Priorities for Reducing Political Polarization in the United States

By Guy Burgess

Over the last year, I have been participating in a series of conversations organized by The Bridge Alliance to stimulate creative thinking and collaboration focused on strategies for helping bridge the United States’ bitter partisan divide. Recently, Debilyn Molineaux, President of the Bridge Alliance, sent out a challenge to the participants in these discussions that started by observing that "our nation is experiencing alarmingly high social divisiveness and alienation [that is] threatening our ability to function as a democratic republic."  She went on to ask what three things each of us would prioritize to reverse these trends and increase social cohesion in the United States.

I thought that this was an excellent question that deserves wider consideration. So, I thought I would share my answer here, in hopes of starting a broader discussion.  We would be quite interested in hearing your thoughts on this critical question (and your reactions to my thoughts).  Just go to the BI Contact Page and tell us what you think. We will publish your submissions on the BI Blog and in the next newsletter as well!

My answer to Debilyn:

My first priority for those wishing to defend and strengthen democracy would be an effort to promote much broader public awareness of the importance of protecting the rights and interests of those on the losing side of democratic elections. Democracy cannot function as a winner-take-all system in which the winners are able to force their opponents to publicly embrace the winners' beliefs.  It can also not be a political spoils system in which winners unfairly redistribute wealth and status toward their political supporters. If citizens (as is too often now the case) believe that elections are battles that they absolutely, positively can't afford to lose, then democracy is doomed. All citizens in a democracy must be assured that, regardless of an election's outcome or a judicial decision, they will continue to have a secure and valued place in society.

This raises a second priority, the cultivation of a much more diverse diversity---one that spans, rather than stops, at the political divide. The defense of diversity must go beyond the coalition building imperative behind "big tent" politics and embrace the principles of mutual respect, tolerance, and individual freedom that allow people from different political coalitions with very different, deeply-held belief systems to peacefully live together in mutually supportive ways.

Finally, I would encourage us all to do much more to resist what I call bad-faith actors---those who, for a variety of reasons, deliberately use sophisticated and deceptive tactics to inflame our hyper-polarized politics and, thereby, advance their narrow, selfish interests. Such actors include, for example, inflammatory media, foreign provocateurs, and hate-mongering political figures. We can't let them lure us into self-righteous information bubbles that prevent us from seeing the humanity of our fellow citizens or the things we are doing that contribute to our society's deep divisions.

Again, we would love the hear your thoughts on this critical question. Let us know!

Along related lines, we are about to post on the blog an essay that was written by Peter Adler, reflecting on the possibility of civil war in the United States.  He (like we) has been reading a number of articles suggesting that we are heading in that direction, so he sent some of his associates in the conflict resolution field and elsewhere an inquiry about asking how likely they thought such an outcome was.  He outlines their responses with some of the detailed comments in the blog post--it is not encouraging, to say the least!

Two recent articles from the “Beyond Intractability in Context” section of BI highlight other important perspectives on this critical issue.  Foreign Policy has an article entitled “Why the U.S. Military Isn’t Ready for Civil War” that describes the contingency planning efforts that are starting to get underway in the US Defense Department. Especially alarming is the view that police and Homeland Security forces may be unable to contain domestic insurgents and that regular military forces will be required (including the application of counterterrorism tactics within the US)!

The second, perhaps more important, article argues that we must be careful not to overplay the possibility of large-scale civil unrest and violence in the United States. In “Let’s Not Invent a Civil War” l Ross Douthat argues that, if we are not careful, all of this talk of war could further drive the hyper-polarization spiral and, even more ominously, risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

So, thinking about Debilyn's questions--and then doing something about our answers--seems vitally important!


Metagraphic photo credit: Photo from Attribution:  TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons