Guy Burgess and I (Heidi Burgess) talked with Kristin Hansen on Dec. 5, 2022 about her work countering polarization and defending democracy. Kristin is Executive Director of the Civic Health Project which is dedicated to to reducing toxic partisan polarization and enabling healthier public discourse and decision-making across our citizenry, politics, and media. In addition to her role at Civic Health Project, Kristin serves on the advisory boards of AllSides, Business for America, and Listen First Project. She also serves as a year-round lecturer in Strategic Communications at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Prior to her current work in civil discourse, Kristin held senior executive roles at Intel, IBM, and multiple start-up software companies. She holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Policy Studies from Stanford University, and an MBA from the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.
Heidi: Hi and welcome! I told you earlier that Guy wasn't going to be able to be with us, but his other meeting was canceled. So here he is, Guy, this is Kristin. We've seen each other at Walt Roberts’s meetings but I’m delighted to meet you, and was very struck by your comment to Walt, which we've now posted.
Kristin: Yeah, I saw the post. Thank you.
Heidi: It seems we are trying to accomplish the same thing. So I’m very excited to get your thoughts on the questions that we sent, or anything else that you're interested in. We are trying to mobilize the conflict resolution community particularly, because that's our community, to do more about hyper-polarization and have found ourselves in a lot of discussions about how polarization is actually good, and we're chasing the wrong animal, and that the real problem is justice. And there's a lot of discussion going around about whether polarization is good or bad, and if you think it's bad, what to do about it. We’d just love to get your take on what you think about polarization and what's the best way to address it.
Kristin: Hmm. Big question. Timely question. I’m curious to know when you say "the community you're most connected with is the conflict resolution community." Would you say that you and the people that you are connected with there are mostly working on this in the US context?
Heidi: Most of our colleagues are in the US but we're getting increasing interest from Europe.We've been engaging with a fellow who's a former French ambassador.who is very concerned about threats to democracy and he just wrote an article that we published a little bit after yours. He is looking at what he sees as problems with US democracy, and how that is spilling over into Europe. And so he's very eager to get the US to straighten up its act because he thinks that we're driving polarization, and dragging Europe down with them. The other big part of our community come out of the peacebuilding field in the United States. Not just resolution, but these are folks are trying to figure out how to free war-torn societies from their intractable conflicts. It is very interesting to watch how folks like this, with deep international experience, start having to look at their own country having the same sorts of problems. And it's one thing to tell people in another part of the world that you should get over these deep, unrightable wrongs and terrible atrocities.but to actually ask some of these folks to actually work with Republicans and Democrats gets amazingly hard, and that's part of why it's a lot easier to preach how other people should deal with conflict than actually deal with your own conflict.
Kristin: Well, this is such a timely relevant conversation, and you're really singing from my songbook with that point about peacebuilders having to shift their frame from being a neutral observer and and guide to how people should address conflict in their countries, to becoming an actor, because inevitably you are an actor in your own country context, and trying to address conflict resolution in the place where you live, and inevitably have a vantage point. We all have a vantage point on the conflicts that exist within our own country, our own culture.
And the reason I say this is so timely is, and why I asked about your geographic scope, is I just spent last week at a convening in Barcelona. It was the Ford Foundation doing a global convening on polarization and we were not looking so much at European countries, although European speakers and countries did come up, notably, you know, particularly Turkey and Hungary and some of the places that are known for having either polarizing or populist or extremist dimensions of what's happening within the country. So those all came up. But there was a lot of focus on Mexico, various countries in Latin America, African countries, the Middle East. So to just underscore what you said about Europe feeling like they're being dragged down with us, this conference gave me a much broader global perspective on the issues.
I will say that, by and large, nothing moved me off of my my path or perspective. With respect to how I look at polarization, I felt a lot of things that we talked about validated the points of view that I've developed about it here in the US. At the end of the conference, they went around and asked people to share a closing thought or reflection from the the two-day convening. You know, the Ford Foundation convened this group because they're looking at putting significant resources into the problem of polarization. That's good! The reason why, not surprisingly, is because the Ford Foundation is pursuing a lot of progressive issues, and justice oriented issues.The opening comments from from the Executive Vice President of the Ford Foundation, who convened the gathering said "you know, we're pursuing this social justice agenda. But we're stymied by polarization." Right? So for them they view addressing polarization as a means to an end where the end is assumed to be social justice.
