Heidi Burgess and James Coan on the Problem of De-Polarization and Scale

On March 7, I (Heidi Burgess) talked with James Coan, co-founder of a relatively new organization called More Like US. James had been participating and is still the Mid-Atlantic organizer for Braver Angels, and has also worked with other "dialogue-type" organizations.  But he saw a need to take a different approach to scale up his anti-polarization work, which led to More Like US. (Note More Like US is not the same as Starts with Us (though they have similar goals).  Peter Coleman talked about Starts with US in his interview on BI.)

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


Heidi:  Hi, this is Heidi Burgess, with Beyond Intractability. I'm here today with James Coan, who is the Executive Director, and I am assuming — I should have asked — is the founder of an organization called More Like US. And we met a few months ago, I think, on a mutual Zoom. We've been corresponding by email since and found that we had a lot of similarities in our interests. So I wanted to explore that more with James. So why don't I just ask you to start by telling us more about a little bit about your background and then what More Like US is and what you're trying to do with it.

James: Sure. Well, Heidi, thank you very much for having me on right now. My story, when it comes to trying to address political polarization, really starts around the 2016 election. I was just like, my country is tearing itself apart. I'm not quite sure what's wrong or what I could do about it. So it's been a seven odd year journey. I've volunteered with a number of organizations in this space, most notably Braver Angels. I'm still the mid-Atlantic regional lead. Previously, I was co-chair of the DC Alliance.

My focus has always been about scale. How can polarization be addressed in such a large country in a meaningful way to reach enough people?

About a year and a half ago, I decided that instead of working with the existing organizations in this space, I needed to create something new. The existing organizations in this space typically focus a lot on dialogue, deliberation, a lot of interpersonal communication techniques and opportunities. And there are a fair number of organizations that have conducted surveys showing that we're actually more similar than we tend to think across the political spectrum. But then they don't tend to have much of an outreach arm, if anything.

So I found this huge white space, as I recall from being a strategy consultant for more than a decade. I said, "I need to fill that". And so I have three co-founders and narrowly, More Like US tries to spread the message that we are more similar than we think — supported by a lot of survey data now across the political spectrum. And we're starting in secondary education with a lesson plan for for students, especially high schoolers, but it appears that middle schoolers could also benefit from it.  But then there are broader aims that we have —kind of what the field can do. I know you and Guy talk about massively parallel approaches. So, you know, what would those parallel approaches possibly look like? And yeah, it'd be fun to to talk more about those.

Heidi: First, tell me more about what you are doing with schools?

James: Sure. So with schools, we have a single lesson plan, you know, 50 minutes long, focused on closing the perception gap. So what is the perception gap? The finding that we are more similar than we tend to think across the political spectrum. This is, in particular, Republicans views of Democrats and Democrats' views of Republicans. So we are currently in the pilot phase and finding teachers to to pilot the lesson plan. So if you're a teacher and watching it, please get in contact with me. We'd love for you to test it with your students. I have some connections with researchers in this space to test the efficacy of this, especially in the fall and the summer. We may do some professional development if needed. But again, it's pretty straightforward. It's a single lesson plan. Admittedly, this is, you know, in the early stage, but it shouldn't be too much of a lift to do it.

Heidi: Can you tell us what's in the lesson plan? How do you go about convincing kids that the opposite political party is actually more like them?

James: Yeah, and so there's a lot of great resources that already show this. So we integrate a video. There's something known as the Strengthening Democracy Challenge. If anyone watched previous BI videos, Kristin Hansen talked about this and helped really get this off the ground. But after crowdsourcing more than 250 interventions, there were 25 interventions that were tested by 1,000 people each. And one of the three that achieved all three main goals that the researchers were looking for primarily was a three and a half minute video specifically about the perception gap. 

And it's really remarkable to see. There's a graph of what people's actual attitudes are toward immigration. And then, you know, something about either what people think the other party thinks about immigration or what they think the other party thinks they think about immigration. But regardless of exactly the perception tested, there's a very large gap between what is and what is perceived.

And it is so striking that we use this in materials when we go to conferences because we can just put up one graph showing perception, and one graph showing reality. One looks like a valley with just everyone more or less thinks that people on the other side are extreme. And then when asking people, it's like a mountain range. I mean, there's people all across the spectrum. Yes, there are differences between the parties, but the differences are much smaller than people often imagine.

Heidi: Do you have the students themselves compare how they think as opposed to how their classmates think? Or is it all reading about other people?

