rise. Pew in 2017 reported about 45 percent of voters from both parties had very unfavorable opinions of the other party, up from less than 20 percent in 1994. In a 2021 study of growing affective polarization, Brown University researchers theorized that growing racial and religious homogeneity in each party may be playing a role, along with the growth of partisan cable news. Americans have also sorted geographically, red zip codes getting redder and blue zip codes bluer, which makes it easier for voters to never rub shoulders with members of the opposite party.

The internet and social media affect polarization, too. The Brown researchers ruled them out as the sole cause because some countries with widespread internet and social media use have grown less polarized as the U.S. grew more so. But an analysis of more than 50 studies and 40 expert interviews by the Brookings Institution, a centrist think tank, concluded that while Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media don’t cause polarization, their algorithms and echo chambers do exacerbate it.

Churches can also become one-party gatherings, or run into conflict when different political parties share a pew. Rick Barry became a Christian in college and began working for campaigns shortly after. Over time, he realized Christianity could speak to hyperpartisanship.

“Parties and figures and activist movements … are frequently framing themselves or the issues they work on in ways that were designed to get people to freak out,” Barry said. “I’m translating loosely here, but Jesus has repeated commands not to freak out.”

So he co-founded the Center for Christian Civics to help churches battling polarization. During COVID-19, CCC paused its in-person workshops and its plans to bring together different churches—a Pentecostal church from Brooklyn, a Presbyterian church from Iowa—for practice conversations.

But CCC has continued six-week workshops that walk participants through topics like witness in the public square, Biblical analysis of representative government, and the pitfalls of responding to politics with separatism or extremism. Barry hopes graduates leave able to recognize where politics has shaped them and their churches and instead let their faith drive how they respond to politics and people in opposing parties.

Churches have the advantage of shared faith to establish common ground, but even nonreligious groups like MADA emphasize participants should come to dinner ready to listen, with the goal of humanizing political opponents. At one dinner, Liu met a National Rifle Association volunteer.

“This was like the first time in my life that I had been in a room or in a conversation with somebody who was really pro-gun rights,” Liu said. She supports strong gun control. “I had nothing against him as a person, and I remember being very surprised by the cognitive dissonance of that.”

Other anti-polarization organizations go even further, carefully training participants to let go of the idea that they’ll change others’ minds. On a Saturday afternoon in February, a group of conservatives logged on to Zoom for a workshop called “Being Red in a Blue Environment.” They talked about the stress of living in heavily Democratic areas or talking to liberal relatives.

The moderator emphasized that they should abandon expectations that they’ll persuade their relatives and coached them on affirming points of agreement, asking for permission to share conflicting thoughts, and gently removing themselves if they felt uncomfortable with a conversation. They practiced neutral statements—“Washington is really a mess these days”—and positive ways to state their beliefs.

The slideshow featured pictures of eagles and Ronald Reagan. During snack breaks in the three-hour workshop, the moderator played songs featuring banjos and bipartisan lyrics: “It ain’t about right and left; it’s about right and wrong.”

The workshop was just one of the blur of events put on by Braver Angels, which started after the 2016 presidential election with 10 Donald Trump supporters and 11 Hillary Clinton supporters meeting up in Ohio. It now lists 25 leadership members on its website, but many more volunteer or part-time moderators and coordinators help lead workshops and other activities like book and film clubs. Braver Angels focuses first on fighting affective polarization, but does touch on policy common ground.

Workshops offer training on talking to family members, combating internal affective polarization, and finding common ground on topics like climate change or abortion. A recent workshop invited Jewish Braver Angels members from the right and left to collaborate on a shared definition of anti-Semitism and how to counteract it. Braver Angels calls its members “reds” or “blues” to acknowledge political binaries without pinning people to specific party names.

Braver Angels ensures it has equal numbers of leaders from the right and left, but it has more participants from the left. Casey Jorgensen, a Republican from Utah, is a part-time Braver Angels employee but spoke from her experience as a participant. Her husband and mother, also conservatives, are leery of Braver Angels. Jorgensen suggested that more conservatives than liberals hear “find common ground” as a call to compromise their beliefs. For Jorgensen, it means recognizing values like compassion that she shares with liberals even when they disagree on how it should look in policy.

She also theorized that conservatives are reluctant to join because they doubt liberals will listen to them or that it will matter if they do.

“A lot of reds are angry. They feel like they’ve been suppressed, and they’re not even allowed to talk without being canceled. If things don’t go their way politically, they’re at risk of losing their faith, family, and freedom,” Jorgensen said. “And then they hear a blue saying ‘let’s come have a nice chat about it,’ and they’re like—are you kidding me?”

Braver Angels has tried a few tactics to balance its membership, both between conservatives and liberals and among various educational levels and races. It has an internal group called Angels of Color where nonwhite members can support each other and the Red Caucus for conservative participants. A Red Focus Group tackles recruiting, and Braver Angels has run booths at conservative conventions.

Braver Angels also added debates to its workshop lineup, hoping they would attract conservatives reluctant to attend workshops focused on feelings. At a February Zoom debate about whether teachers should be banned from discussing history and current events through the lens of systemic racism and white privilege, participants one by one made their case for or against a ban and asked questions of other speakers.

The discussion at times slipped to include other topics like fatherlessness, charter schools, and anti-Semitism, and participants argued from different definitions of terms like critical race theory. But attendee Heather Fleming, who runs an equity training business, said it was less confrontational than she expected. Fleming said she would attend another similar event but acknowledged, “I’m not sure if any minds were changed.”

With trained moderators carefully guiding conversations and no expectation that minds will be changed, Braver Angels and similar groups could seem like a lot of work for no results. They tend to attract participants already interested in hearing from the other side. And some research suggests that contact with political opponents, at least on social media, can make people’s political views more extreme, not less.

But there’s also research suggesting that positive personal connection does reduce affective polarization, and so creates space for productive policy discussion. For a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers showed participants a social media profile featuring their common ground with an opponent—a shared favorite sports team, for example—and found that participants shown the profiles were more willing to consider political stances presented by the other person.

I want to be a part of a generation that won’t be chastised for dropping the ball.

Just talking with a political opponent about a nonpolitical topic can have similar positive effects. Stanford and Berkeley researchers paired political opposites for video meeting discussions of randomly assigned topics. Those who discussed nonpolitical topics reversed two decades’ worth of affective polarization. That progress vanished in a follow-up poll, so the researchers noted that a one-off conversation isn’t enough to reduce affective polarization long term.

Still, a conversation can grow into more: Ran Liu recalls bonding at a MADA dinner with a libertarian over their shared love of The Bachelor TV franchise. They became Facebook friends and attended social outings together.

So far, these groups’ efforts haven’t reversed the polarization trend. The 2016 presidential election that inspired several of these groups to form was followed by an even more contentious 2020 election.

Center for Christian Civics founder Rick Barry acknowledged that can be discouraging. “It took a long trip to get here, and I think it’s going to take at least as long to fix it. I frequently wonder—did we start this 10 years too late?” Barry said. He emphasized that it will take widespread effort to reverse polarization and restore a healthy political system.

“I want to be part of a generation that won’t be chastised for dropping the ball. We have to tend to the earth. I want to do it in a way that I won’t be ashamed of at the resurrection.”

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.



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