And my closing comment was just to inject a word of caution about that and say, "Look, you know most of us, many of us who work on polarization, certainly in the US.context, its not because we think polarization is such a fun, great,sexy topic to work on. It's because there's something that we felt worried, alarmed, concerned about or stymied in trying to pursue. I think many of us come into polarization work thinking, fixing polarization as a means to an end. And for a lot of people, frankly, it's like, "let's fix polarization.so someone like Trump never gets elected again." But the the problem with that is to really do bridge building work credibly, you can't assume an outcome. And you 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. 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. And so that tension that you guys have described. I feel in the work, you know, I’m left leaning and I’m I’m second guessing my motives all the time. And I’m really trying to concentrate on that work of moving upstream and making sure that the work is about means and not about ends, and and to elaborate on what I mean when I say that.
When I think about polarization, whether in a US or in a global context, I am confident, and the meeting in Barcelona just reinforced this for me even further, that what the bridge-building, peacebuilding and conflict resolution communities together are being called on to do right now is equip people with the means to participate in conflict in ways that are healthy, constructive, and non-destructive. Nonviolent. And to place sufficient emphasis on the means so that people within their cultural and their country context. can work in more healthy and constructive ways towards whatever the ends will be. So for me, that meeting was very validating and and reinforcing in that regard.
And to the point that I you know who am, I Little old me, you know, standing up and saying to the Ford Foundation, "you have to let go. You have to let go of your goals you want to work on. If you want to work on polarization, you have to let go of ends." It is very hard to hold those missions simultaneously and be trusted because you know someone who's opposed to those ends can smell that a mile away.
Heidi: And so you can also point out that there's different definitions of justice. So the progressive view on justice is one. But Conservatives have another view, and and theirs is they're being unjustly treated, too, so they want justice too. They're just defining it differently.
Kristin: How about justice for the unborn? And freedom? "Freedom" is a word that can easily be bent in either direction to freedom to do certain things, or freedom from certain things. So when I talk about circling back, just constantly circling back, retreading ground and and revisiting and reaffirming what my reasons are for doing this work, and what are the assumptions that guide my work? You know? At the very very core of it, and where it's started for me, was the 2016 election. That's what pulled me into this work. You know, I’m not somebody with years and years of experience or a long track record. The very simple premise that started me in this work was that I saw 65 million Americans expressing that the other 65 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 too. I don't know why, but that was what I felt like I needed to do.
I guess it's because I just deeply, deeply need to believe in the inherent goodness of people.That's what drives me. And I do. You know, we've been through so many cataclysms over the last 4 years, but nothing's really knocked me off of that driving assumption that as human beings, with very, very few exceptions, we want to be good. We want to be moral. We want to believe the things we're doing are good and moral and righteous.and that can lead us in different directions in terms of our our voting choices, or the causes that we support and pursue. But, 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.
Back to your point about polarization, people saying polarization is good. It's not bad, because boy, did that come up a lot in Barcelona!: In fact, let me go there. Let me go there next in my thought process. So there was a lot of discussion in Barcelona -- that you need polarization because polarization and conflict is what leads to change. Out of the conflict comes transformation. And so you need to agitate.You need to generate conflict. You need to create stark choices for people and encourage as many people as possible to make whatever choice you think they should make.
Okay, I get that, right? And this is where people make the distinction between issue polarization and affective polarization. Yes, issue polarization, I think, is just a fundamental aspect of human existence. We all will hold different worldviews, different assumptions, about what is, what works, and what doesn't work.I don't have any delusions that this work is about getting everybody on the same page as far as who the best candidates are, or what the best policy outcomes are. That's that's not a goal I hold. Maybe some people do, but it doesn't seem realistic to me. So,in a sense, I’m saying, I think issue polarization is just a a fundamental fact of human existence that we're going to disagree, see things differently, have different worldviews and perspectives.
Affective polarization is very much more about how we feel towards each other and how we treat each other. The words we use with one another, and the actions. So there's a whole spectrum there from just feeling negative feelings towards other people, but holding our tongue, to expressing those negative feelings, to acting on those negative feelings. And over the last 4 years, we've all kind of had to decide. Where are we on that spectrum? Unfortunately, you know, far too many people seem to be moving down that spectrum towards not just holding negative feelings, negative affect in their hearts, but expressing it with words, and in the worst case, expressing it with actions. And we seem ill-equipped as humans to draw distinctions between the fact that we can reasonably disagree on issues and outcomes and candidates to being able to continue to treat each other with courtesy, respect, or just basic humanity.