James: In terms of the other details and if anyone is really interested, the lesson plan is posted for free on the website, morelikeus.org. But yeah, it starts with an activity. Students have a blue sticky note and a red sticky note, and they estimate it's a number line. That's what Beyond Conflict did. So imagine completely open borders, no immigration control whatsoever. That's a zero, 100% completely closed borders, no immigration whatsoever. You know, where do you think an average Democrat is? Where do you think an average Republican is?

The actual answer is when you ask people for Democrats is about 35 for Republicans, about 75, at least when this was done roughly five years ago. But then when people are asked, you know, their perceptions, it's actually, you know, below 10 and above 90 as the average. So this huge gap.

In terms of the other aspects of the lesson, it goes into why is this the case?  What are the drivers of this misperception? What are the consequences of the misperception? And then a bit on media literacy.

So people who have written about what is often called polarization, are they writing about it in an accurate way? You know, if one describes polarization or as a chasm in American politics, is that really the right word to use? Because it's certainly a perception chasm. But in terms of actual differences, you know, chasm is probably, you know, overblown kind of exaggerated term.

Heidi: So tell me why are you focusing on schools or are you not just focusing on schools? Do you have other areas in which you're working too?

James: So this is where we're starting. One thing about scale, a lot of activities in depolarization encourage people to go to a separate activity. So they need to have the time, interest, and energy to actually, you know, attend some kind of workshop. We want to reach people where they are. And so initially, we were actually thinking about religious congregations. What could religious leaders say from a pulpit? And we conducted these informal focus groups, really from across the political spectrum. And I was thinking "this is not going to scale." There are denominations that are very decentralized. There are denominations that are very centralized. And we're probably not going to convince the Pope of this, for instance. And there's not much what you could call "connective tissue." There aren't many organizations that are really trying to bring different denominations together on a topic like this.  There are interfaith communities, but really they're like, it's like religious NATO. You know, an attack on one is an attack on all. And, you know, they just kind of stand up for each other, but they don't tend to do this. So we're like, where else do we find an audience that's there that doesn't have to, you know, actively go somewhere? It's like, well, students. There are a lot of students, and there's actually some work on trickling up that they may talk to their parents, and there's very strong connective tissue.

There's organizations like the CivXNow Coalition that really tries to bring a lot of organizations together that care about civics. So suddenly, I went from, oh, I don't know if I belong to them, to them strongly welcoming us. And I've met a bunch of people in that space. I've gone to some of these conferences. There's a National Council for the Social Studies. I just went to the Virginia version of that. And so it's this very dynamic space with a large audience. So that's where we want to start.

But that's not necessarily where we'll be permanently.  I don't have great relationships necessarily with athletes and entertainers and influencers and all sorts of other people in society who could spread a relatively simple message. We're more similar than we think across politics. So we just have to start where people are listening, who are focusing on government and civics, and that happens to be in schools.

Heidi:  Okay. How far along are you? How many schools have done this, or are you still just in the testing phase, and you've only been in one school or no schools, or where is this along a timeline?

James: Yeah, this is pretty early. So I taught a class this week and got some experience there. We have more than a dozen teachers who have expressed interest.  And we have some professors who will first test what teachers think about it, a more informal survey, and then hopefully more formally serving students in the fall about whether this has an impact and maybe how long of an impact a lesson has. But I don't want to make the claim that we're super far along.  I think we're far along in terms of having a social science advisory council that has reviewed our materials  we have the building blocks of an organization, we have the lesson plan,  All this is about a month away. And when this is actually published, it will probably be right around the time that the Similarity Hub will be up.

The Similarity Hub will be a one-stop shop to see survey data of overlaps between Republicans and Democrats and also areas of overlap of supermajority support among all Americans across about 20 different policy domains that we're building with a company called All Sides. So I think everything's coming into place.  But no, there's not a long track record of deployment. But in this field, there aren't many examples of perception gap trying to be deployed into the field. The Strengthening Democracy Challenge funded four projects that are about to happen or currently happening. And that's really the some of the first four that are happening at all. So even being in one classroom, we could still make a plausible argument that we're at the forefront of interventions, of field interventions in this space.

Heidi: One of the things that I see is both a challenge for you, and also one that you're helping to meet already, is the fact that civics education in the United States has really fallen behind what it should be. My sense, and I haven't done a lot of research on this, but some reading, is that 10, 15 years ago, there got to be a lot of fights over what civics curriculum should be. And the easy way out of those fights was to just cut civics. I know our school district in Boulder greatly has cut back on civics because it's easier than fighting about it.  And this is terrible for the country, obviously.  I used to teach juniors and seniors at the University of Colorado, which isn't an Ivy League school. It's a fairly high level state school. It is fairly selective in the students who are admitted. And my juniors and seniors really didn't understand why Barack Obama couldn't do whatever he wanted to do, that he wasn't a king. And they didn't have a notion that there were three branches of government and that there was a legislature that had to pass laws and a judiciary that enforced the laws. Not notion of any of that because they hadn't had the civics behind it. And I was aghast. So you're going to be addressing that a little bit, but at the same time, it strikes me that you might be trying to place this lesson plan in a void.

