AfP Seminar--Toxic Polarization: What's the Left Got to Do with It?

I recently became aware of a webinar held by the Alliance for Peacebuilding on the Left's role in toxic polarization which I had missed when it had originally aired in September of 2021.  Despite its age, it is still very relevant to our current discussion, so I want to first, share a link to the recording, and second, summarize what I feel are some of the most important ideas presented that relate to our current hyper-polarization discussion.

Summary and Additional Thoughts

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

December 3, 2022


The speakers at this seminar were Debilyn Molineaux, President and CEO, Bridge Alliance; Erica Etelson, Author, Beyond Contempt: How Liberals Can Communicate Across the Great DivideSteve House, Senior Director of Strategic Initiatives, Braver Angels, and ​Liz Hume (Moderator), Acting President and CEO, Alliance for Peacebuilding.

AfP's summary of the session explained that "The United States is polarizing faster than any other democracy. This discussion explored the question: how is the left contributing to toxic polarization and how is the left part of working to help build social cohesion? Speakers focused on the problems, challenges, and solutions and the need for intragroup work on the left. A discussion of the problem came first:

The Problem of Toxic Polarization:

Erica Etelson was the first speaker, talking about her book, Beyond Contempt. She started out showing examples of ways in which the left humiliates the right and she asked viewers to try to put themselves in the shoes of the people on the receiving end of these insults.  The examples included (among others)

  • A social media post that said "You know why Trump loves holding his hate rallies? It's the only place where Trump isn't the stupidest person on the room." (from Occupy Democrats);
  • "If Trump loses and his fans riot, the appropriate punishment would be to make them finish middle school." (Facebook post)
  • "Who are these idiot Donald Trump supporters?  Trump loves the poorly educated -- and they love him right back." (Salon)
  • "The Times finally gets to the bottom of Trump supporters: It turns out they're garbage human beings." (Daily Kos)
  • "Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance. They're getting exactly what they voted for." (Daily Kos)
  • Let's Mock People Who Think Vaccines Are More Dangerous Than Covid: It's Foolhardy to Indulge Idiots who Flunked Arithmetic and Science" (DC Report)
  • "Everyone knows that "gifted kid" programs exist solely to further entrench class/race disparities in public schools, right? Do people not know this?

People in the chat responded that they had seen stuff like this; they knew people who had posted things like this, and that they certainly wouldn't encourage such behavior abroad where they were working as peacebuilders because they make people on the receiving end get defensive.  It puts people, Erica explained, in "flight-or-fight mode.Their ability to take in new information or empathize completely shuts down, and the "chance that someone in that kind of defensive state of mind can change their mind is basically zero." When people feel humiliated they also tend to want to retaliate or vote for someone who will retaliate for them. She referenced Evelyn Lindner, whom we frequently quote too, who says, "Humiliation is the nuclear bomb of emotions."  So rather than reducing the chance that Trump or his supporters will get elected, such messages actually increase his support. 

Erica ended by saying "with all of this vitriol and ridicule, I see us shooting ourselves in the foot. If we on the left want to have our ideas heard, and if we want to have our candidates elected, and if we want to grow the ranks of our movements, then we shouldn't alienate people who don't already agree with us by being condescending, snarky, and abrasive.  And we also shouldn't be trying to one-up each other with the intensity of our disdain for the other side, because all that does is create a performative outrage arms race that eventually everyone is on the losing side of."  

Erica was followed by Debilyn Molineaux, who observed that we barely have the capacity to speak to somebody different from ourselves right now.  This, she sees as both a "capacity issue", but also a "maturity issue." .."We need to learn to increase our capacity to be uncomfortable without going into survival mode" ..."We need to mature beyond adolescence" and start dealing with each other as reasonable, responsible adults.

Steve House spoke next, saying he sees the problem as two-fold:  1) We don't know each other and 2) Because we don't know each other, we have the ability through social media to tear each other apart.  We don't know why people believe what they believe, so we assume the worst. 

Solutions to Toxic Polarization

Erica again started the solutions section, pointing out first that the structured cross-party dialogues that are run by Braver Angels, the Bridge Alliance, and others are very helpful. When you just sit down at the dinner table with a relative with whom you disagree, "you just slip into your old patterns and it doesn't go well."  The structure that facilitators bring to such dialogues is very important. Another helpful strategy is "deep canvassing."  This is when people are trained to go into a community, knock on doors, and have one-on-one conversations using active listening and story-telling, and a lot of the strategies used by Braver Angels to encourage learning.  

Debilyn followed, noting that if people can't listen to somebody who is different from them without being triggered, they can find a different way to get information about the other side, for instance by listening to a dialogue without participating in it. People, she said, need to learn to manage their own triggers.  She also suggested that people take care not to post anything on social media that they wouldn't want to appear in a newspaper with their name on it.

Steve House added that the problem isn't at the leadership level, it's at the grassroots level. Leaders can be as polarizing as they want because they all come from safe seats.  It's the constituencies that have to reign in the polarizing language, although we do need to address the systemic problems as well, he acknowledged. He urged homogenous groups to sit down together and ask themselves "what stereotypes do we have about the other side? And what stereotypes do we have about ourselves.?" He didn't go on to say that they should challenge or correct those stereotypes, but that was the implication. 

Debilyn agreed with Steve, that top-down solutions aren't going to work.  We need to give the grassroots tools and training in listening and learning, and then they can pressure their leaders to be less polarizing.  "We need to have servant leaders that serve the public and remember that we're the boss--and we need to remember that we're the boss, so we no longer expect our leaders to be purists " 

The conversation continued longer as the panelists told stories about conversations across divides that work and ones that didn't.  They discussed theories of change with Debilyn pointing out that we need a thousand flowers blooming.  There is no one answer to this problem, but rather there are thousands of answers that all have to work simultaneously, supporting each other, in order to make progress. 

Guy and Heidi's Additional Thoughts

We were very glad to see this session, because we have long thought that the left doesn't understand the degree to which it is contributing to the hyper-polarization spiral.  Many on the left assume that polarization is just driven by the right, particularly President Trump and his close allies, and the left is blameless.  This webinar, particularly Erica's quotes at the beginning, clearly show that the left has been contributing to the problem too.  We would assert that one quip by Hillary Clinton, her infamous "basket of deplorables" comment1 referring to half of Trump supporters may well have cost her the 2016 presidential election and left the U.S. with Donald Trump. No one noticed that she wasn't talking about all Trump supporters, and even if they did, saying half of them were "deplorable" was, indeed, a nuclear bomb she detonated on her own campaign.  

But it isn't just a problem of insulting the other side.  There is also the problem that Erica discussed that the elite left doesn't understand and doesn't care about the concerns of the right.  They (the left) don't care about people fearing losing their jobs.  They don't care about people fearing that diversity programs will make it impossible for their children to get into college or get a decent job. They don't consider that conservative Christians will be upset at the notion that their children might be encouraged in school to change their sex, and such desires, if expressed in school, won't even be shared with the parents, who are assumed to be irresponsible parents and not deserving of a say in such decisions.  Similarly, they  brand as a "racist" anyone who is against teaching what has come to be called "CRT" in the schools, even though many instances of that curriculum assert that there is essentially nothing of value in the White-dominated foundations of the United States.  So that curriculum denigrates much of the history that conservatives honor, and advocates that we replace the structures that resulted from that history with ones that white conservatives see (accurately, at times) as being biased against them. 

We are not trying to say that the liberal positions are necessarily wrong, nor are we saying that conservative positions that denigrate people of color are right. But we are saying that the left needs to do a much better job of understanding — and responding constructively to — the heartfelt concerns of the right (even if we disagree) and the right needs to do the same.  We really do have many concerns we share: we all want our identities to be respected, we all want to feel secure, we all want to be able to pursue our dreams.  We can't expect others to help us meet our fundamental human needs, if we are not willing to help them meet theirs.  We agree with Debilyn Molineaux (one of the speakers): we need to grow up and start acting like responsible adults.  Ironically, we could also say that we need to remember the things we learned in Kindergarten, particularly, sharing, playing fair, not hitting, cleaning up our mess, not taking things that aren't ours, and saying sorry when you hurt somebody, and lastly on Robert Fulghum's list "look."  I'd add "listen" and "learn" and "think" and "grow"– all that is taken as a given in Kindergarten.  Let's take it as a given for grownups too!


1“You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right?” Clinton said. “The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up.” See Wikipedia for the full context.