And complicating all of this are the perceptions we hold that issues are existential. That the conflicts that are erupting are a matter of life and death,. It's easier for me to articulate this from a left leaner's perspective. For left leaners, many things have felt very existential over the last 3 or 4 years right? Whether it's climate change, whether it's racial justice, inequity, or police violence, the pandemic and lack of vaccine uptake. And Trump's very divisive rhetoric and style, and constant verbal assaults on populations that are marginalized, disadvantaged, vulnerable, and so on—that creates what seems to be an existential conflict.
What's been harder for me to discern, but I've I've worked really hard to understand, is what seems existential on the right. I like to say "I live on the left, but I visit the right" as often as I can. What feels so existential about this time for right leaners? I am not sure I understand that. But it is important that I do understand that, because it's clear that part of what's ramping this all up is the sense of existential threat that people on the left feel. Trump is an existential threat. Anti-vaxxers are an existential threat. The police are an existential threat. Climate change is an existential threat.
What I have discovered, is there are many genuine, genuine threats perceived on the right as well. The right-leaners are also operating from a sense of existential threat. And this is some of what I was trying to get across in that in that post, and my response to Walt was that Trump may be cynical. Tucker Carlson may be cynical. They are cynical in their pursuit of divisive rhetoric and strategies, and they may be exploiting it and gaining from it in terms of power and money, and all of it. But, by and large, people who are right-leaning, who are feeling, and expressing, and acting on fear, are not cynical. Their fear is genuine. It is every bit as genuine as what a left-leaner might feel in terms of this being a threatening and a risky time. What's interesting is that the perceived threats are just completely different! What the left sees as threatening, what the right sees as threatening. There's virtually no overlap!
But you do really have to seep yourself in what the sense of threat is from people who lean right. You have to know what is driving the toxicity from their side. Every bit as much as what's driving the toxicity from—I'll say it —from our side, you know, from the left. I think the word "freedom" is what comes to mind the most. And, of course, it's preyed upon, right? People prey upon the left leaner's sense of threat. People will prey upon right leaner's sense of threat too. But the sense that that freedoms are threatened seems to be so animating for right-leaning segments of of the US., I think, in a somewhat unifying way across traditional conservatives. More Trumpian Conservatives, and libertarians can all kind of connect with one another around this sense that freedoms are being threatened, whether it's free speech, freedom of expression, academic freedom, free and unfettered capitalism, free markets, or just the sense of our country being free, i.e., not socialistic. Just as a left leaner would say, we need to be free, i,e, not fascist, right-leaners will say we need to be free, not socialist.
And you know I I feel like I still need to spend more time in more places, more rooms that are right leaning, and get to know people more deeply who are right leaning. I mean it's an effort from from where I’m situated in the Bay area and doing the work that I do. But I think I can say with certainty that the animating energy from right leaners, is it's every bit as genuine. And so that was why I made the point in the blog. The vast, vast majority of these millions of Americans—and let's remember there were even more of them in 2020 than in 2016, who cast a vote for Trump—they are not doing it to be to be nihilistic. They are not doing it to invoke chaos or as a vote for authoritarianism. Like, "oh, yeah, I want to discard democracy and and become an autocracy." There are positive, values-driven and value-oriented reasons why Americans are casting a vote for Trump. We have to remember that.
I've been really discouraged and disappointed by rhetoric coming from the Biden administration that has been careless and loose in assigning and ascribing these negative characteristics to arguably millions of Americans. Because a lack of parameters has been put around that language, and saying, oh, "we have, a semi-fascist movement in the MAGA Republicans." Well, who are you talking about? It sounds like you're talking about 70 million Americans. That's what it sounds like. Is that really what you mean to do?
Heidi: That's what they are hearing, for sure!
Kristin: Of course! It only took 24 hours for that to start to be exploited in the fundraising cycles of Republican candidates. 24 hours! I’m on all the mailing lists and the minute Biden says something like this, It goes into a fundraising email. I mean, why wouldn't you right? Why wouldn't you?