James: I admit I cannot comment too much on the history, but I think sometimes there's a conflation of civics and government.  And I think most students at least have to take some kind of government class during their time. Certainly, I can say there's a dynamic field that is pushing for civics type education. But you know there are a lot of students that take AP government or I had to take something called NSL National, State and Local Government. I never took a formal civics class.

Heidi: I will admit, I'm conflating the two. When I went to school, there was no such thing as government. My kids weren't offered a class in government. The only place they got it was in history class, and that was pretty poorly done. So I mean, my kids are now 38 and 40, and I've been sort of fighting this ever since.

James: Yeah, I would say that the civic space, you know, the advocates are very well organized. And a lot of what they're trying to do involves influencing state houses. So a lot of states have  a civics coalition, but then there are state level coalitions. There's PA Civics I'll be talking to actually later today. And there's VA Civics. And then there's the Maryland Civic Education Coalition, right? This is just around the DC area because I know them better. But in many other states, there's similar organizations. And really, we're just trying to insert this into government classes. So AP government, for instance, is a pretty good fit for what we're doing because there's actually a unit that covers public opinion and public opinion surveys are really where this perception gap comes from.

And then just understanding the political parties. So I recognize that we might not get 100% coverage, but I think there are a lot of opportunities to insert, especially a single lesson into some kind of government class. And there's actually a lot of interest in both middle schools and high schools, which is not something I was expecting.  So we have seven grades in which to cover a single lesson plan, essentially. And I think in a thousand days or more of schooling, one class period of one of those can cover that actually were more similar than we think across politics.

Heidi: So let me get you to imagine going forward. You've got this lesson plan in 10,000 schools. How is that going to change kids' behavior?

James: Yeah, and so a lot of the goals first is to embed it in curricula. Our goal is not to call up every single school and school district and get it inserted. And we have to test it first, but really to institutionalize this as part of a curriculum. But how does this change behavior for for anyone, whether it's students or not? So, you know, there's there's a concept known as "negative partisanship," acting out of dislike, or, you know, some kind of negative attitudes toward the other party. And, you know, if those are justified, then, okay, that could be a driving force. But if that kind of negative partisanship is driven by misperceptions, I don't think that's a good thing.  I think that can be overblown and that can be dangerous if people, you know, say, oh, we need to win at all costs because they are, they are so threatening, they are so evil, you know, we must do anything to win. That is, basically the death knell for Democratic republics, right? When it's just, we must win at all costs, even if we don't follow any rules and or engage in political violence. So in some cases, the behavioral consequences are an absence of those worst behavioral consequences.

Heidi: I lost you there. Help me.

James: So right, I mean, the goal is to have people not break all sorts of rules to try to have their team win at all costs or engage in political violence, again, to make sure that their team wins. So some of the behavioral consequences, I know it can be unsatisfying, are the lack of the worst forms of behavior.

Heidi: Gotcha. So the thing that worries me about the United States right now is that I see a lot of people in that worst place that you just described. There's polling data again that shows, I'm not sure I'm remembering right, but 20 or 30% of Republicans think that it might be necessary to take up arms to defend American democracy. And about 10% or 15% of Democrats think the same way. Those are small, but they're still really substantial numbers.  And it doesn't take many people taking up arms to have a real conflagration. And my concern is you can find out that the other side really thinks more similarly to your side than you expected about immigration or say abortion--that is is one area where I know that we're all really pretty well clustered in the middle and nobody's very happy with the extremes on either side.

But that still doesn't answer the grave fear that Democrats have that Trump in particular and Republicans more broadly would-be authoritarians. We're going to completely dismantle democracy if they get in. And Republicans, for different reasons, think the same way.  They look at the woke agenda and see how much it is counter to their values. And they see the Democrats as would-be authoritarians that will completely destroy their way of life. So even if they see that we're similar on immigration or abortion, there's this bigger issue, the fear of a repeat of January 6th coming from either side. What do we do about that? 

James: I think this is a good opportunity to talk about my thinking on the problem and how I, in many cases, am allied with a lot of what you're saying, because I think trying to address it, a lot of these things directly, is not going to be particularly effective.

