by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess
Jan. 4, 2023
On December 5, of last year, we talked with Kristin Hansen, the Executive Director of the Civic Health Project. CPH is dedicated to to reducing toxic partisan polarization and enabling healthier public discourse and decision-making across our citizenry, politics, and media. Kristin has so many important insights that we hope many of you will just jump to the full discussion. But to draw more attention to it, and to pick up those of you who don't have 75 minutes to spare to watch the full video (or read the transcript), we want to share some highlights here.
Early in the interview, Kristin talked about going to a conference convened by the Ford Foundation in Barcelona, focused on polarization. Ford was concerned that polarization was preventing them from reaching their social justice goals. At the end of the meeting, each participant was asked to share one closing thought. Kristin observed that in the U.S.at least, many people work on polarization as means to and end—for instance to make sure Trump doesn't get elected again.
But the the problem with that is to really do bridge building work credibly, you can't assume an outcome. And you also can't assume that one outcome is good and another outcome is bad, like you might, in your personal beliefs, want certain outcomes. But you kind of have to let go of that to be credible. In bridge building, you have to move upstream and you have to be about means and not about ends. You have to trust that the ends will go where the universe wants them to go. But you must participate credibly and with integrity in the means of building bridges between people who hold different worldviews. And sometimes those world views do not bend in the direction of social justice, not as a a a typical left leaner or progressive would describe that.
She explained that she got pulled into this work by the 2016 election.
The very simple premise that started me in this work was that I saw 65 million Americans expressing that 65 other million Americans were bad, evil even. Stupid. Wrong. And for whatever reason, I just couldn't sit with that, or leave that alone. Not only did I reject that idea, but I felt like I needed to help other people reject that idea. ... I guess it's because I just deeply, deeply need to believe in the inherent goodness of people.That's what drives me. ... [I believe] by and large, humans do what they do and act the way they act, because they are trying to be good people in the world. And I think holding that frame is is critical to to doing bridge building work. When I talk about the means like, what are the means? We need to equip people with the means to be good.
As did several of our other discussants, Kristin distinguished between "Issue polarization: and "affective polarization." Issue polarization, which she described as a simple disagreement on issues, or contradictory worldviews, "is a fundamental aspect of human existence" that can't and shouldn't be changed. But "affective polarization is very much more about how we feel towards each other and how we treat each other." And there is a spectrum from just having negative feelings towards another, but keeping them secret; to expressing them; to acting on them. Far too many people are moving down that spectrum she said, towards hostile expressions and actions. That's what she's trying to change.
"And complicating all of this." she says, "are the perceptions we hold that issues are existential. That the conflicts that are erupting are a matter of life and death." The astonishing thing she's discovered, by making a concerted effort to talk to people on the other side (" I like to say I live on the left, but I visit the right as often as I can.") is that both sides have existential fears, but "the perceived threats are just completely different! What the left sees as threatening, what the right sees as threatening. There's virtually no overlap!"
She points out that in the U.S., all of the outcomes that have happened have happened in a democracy. A flawed democracy perhaps. although she notes that she is
a little bit suspicious of those indices because, to me, there's a little bit of a of a left-leaning flavor to what the the metrics and markers are. But, I will grant that democratic backsliding is a real thing. A lot of it, though, has to do with the erosion of norms and institutions, and not because we've had an actual failure of, or collapse of, our democracy. And whether you look at things like dark money, or the composition of the Supreme Court, or or how vaccines rolled out in our country. You you can't point to anything there and say those things happened the way they did, because our democracy failed or is failing. The only the only real answer, although it's not one that everyone leans into is, if you don't like the outcomes, you just have to participate harder in the democracy. You you just have to work harder.
Kristin makes a distinction between our "supply problem" and our "demand problem." "We have an unhealthy supply and demand loop," she says.
I liken it sometimes to tobacco. Tobacco is an addiction that has built up. And now we've got to unwind it, and and there's no simple explanation for how we got hooked, and there's also no simple way to get unhooked. It's a complex set of interventions that will be needed, just like we have needed for smoking cessation in in our country, and it's not like we've eliminated smoking, you know. We've reduced it, but we haven't eliminated it. So, coming back to supply and demand, you use the word incentivize, and on the supply side that's the problem. The problem is that there are strong incentives to use divisive rhetoric and strategies. You might want votes, donations, viewers, likes shares. Blah! Blah! You name it. Traffic On the demand side, that's us. the consumers, the voters, the readers, the scrollers. We are the demand in this equation. Every single one of us! And on the demand side, it's about our preferences. What do we want? What do we want to consume? What what kind of a society do we want to be a part of?
You can try to fix the supply loop by diminishing either the supply or the demand. There's two ways to address the supply side: one, by reducing the amount of "bad stuff" going out: "Can you change the incentive so that people don't have as much incentive to put divisive, vilifying, condescending, demonizing rhetoric and concepts out into the world?" Or two: "can you produce more pro-social content on the supply side, so that you start to take up more real estate and and provide other choices, healthy alternatives. So [people] will not eat the Cheetos, but rather, the kale."
But you still have the demand side problem.because on the demand side, if everybody wants Cheetos, then your kale is not going to fly off the shelf. But personally, what I keep coming back to, is the idea that even though the demand side work is a real slog, because it involves changing the hearts and minds and attitudes and behaviors of individual Americans, young and old, and there's a 350 million of us, it is ;still where we gravitate to in terms of supporting interventions, because I tend to think that the supply is always going to be there. The supply of divisive, polarizing, demonizing rhetoric is going to be there until the demand diminishes. There's always going to be someone.
We talked about future visions for democracy that would work for everyone; we talked about interventions and that have been tested and seem to work and how and whether they can be scaled up; we talked about mobilization work and how that relates to Guy's and my notion of massively parallel peacebuilding. We talked about Civic Health Project's funding program, and we talked about conflicts in school boards and the collaboration between the National Association for Community Mediators and LivingRoom Conversations to create a toolkit for school boards, which are seeing increased conflict around the country.
And we talked about lots of other important and fascinating things. If you have read this far, why not go to the source and watch/read the whole discussion? We are sure it will be worth your time!