And so you know, again, going back to means versus ends, it's it's not that I don't think that Trump's behavior or rhetoric isn't appalling. I do. Of course I do. It was his ability to trigger me and offend every nerve ending in my body that got me initially, you know, knocked out of my career path. And thinking initially, I was going to be part of the resistance, and I was going to go all in and fight Trump. But every bit as much as he triggered left-leaners like me, Biden's been triggering right-leaners. I hate to say it, but I think that he knows it, you know? And there's commentary now, suggesting that that was, in fact, a good strategy. It turned out the base and got people to vote in the Midterms, and and maybe it was.
But you know, taking the long view, that really comes at the expense of the vision and values that he had asserted for his Presidency in terms of really trying to heal and repair and bridge the rifts in our country. I think that the rhetoric leading up to midterms was really unhelpful in that regard and a setback for bridging upwards.
Guy: One of the things that we've been struggling with, and I'd be interested in your thoughts on, is a vision, an underlying vision for democracy. In our classes, we ask students to imagine what a reconciled society would look like, and it's invariably a society in which their side wins, and the other side realizes that they were wrong all along. And what we really need is a vision of an underlying set of beliefs that allow different communities with different images of social justice to coexist in a spirit of tolerance and respect, with constructive competition on a lot of the big, important ideas and issues of the time. But we need an underlying set of beliefs that we all agree to. So when you're defending democracy, you're not defending the Democrats' view of it or the Republicans' view, you're defending this underlying vision which has largely disappeared from the public consciousness. Nobody gets up and gives a speech about defending that. They give speeches defending one side or the other. I wonder whether you've given any thought to that?
Kristin: I certainly have. It's why I say that in my time allocation, I try to allocate 75 to 80% of my time to what I describe as the bridge building pillar or category of reform work, but another 20 to 25% goes to the broader cross pillar reform efforts that are also non-partisan. Are you guys familiar with the construct of Partnership for American Democracy? It's now called the More Perfect Campaign. I’m generally a systems and institutional thinker. I come out of big corporate environments like IBM and Intel and and I can be institutionalist in my thinking. So I have to kind of confess that at the outset. I’m not really a grassrootsy person. I’m very corporate. And as such, I’m a believer in the idea of of constructs, organizational constructs that help us coordinate and accelerate progress towards shared goals. I’m a big believer in the vision of the Partnership for American Democracy, and how it kind of lays out the broader challenge we have as a country. Guy, to your point about how nobody makes speeches about this. That's what this effort is all about! It is elevating the virtue and value of bipartisanship, civic education, elections that both have integrity and and are perceived to have integrity, sensible reforms in our media and social media landscape. And then bridge building is kind of the glue that connects and holds all those other pillars together. So when you talk about an underlying vision for democracy--sometimes I describe it as like it's the container that holds all our differences, that we all have to agree to live within.
But another point that I will often make to people to challenge, particularly, my fellow left leaners, I say, "you know, when you think about so many of the things that have upset you over the last, however many years, in terms of of outcomes in our country, you have to remember that all of these things have happened in the context of a democracy." All of these outcomes have been produced in a democracy. Now, I know there are measures, there are indices, that indicate that we've become a "flawed" democracy, or we're becoming an anocracy—that term that's like between democracy and and autocracy. I’m 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. And, you know, the erosion of norms, it pains me. Like, the spirit of bipartisanship, or the idea that we should trust the outcomes of elections--I want all of that to continue to be true. It saddens and pains me that our our norms do seem to be eroding. But again, when norms erode, it's not that any law is being broken. Nobody is doing something that they can be jailed over, barring, you know, January 6th. It's just that we may need harder guard rails. Our norms just may not be serving us anymore. And so what are we going to do about that? Then the question is, what do we do? If norms aren't solid enough, what do we need instead to strengthen and shore up what has previously was managed through norms and assumptions?