First of all, in terms of surveys on what's sometimes known as lethal mass partisanship or political violence, historically, they've been very similar between Democrats and Republicans. So Liliana Mason, Nathan Kalmoe found, up until 2021, there was essentially no difference between them. There was a little bit of a bump. You know, their last survey in the most recent book that they wrote was February 2021.

So it was a month after January 6th, and Republicans were a little bit higher then. But before that it was pretty even. 

Heidi: before January 6th, was it much lower than it is now? Like I would assume maybe say even before 2016, it would have been down in the zeros to five. Am I wrong?

James:  Yeah, it wasn't that low. It was more like 15%. However, it's a pretty dynamic field that, I admit, I don't follow extremely closely, but it was generally around like 15% on each side. But, you know, there are lots of different questions, so it depends on what question is asked. And also, it depends on kind of propensity to engage in violence. So, you know, the share of people who probably actually would do something,  you're talking about very low single digits. So sometimes there's support versus actual action. The particular survey that you're referring to, all I can say, I think it's just a very badly written survey question. It talks about, like, to be a true patriot, what does it mean? So it basically uses the language of MAGA to ask a question. And so it really conflates identity with violence. And it's, it's just a real kind of mess of a question that I don't know what to make of it.

Now, as for what to do, okay, so I think I'll explain how I think about the problem and what should be done in general, and then we can potentially talk about what this means for today.  In terms of the problem, I'm not a big fan of the use of the word "polarization." I think it's pretty confusing. Instead, I would say that what my concern is, is an overblown sense of fear and loathing of the other side. Fear and loathing is a term that people know from literature. But really, it is an overblown sense that the other side is very threatening.

And also that they're lesser,  they're inferior in some way, morally and or cognitively. And in that case, people can say,  "I can't imagine that these people could have power. I need to prevent them from having power at all costs, even if I break some some "democratic norms" or engage in political violence. And obviously, trust, which is necessary for society, is not fostered very well when there's a lot of fear and loathing.

And so in order to address this, I focus on, how to reduce fear and loathing.  Let's think about negatives, dissuading and disincentivizing, right? So a lot of people kind of accidentally will say things or do things that inflame passions, that increase fear and loathing. And just, you know, essentially, just like medicine, you know, first, do no harm. Just don't do those things.

But in many cases, people are incentivized to do those, to say those things, to take those actions. When we look at news media, at social media, increasingly AI and electoral systems, what are the incentives? What are the incentives for news media or social media? It's to get attention to maximize ad dollars. How do you get attention by having emotive content that activates identities and what we'd all call politically polarizing content is really good at that. And so if people want followers, if people want attention, it makes a lot more sense to say polarizing things than to say, oh, you know, we all get along. And then electoral systems, especially if you have, say, a gerrymandered district with closed primaries as an extreme example, most politicians and candidates. . . .

Heidi: It's the way most districts are.

James: Yeah, right. I mean, in this case, most candidates, what are their incentives? If they're a Democrat they are concerned about a primary challenge from the left, a Republican, a primary challenge from the right. And so, you know, they protect their seat by playing to their base. Okay, so you have to dissuade and disincentivize.

And then in terms of actually growing trust, I think of an addition sign as horizontal trust and there's vertical trust. So horizontal trust between people, between groups, you know, portraying the other side in a better light, which I'm happy to go into in more depth. And then also institutional trust, especially if institutions are seen as favoring one kind of people or one political party or another, you know, first just listening to people, but also giving opportunities.

And finally, I think there are more kinds of general categories of loneliness and lack of economic opportunity that I think contribute to to these problems. I don't think that this field should necessarily be the first, it should be the first focus of this kind of field. But I think, you know, we can join coalitions and try to address these kind of broader problems in addition to the issues that maybe we're more uniquely focused on.

But now we can talk about the present if we want to, you know, how does this fit in today?

Heidi: Well, it strikes me as blatantly obvious how it fits into today. It's all going on. I think that you've accurately described a good portion of the problem. But I would add one more element to it, which is that it's very socially dangerous for somebody to step out of that mold. So if you're a Democrat and you're running in progressive circles, it's very dangerous for you to say, "well, you know, those guys really aren't as bad as we're pretending that they are" because you'll be ostracized.  You will be seen as a traitor. 

Peter Coleman has this notion of "attractors." I don't know whether you've read his book. The first book was called The Five Percent because he made the assertion that 5% of all conflicts are intractable. Where he got that number I never have figured out.  But the whole book was focused, like we focus, on intractable conflict. And he focused on how to engage in it better. And then he has a new book that applies all that to the American political scene. And he calls it The Way Out. And he's very optimistic that he's got a way out. I'm less optimistic. But he came up with this notion and I just did an interview with him and he explained, I knew this before, that he didn't really come up with the idea of "attractors."  It came out of physics. But there's this notion of attractors, which is the way a system organizes so that people tend to do the same thing over and over again and they tend to get pulled into these traps. I think of it as a black hole. I once had a conversation with him and said, oh, I teach about it as a black hole. And he explained to me the physics of why it was different from a black hole. Okay, for those of us who aren't physicists, black hole is close enough.

The notion that there's this great huge force that's pulling us down into this trap that I would still call the polarization trap and holding us in so that we're, as you say, we're reading more of this inflammatory stuff. We're reinforcing our notion all the time that we're the good guys, you're the bad guys. Our purpose in life is to get you to make sure that you are never in power because you'll destroy the world, or at least the United States. And it's this swirling mass that's holding everything down. And I think you're describing part of it. And another part of it is people are punished so badly for trying to escape. I think he was right. I think you're right. I think we're right. It's a huge problem. So then my question to him and my question to you is, how do you break it?  How do you get rid of the fear and the loathing and build the trust?

James: Yeah, so, I'm not saying it's easy, but at least the answers have to be plausible, right? That's a good start. And I think in many cases, the field has not created even plausible answers.

Heidi: I agree.  So let's start there. A lot of what you're talking about is about disincentivizing the incentives. For instance, someone's on social media. How do you disincentivize Facebook and X, a ridiculous name, I think, and other platforms that I don't go on, so I don't even remember their names. How do you change their incentive model?

James: Well, yeah, so there are some good groups there. About a year ago, I went to a Designing Tech for Social Cohesion conference. It brought peace builders together with tech people. And then some, I guess I'd be more on the peacebuilder side, but not exactly on either, not from the international peacebuilding world.  There's a lot of focus on design. So what kind of design tweaks could be made? Would a chronological feed, you know, that doesn't just reward people for posting every second, be better than an algorithmic feed that tries to guess what people are going to engage with the most. Because if we think about social media, it's kind of a double whammy.  Chris Bail calls it a prism, you know, not a mirror of society. The people who tend to be more extreme.

Heidi: Right. A prism focuses the light, as opposed to just sending it through.

James: Right. So it focuses on the most extreme. So people who are most extreme, most certain, they are the ones who typically post the most. And then the algorithm further exacerbates that — whatever attracts people's attention gets them riled up and gets them to engage and keeps them on the system for as long as possible.  It's a attention economy. So I think there's a lot on the design side that can potentially be done. 

Heidi: I can see where getting rid of the algorithms might be helpful My understanding about the way algorithms work is if you look at this thing, the next thing we'll show you will be more extreme. And if you look at that, the next thing we show you will be more even extreme. It's easy to see how changing that algorithm is imperative. But they figured out that the algorithm makes them money. And we're in a capitalist society where they want to make money. So how do you convince them to go to a different approach? Maybe it isn't an algorithm. Maybe it's chronological. Sounds like a good idea to me. And they're going to say, yeah, but that won't make me as much money. Everybody's going to go over to this other site that's still using the inflammatory algorithms.

James: You regulate them or you sue them. Seriously. I mean, right, this is not something an organization at the margins can do. An organization, a company. can make small changes that don't have huge impacts on their bottom line.  I come from a Fortune 500 company. I mean, right, like a Fortune 500 company is not going to self-immolate, right?  But we have a government, we have courts. And these sometimes have to be used.

Heidi: What law are they breaking?

James: Well, no, it's creating a law. What law are they breaking?   Section 230 makes things more challenging to go after, but Section 230, again, I'm not an expert on this, but essentially, it's from 1996 and they're just their platforms. So they cannot be held responsible for what's on their platforms, right? They are just a platform. It's like, you know, in this case, they're like the messenger. So, you can't shoot the messenger. Essentially, they're the bulletin board, but whatever. Like, although, some of what Francis Haugen found, when it comes to Facebook, I think at that time it was Facebook, before Meta, tested their products, especially Instagram and found that it had very deleterious effects on teenage girls in particular.

And Jonathan Haidt is coming out with a book, just on this topic, and they didn't do all that much about it. That can be the basis of some kind of class action lawsuit, potentially, right? So it's all about leveraging incentives. If there is a risk of some large lawsuit or big kind of response from Washington, and right now, the response from Washington arguably is stronger among Republicans and Democrats when it comes to social media.

So it is, it is very confusing, bipartisan, but in different ways, you know, a kind of anti-big tech feeling in many cases. So, there are possible strange bedfellows that can do something. Right now, there is a lot of interest in protecting kids. And there's KOSA and COPPA and, you know, and I've gone to a couple of these events where it's focused on kids' safety online. I think that's kind of the starting point. I don't think this is a begging Meta to do better. In many cases, I think this is a regulatory and legal play.

Heidi: From my understanding, Europe has gone a lot farther than we have in controlling social media. So there might be models to follow there.

James: I don't know very much about. At one point, I thought that maybe More Like US would start with social media. But a lot of my focus and my degree is in public policy. I worked at a think tank right after college, but my focus has not been social media and tech regulation. So I do think this is part of a massively parallel operation.

There aren't that many groups focused on polarization plus social media. There's a Council for Responsible Social Media that comes from Issue One, which is which is doing some. But there really are a relatively small number of groups because the field to date has focused overwhelmingly on dialogue and has not focused on other potential areas, other ways to reduce this kind of fear and loathing of those on the other side. There are huge blind spots,  huge areas that are not being addressed.  And I do think a massively parallel operation needs to address many of these areas besides dialogue.

Heidi: What other areas do you see as missing? We've talked about dialogue, we've talked about media. What else is in this white space?

James: Yeah, sorry. If we go back to the structure, dissuade, disincentivize, horizontal trust, vertical trust, more kinds of general categories. So I just kind of go down the list. So dissuade— that's often norms of behavior and rhetoric. It actually gets into the land of taboos. You know, what what is taboo to say? Like, is there something called degreeism or ruralism, right? Like, right, we know what racism is or sexism.  But for a lot of these factors that relate to kind of parties and views of the other side, we don't even have words for, for being a, you know, density bigot, a degree bigot, like, what, what is this? So you c an start there.

Heidi: I think there is a word. It's called elitist. That's what the right would say that the left, the leadership of the left, are.  And that's what they're fighting against is the elitist and elitism.

James: Well, I would say that, you know, there's a lot of need for the "elites," me as an Ivy League grad, qualify as one to say, right, some of these behaviors are self-defeating. Absolutely.  And as you were saying about calling out your own side, I'm pretty moderate, so it's easier for maybe someone like me. I have a few co-founders. One is the former president of the National Federation of Republican women. The other one has advised Democratic political campaigns, right? So I can cover a lot of sides. I can go to a liberal conference, and then I went to CPAC the next week, right?

So that's just dissuade. Then there is disincentivizing. We were talking a little bit about social media, but news media, there's a lot to do, I think, with advertising dollars. And we could get into that. And then there is a robust electoral reform movement. But in many cases, it doesn't include many, if any, people who will vote for former President Trump. So it is a fairly limited movement. I try to include a lot of Americans, whoever they're going to vote for. Then when it comes to horizontal trust, there's a lot of messages portraying the other side as complex rather than a stereotype, as admirable, rather than immoral, right? As more similar than extremely different, and possibly as the potential to collaborate, be friends rather than them as someone to be avoided.  And just getting that messaging out through all sorts of channels, I think is very important. And then finally, vertical trust sometimes involves institutions making changes, you know, listening tours as a start. But, you know, we think about another thing that a lot of conservatives are criticizing, DEI, right? Well, DEI addresses mostly historical and current kind of marginalized groups are wrongs.

But  there's groups that maybe haven't historically been marginalized in a conventional sense, but aren't necessarily doing phenomenally well right now. I was born in southern Arkansas, right? I can just imagine fellow white men in southern Arkansas, right? Especially if you don't have a college degree, how do you feel about opportunities in many institutions in society? How would you feel if you happen to live that life, in terms of what people talk about you, say about you, and people like me. So, I get into that mindset, but also, what can institutions do to give people more opportunities? This is huge. It goes in all sorts of different directions, but I do think that there are things that make more sense, are more plausible than others.

Some things are off this map necessarily because they probably are unlikely to succeed. And, you know, maybe they can be de-emphasized compared with some of these things I'm going through.

Heidi: Okay. One of the things that I was thinking as I read through your essay — and I should explain to our watchers that you sent me an essay that we're sort of talking about now. But in addition to focusing on negatives, de-incentivize, dissuade, and so on, is putting forth a positive image. I'm completely changing what I'm talking about now, but it relates in my head.

It'll probably not relate in anybody else's head, but I really complain about and am annoyed about, worried about the folks who are saying, "tear it down." They're so upset with the current government structure that they just want to burn it all down, but they don't have anything to replace it with. And I tend to have the same reaction about dissuading and disincentivizing.  You also have to persuade and incentivize a better vision. Let's not do this, let's do this. So there's a flip positive side to the negative side. And the same thing, you know, slightly different view relates to trust. I don't think that you can build trust if the other side isn't behaving in trustworthy ways.  So the way to build trust, and the research that I know of on trust shows that it's much easier and quicker to break trust than it is to build it. Once you've lost trust, climbing that mountain back up is very difficult and very steep, but obviously it needs to get done. But you've got to bend over backwards to behave in trustworthy ways.