And to me there's even a silver lining in the erosion and disruption of norms, which is, I think that norms going by the wayside is a consequence of a country becoming more genuinely diverse, with a wider set of worldviews, a wider set of backgrounds and perspectives. It gets harder to assume that everyone is going to play by the same rules. So, as we become more diverse and colorful and chaotic, and more and more parties and players are coming to the table...I think about Congress and the norms within Congress, and oh, it wasn't like it used to be. You know, it used to be that the Democrats and Republicans would get together and have a drink at the end of the day. Well, yeah, but you know, it may have been more comfortable for a bunch of older white guys to go and have a drink after work, but are Mitch McConnell and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez going to be like, "hey, let's go out for a drink after work!" I mean, it would be awesome if they would. That would be great. But that may not happen. And so what are we going to do instead, to create the mechanisms by which Mitch McConnell and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez have a way of engaging constructively with one another? Because the drink at the bar after work just might not be the mechanism that does it anymore.
Guy: One of the things we've been struggling with is what we call the bad-faith actor problem. The conflict field, and you know, you mentioned this, to start with, assumes that, in their heart of hearts, people are good faith actors, and so, if you offer them a mutually-beneficial way of addressing a problem, they will take it. And one of the things that it took us a while to come to was the belief that there really were bad faith actors out there who have figured out how to profit from driving us apart. Either there is a ticket to power or a ticket to a lucrative audience for your news channel, or whatever. Now, a lot of these bad-faith actors are doing so because of the incentive structure of the system. They're not necessarily evil people, but they're still doing things that are explicitly designed to tear us apart, rather than bring us together.
Kristin:: I think that is a little bit evil, actually, don't you?
Guy: Well, yes, but there are degrees of evil. There are some folks who get pressed into it. There's some folks who think that, "well', democracy is just this rough and tumble game where everybody advocates for what they want as strenuously as possible, and you wind up bending the rules as far as you can in order to win. And then there are folks that are a lot more sinister than that, and there are things that lead people to do this that are just trying to get attention. We have such good tracking of what news articles get the most clicks and the most shares that that tends to push news outlets on both the left and the right towards increasingly inflammatory coverage. At one level, they should be really smart enough to stop that. But the competitive pressures to do that and still stay in business are awfully strong.
Heidi: The thing that I’m thinking about as you're talking about this is the democratic strategy of pushing extreme candidates, because they figured that they were easier to beat. I was appalled for two reasons. One was, I thought it was incredibly dangerous, because I wasn't sure that the Dems were going to win. And and the other one was, if these folks really are existential threats, don't you have a moral obligation to uphold a norm--there should have been a norm that told the left that that was over the line, and that they shouldn't have done that.
Kristin: So I I reacted the same way you did for the same reasons. And regarding bad faith actors, the animating idea for me is that most people are and want to be good people, acting on what they see. I agree there are bad faith factors, and the way we in Civic Health Project, the the language we've used to talk about the polarization problem is supply and demand. We have a supply problem and a demand problem in polarization. We have an unhealthy supply and demand loop. 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? And when we, in our work, look at how to intervene on the problem of polarization, that's kind of like the starting point question. It is looking at a particular kind of solution. A proposed solution is this: a supply side intervention or a demand side intervention?
If it's supply side, then it's operating on what is being put out there in the world, and there's two sides to it. Can you reduce the bad stuff that's going out? Can you change the incentives so that people don't have as much incentive to put divisive, vilifying, condescending, demonizing rhetoric and concepts out into the world? Or, alternatively, can you produce more pro-social content on the supply side, so that you start to take up more real estate 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. That's 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. There's that bad faith actor, that constellation of bad faith actors will always emerge if there is demand for what they are offering. And that, unfortunately, is what we've seen unfold in many places and many eras throughout history.
For me, the biggest surprise and disappointment over the past 6 years has been that I thought the demand for what was being offered would be a lot smaller than it was. That was a real surprise. But again, you know, my journey there has been to, again, and I’m sure you guys do this, too—you have to transport yourself as fully as you can out of your own worldview and into other worldviews, to understand how and why, and from where, that demand is generated. Where did that come from? And I feel fortunate that in my life there are ambassadors or people who who I’m connected to who voted for Trump in 2016, and even more enthusiastically in 2020. I like having proximity to people who I know and love and who expressed their demand in that way. It has just really forced me to work really hard to understand it.
And this is where it comes back to democracy guard rails and the container. I do have a point of view, but I don't carry in my professional work a point of view that electing Democrats is good and Republicans is bad. I don't. The point of view I carry is that supporting and sustaining these bad faith actors, whether they are in politics or media is bad. That's the demand we need to stem. We need to shift the appetite away from the demonizing sensationalists and help more Americans to reject that, or to see why that is damaging.
Even if one person, one actor, or a set of actors seems to be offering something of value like that —it may be true, but the damage wrought— it's far too costly to all of us as a society. And so,if we can shift people's demand preferences away from the division, demonization, and vilification, and towards a different set of norms...because I often describe the work that the bridge building field is doing is just this: a massive norms shifting exercise. We're trying to help people steer towards is a set of norms that could be best described, as listening instead of canceling, intellectual humility versus a sense of moral certitude, curiosity and openness versus confidence and absolutism.
I think part of what makes this hard is that it kind of runs against the grain of how we, in this culture, particularly, value certainty. We value it in ourselves. We value it in others. We're expected to operate as confident and assured actors. We exalt and glorify Type A personalities. And it all mitigates against the idea that, norm that what we really need to do is feel uncertain. We need to walk in the world with humility. We need to be unsure of ourselves. We need to question our perspectives. We need to listen instead of talk. And you know, none of that sounds very American, right? Certainly not in the in the spaces that I occupy, and whether you're talking about the corporate world, or religious faith, or social justice movements, I mean you name it! There is an expectation that we form a point of view, and we stick by it with moral certitude. And unfortunately, I think that is just kind of our undoing, and it does lead us to frame up things in our minds, and in a ways of of expressing and acting the world. It gives us this sense that everything is existential, when that may not be true.
Heidi: So one of the things that we're grappling with is that the tool, the go-to tool, for bridge builders seems to be dialogue. And dialogue is great for the 10 or 20 people who are sitting around the table. But It doesn't really scale up. What ideas have you, or Civic Health Project, or others that you work with, come up with for, come for dealing with these issues to help people. Listen, to develop humility, and all of the things you are just talking about at scale better than 10 person dialogues?
Kristin: Yeah, I I don't know if I'll have a great answer for you here, because I definitely felt more confident 3 or 4 years ago that those scalable solutions existed than I do now. I want to describe two different pathways that in my work I’m on working on simultaneously. One pathway is exemplified by a study that we funded called the Strengthening Democracy Challenge. Did you hear about that?
Heidi: Oh, yes! We watched the webinar when they revealed the winners.
Kristin: Oh, great. Okay, yes. For that conference, we had 660 people register, and more than 400 attend throughout the day. So it got it got a lot of attention, and the animating question behind that study was, "what are things that people could do in a very short amount of time, virtually, like online, that would move the needle on partisan animosity, anti-democratic attitudes, and support for political violence. Those are the 3 outcome variables that were being tested. We started the work here at Stanford at the Polarization and Social Change Lab. We started that work 3 years ago. The basic theory we were testing is that there might be things you could do where you could show that in a very short amount of time — the parameter was 8 minutes or less—you could get people to do something, read something, write something, listen to something, and maybe sign a pledge. Maybe they'd do some kind of an exercise where you could observe a shift on one or more of those outcome variables.
But we weren't sure. We got 250 different ideas, we rigorously tested 25 of them with more than 32,000 Americans. And the good news out of that is that 23 out of the 25 that were tested did move the needle with statistically meaningful and observable outcomes. To me, this was not like we have our answer, now. Just do these 23 things. Because that's a very ephemeral outcome.They survey people immediately after they do the intervention. They see a change. That's great. How do you sustain that? That was one eight-minute interaction. It's just not going to do it. So you need to either have dosing strategies or surround sound strategies. I think that the interventions that move the needle provide good pointers to the underlying theory. Like, what are we operating on that causes people to feel differently? It's things like modeling positive interactions between out partisans, correcting misperceptions we hold of one another— like we think all Republicans are like this, or we think all Democrats are like that—and it turns out that's wrong. Oh, now I have a better feeling about my out partisan.
Another type of of intervention that performed well was posing the threat of democratic collapse, like actually forcing people to confront the question of what happens if we choose these visceral impulses over our embrace of democracy? That had a marked effect on people who participated in this study. So that's good.
So now the question is, how can we build on these insights with interventions that are more durable, more sustainable, more scalable? And how do we give people that surround sound with these different types of messages, these different types of interventions that are correcting misperceptions, leveraging elite cues, you know, modeling bridge building between political media and and intellectual elites in society? How are we giving people vicarious contact with out-partisans through entertainment channels? So this challenge provided a lot of pointers, and that's great.