So if the other side is still either doing disreputable things or isn't transparent, so you don't know whether they're doing disreputable things or not, and you just have to take it on faith, that's not going to build trust. The way you have to build trust is to work with the other side in an open and honest way and actually show that you're trustworthy. And then you stand a chance.

James: Yeah, so my structure starts with the negative, dissuade, disincentivize, but then it goes straight to the positive, right? The horizontal trust, vertical trust, an addition sign adding, literally.

Heidi: But you're dissuading and disincentivizing the fear, loathing and distrust.  I would substitute the word hate for loathing, and they're probably not exactly right, but I hear many more people talking about hate than they do loathing.They're related dimensions, but they're not the same. You can get rid of the fear, you can get rid of the hate, but you still don't necessarily have trust.

James: Yeah, well, you know, so the, you know, building horizontal trust, I mean, again, we could talk about whether the words are exactly right. I'm using fear and loathing because, you know, of a book from 50 years ago, and fear and loathing in Las Vegas, right? Just so people know the term, I would actually say threat and kind of inferiority as the terms. But when it comes to building trust, there's a difference between like actually doing something and then portraying it.

And so there's a lot of things like, oh, we need to do things that will build trust, which I agree with, but a lot of it is capturing examples of successful collaborations and spreading those messages. So a lot of building horizontal trust, as I see it, involves —so I have a mnemonic — CAST casting the other side in a better light or a using a cast to heal our nation's politics.

CAST stands for  complexity, admiration, similarity, and togetherness. They're more complex. They can often be admirable or more similar than we think. And then togetherness, I do think is probably the most closely related to trust because it involves successful collaborations in addition to friendships and relationships. And I think that is something that you're talking about, it's sort of like what comes first. And my answer is, we don't need anything necessarily to come first.  You just do them all, right? I mean, you need to change the incentives. You need to, or one needs to, change the incentives. One needs to add better messaging about the other side. One needs to reduce  the kind of negative things said about the other side and have people, yes, instead of saying negative things, say positive things about the others, the other side, institutions have to, you know, play their part. And right, you just do them all.

And it starts hopefully having eventually, you know, stopping the bleeding, because this tends to be a vicious cycle that gets worse unless there's some kind of break to the system. And hopefully, enough things change that that it starts going in reverse. I mean, it's not guaranteed. But again, I'm going for plausible. And I think that enough factors that break a cycle, or at least slow a cycle of increased fear and loathing, or whatever we would call it, and start reversing or start creating, you know, a cycle of social cohesion is the way to go, even if there's no silver bullet, right? So you just do lots of plausible things, and hopefully they start working together in a productive way.

Heidi: Okay. So do you have plans to try to further some of that stuff beyond the school project?

James: Yeah, I mean, right, this becomes a gigantic endeavor. And so we've actually discussed internally the possibility of having like an accelerator, you know, to encourage other organizations, that may not even exist right now, to start doing some of these things. Just like getting the ideas out there. I think right now, there isn't a good mental model of how to address whatever you want to call it, polarization or fear and loathing, or, any of this, in this space. And so it's just like, "we could do this," or we could talk to people, — it's just kind of scattered and confused.

So trying to convey a kind of plausible structure is one thing that is a potentially important role for More Like US to give to give this field guidance. If we go to Peter Coleman, you could have the  physics model would be a standard model of depolarization, right? But, it's not going to be that perfect. But it is at least some kind of guidance and ways to think about it. We're having fun with metaphors and other ways to describe it, but to hopefully be able to communicate both internally in the field, what should be done that goes well beyond dialogue. Plus the outside to bring more people in who have the talent and interest to do something productive in this space.

Heidi: That's one of the places where we really agree, although I have an add on to that sentence too, because Guy and I have long really appreciated all of the work that the dialogue folks do. But, at the same time, we think they're way more optimistic than we are about the potential for that to change society.

When I was teaching, I always taught about orders of magnitude and explained that there's four orders of magnitude difference between somebody walking slowly around the block and the International Space Station running around the Earth. There's eight orders of magnitude difference between two people sitting down with a mediator or a dialogue facilitator and the population of the United States. So if you assume that you have to do dialogues with everybody in the United States in order to create some sort of transformative experience, you do the math. I can't do it in my head, but you have to do hundreds of millions of dialogues. And it's not going to happen. It doesn't scale.  I've long been saying we need strategies  that scale, not just dialogue. Now, some dialogue folks have actually tried to address this, and I have to give credit where credit is due. Some of them have tried to do online dialogue with thousands of people. That helps the numbers by two orders of magnitude. We still have six to go. Remembering that four is strolling versus the space station. Still a long way to go.