But now this brings me over to the second pathway. The second pathway is what I call the slog. This one is reaching a substantial percentage of our American population, young and old, with ridging concepts and immersive experiences and skill building. I really want to emphasize skill building so that much in the same way that that many of us have grown up with a sense that we must have this moral certitude and intellectual conviction in the things that we pursue in our lives. I’m not saying we're going to remove that or replace that, but that we're going to supplement that with appreciation of a second set of values around listening, considering, reflecting perspectives, sharing intellectual humility, open mindedness. We need to infuse these value sets into human interactions. Now, how do we scale that?
Okay. So yes, there there will be a set of organizations that are working on these kind of online or virtual interactions and dosing strategies or vicarious exposure through entertainment and that sort of thing. But I think the biggest play we have in bridge building is what we call mobilization work. Mobilization work is when we take the capacity of the bridge building field, which is hundreds of organizations, and then you layer on to that mediators, conflict transformation organizations, peacebuilders and so on. We should think of ourselves as all part of a bigger, broader community that provides capacity for bridge building.
But then all of us collectively need to push that energy up into wider civic sectors, which are the places where Americans live and work and congregate: workplaces, learning settings, church congregations, synagogues, mosques, civic clubs, and also bodies where we make decisions. So city councils, school boards, election administration offices in in local communities and counties.
When we talk about the mobilization work, that's what we're talking about. We're talking about infusing bridge building norms and values throughout American society by leveraging these intermediary institutions and leaders who we aim to infect in a positive way with bridge building values. Who can then permeate those values through their organizations, their workplaces, their their church congregations, their city councils, their school boards.
Now it doesn't remove the slog because you're still talking about, thousands of counties, hundreds of thousands of towns, how many thousands of church congregations? I don't know! We're actually in the midst of quantifying this right now. We're actually as a field putting metrics on some of these mobilization efforts right now.
But that is the game. And the good news is that within that field of bridge building organizations we have a number that are focused on workplaces, a number that are focused on on faith and interfaith communities, a number that are focused on higher education. So we've got really good coverage. We just need to get a bit more focused and savvy and and rapid. We need to improve velocity in the work and and do more best practice sharing and collective impact work to understand what this mobilization game is, and how we're going to accomplish it together. So we're smarter as a field about allocating everybody's energy and resources, and unique value added. So that's the one pathway
Are there any hacks? Are there ways we can, you know, subvert the algorithms? We call it "trolls for good" or or utilizing entertainment channels. Or maybe get some kind of a fix that changes the incentives for social media. That would be great. That that's what I call the hacks path, and then the other is this mobilization path. It's just time and effort and coverage. But it's not rocket science, because the one bit of good news, you know, you talked about dialogue, and there are some limitations to dialogue. But I I really believe in dialogue being part of the mix, whether it's physical in person or it's virtual like we're having right now because of what I what I call "the avatar effect" which is that I think we sometimes overestimate, not underestimate, but overestimate the difficulty of getting people to soften their views.
Sometimes I just say it like this. I say to get a human being, an adult human being, like me, to replace a stereotype or a caricature that I have, that I hold in my mind with a real person in all their full humanity, and to start to soften my prejudices and soften that demonizing instinct that I have, how long does that take? I think that it takes about an hour. I think that for many of us, meeting an avatar who is our political other or our, you know, cultural other, somebody who holds a different world view and getting to know them as a human being, and starting to use that to replace the caricatures and the stereotypes we hold in our head and understand people are more complicated than that. And that these negative impulses we have ascribed to others, we start to replace with positive impulses. You can actually accomplish a lot within a well-constructed hour. But you do have to construct it.
Heidi: Yeah, and you have to get people to do it.
Kristin: In terms of the time, and also the level of curation of these experiences. It's all on a spectrum, right? I mean, there are interventions that are 3 minutes long, and there are some that are an hour, and then sometimes it's 3 conversations, and sometimes it's project based, and then sometimes it's a year long cohort. We've funded projects all along that spectrum from single light touch all the way to year-long bridging cohorts.I think I think there's a need in for all of them. So I I would imagine we're going to continue to diversify our portfolio of who we fund and keep learning from all of these interventions along that spectrum. Because I don't think I could point to any place on the spectrum and say, that's it. That's the spot, that's the sweet spot. I do think we need the whole mix.