I was really impressed with my conversation with Katie Hyten, who is one of the co-directors of Essential Partners. And they are expanding the notion of dialogue to be more, I'd say, a respectful and effective way of working with other people, and they're taking it out to organizations. So they're going to school districts, they're going to corporations, they're going to city planning departments, and they're trying to teach them really basic conflict resolution skills. And I really applaud what they're doing and see that that is a legitimate attempt to scale up. But we still need much, much more than dialogue. And we need a lot of thought going into that. So I really appreciate the fact that you're putting thought and effort into that. We are too. We need lots more of us because this is an area where we don't have the answers yet. A lot of the conflict resolution folks really thought with Roger Fisher, Bill Ury, and  Bruce Patton's Getting to Yes, we had the answer: Eureka! Peace in our time! Not so much. So I think there's real need for invention and I applaud what you're doing. And I hope other people will join us in this new expanded space.

James: Yeah, do you mind if I say something about dialogue? Because I don't want to be completely negative about dialogue. Yes, there are challenges. But one thing that I'd say is, okay, imagine if we could reach 1,000 people a day. So 100 dialogues of 10 people each or whatever. Want to reach all the voters in the US? Well, you'll reach them once in over 400 years. But I do think there are things that relate to dialogue that have a better chance of scaling. One is actually taping some of these dialogues and turning it into content that more people can see.

And so I have the CAST framework. A lot of the focus on dialogue is process oriented. Here's how to have a good conversation. And then like you're supposed to understand the other side, but what are we looking for? What are we trying to understand about this other person or group? It's often ambiguous. And I think it's often comes down to something like CAST, you know, we see that they're more complex. We see that they're often admirable. We see that they're more similar to us. And we see that maybe we could work together or be be be friends with them that, you know, we could do something together. So you capture that, right? You capture these outcomes of these dialogues.

And then there's something known as vicarious contact, right? Where we can see other people having the contact. And not only with the goal of having other people have the dialogue, but just seeing what the outcomes of that dialogue are. Changing one's view of the other side. So there's less fear about them. There's less loathing of them and hopefully more trust.

Often, II give an example of like how many people have taken a fire safety class? Probably not that many. How many people know stop, drop, and roll? A lot, right?  So when it comes to dialogue, there's often this idea that like, if you come to this workshop, you will learn this magic secret sauce, and you will magically now know how to do a dialogue.

We have to communicate with the, as you say, orders of magnitude, well more than 99% of people who will never go to these classes. And  what can we teach them? If, if it's just about the process... I'm more focused on the outcome. But if it's more about the process, I'm influenced by Robb Willer. He gave a talk a couple of years ago for The Village Square. Anyway, he talked for 30 minutes about how to have a conversation. And I listened to it, I'm like, this is very good. And I can say it in five seconds.

It's to be civil — SVL — share your stories, relate to their values and listen. Stories, values, listen, be "SVL". Okay, right? Does it cover everything about having a dialogue? No, but right, does fire safety? You know, does stop drop and roll cover everything about that? Maybe if you catch on fire, it's pretty close.

So in those cases, by capturing content, disseminating it, and by having a very simple way to remember what to do to have a dialogue, or at least having a meaningful role when it comes to reducing fear and loathing, it helps. But of course, there's all sorts of other things, too, right?

This is just one part of all these different pieces that are necessary about dissuading and disincentivizing and building horizontal trust and vertical trust and thinking about the context that, right? But at least then it's more than seven orders of magnitude too small.

Heidi: Is there anything else that you were burning to cover that we haven't covered?

James: Well, I'm thinking about what this field is called. We don't know. And I'm playing with some ideas maybe about restoring and growing. I'm comfortable with some degree of nostalgia, when it comes to, say, affective polarization, right? Like the past is better than the present. And it's okay to say that some aspects of the past are better than what is now. And we would like to go back to those without, you know, taking away rights that people have gained and we don't need to reset the clock, but there are certain aspects of the past that we can go for or try to, you know, try to get back to while also looking forward and, you know, trying to grow a better society.

So, in a few months, I'm sure there will be more  language that hopefully resonates with people and hopefully there's progress in this space.

Heidi: I certainly hope so. And I hope that we can have progress faster than the folks who are working against kind of work.  Because there's plenty of folks who are trying very hard to pull us to one side or the other. And this is a difficult year to be doing this work, but it's also an essential year to be doing this work. So I thank you very much.

James: Heidi, thank you so much for having me.