Heidi: We actually have been advocating something that we call massively parallel peacebuilding. Or if we're not talking to peacebuilders, we call it massively parallel problem solving after the notion of massively parallel computing where you have hundreds of thousands of individual computers all working on the same problem to solve it. We're saying that's what is needed in this area, and that's exactly what you're describing.
Heidi: I love that! What I really am so impressed about you is you're doing it! We are writing about it, we are asking people to think about it and we're urging people to be part of it. You're out there doing it, and that's just really exciting.
Kristin: Well, I’m a step back in a way, too, because I’m not a practitioner. Civic Health project is first and foremost a grant making organization, and then,secondarily, field building. Right? So my co-founder, Rob provides our core baseline funding for the money that we give away at the Civic Health Project. But then we supplement that by raising funds from others, too.
We've spent 4 years steeped in this work. We've developed a pretty good theory of change. We're putting our money where our mouth is, and we want to put your money where our mouth is, too, so we're like a seed funder, and we're trying to attract other limited partners into the work.
Now our grants are very small. They tend to be very small and one time. But I like to think that a grant from us is kind of like a good housekeeping seal of approval, that it's been through our vetting process. And then there are two things we pursue from there after we've made a grant. The first is, we try to help our grantees go out, and secure much bigger sources of funding. We can be a reference. We can be a promoter and advocate for them to secure other larger sources of funding. And then we look for non-monetary ways to continue to support grantees in our portfolio, and and also to advocate more broadly even for organizations that we haven't been able to make the grant to which is most of them. For example, there are 500 plus organizations in the Listen First coalition. We've made about 30 grants so far since we've formed. S we're only touching a small subset. And I wish we could provide much more funding to many more organizations. But at least we can, through our grants, we can underscore a certain series of changes. We can extract learning from our grantees, so we can then share out more broadly to the whole community.
We can also experiment with measurement. And then, most importantly, we can, be like moths to a flame. We're trying to attract other funders into this field and say, "look at this! This is this work is real. It's impactful. It's, generating results. It's measurable. There's return on investment. You should fund this. That's what we do.
Heidi:: That sounds really important. And I’m so glad to get a chance to learn more about it.
Kristin: I’m really glad we've had a chance to meet, because I think I mentioned, I came across your writing quite a while ago and so you've been on my radar for some time. I don't even remember now the piece that really drew my attention and focus. But I could tell that there was alignment in how you guys are looking at the work. at least here in this country, and and how we're looking at the work. So now I feel like we're more connected, and that it was over you. But it takes a while doesn't it, to kind of turn over all the rocks and get to everybody.
Guy: Well, that's the good news because it means there are lots of people working on relevant things. If there weren't, we'd be in more trouble.
Kristin: Yeah, that's totally right. It's amazing to me that still, you know, right now, every week I’m learning about some new person or some new team, you know, people fall into this space, right, like I did. And so I think that's that is another important part of the work is what I call induction, just inducting people into bridge building work, making sure that as they come in, we try to figure out what motivates them, what kind of work do they want to do. And then making sure they're connected to other people who are already doing it, so they can consider it. A lot of people come in with the energy like I’m going to start something new. And I’m like, no, no. Here's someone that's already doing exactly what you want to do. Go help them.
Guy: How about fenders? (It's one thing to spend all your time reinventing the wheel; why don't you invent fenders instead?) If you are not wasting time reinventing the wheel, you can invent the rest of the car! Or electric vehicles or all sorts of spiffy things.
Kristin: It's hard though because, well, I think it is endemic to the non-profit field, that it's not monetarily driven. It's more ego-driven work. It's like ego-mission-passion. And then how do you convince people to maybe compromise a little bit on their singular vision of what must be in the world for the sake of accomplishing more in partnership with others.But that is but that is a role that funders play in the private sector, in the corporate world. That I think we we can and should, and to a certain extent do, play that role in the nonprofit sector as well, which is to kind of create that impetus for merger and acquisition activity, or at the very least more collaborative ways of working and rewarding collaboration and rewarding best practice sharing.
So at this point, you know, with more than 500 bridge building organizations, and I don't even know, like 300 community mediation centers across the country, and then we've got the very large membership of the National Coalition on Dialogue and Deliberation. And now you've got peacebuilders coming in from the global sector into the US. That capacity is pretty big! I think, from here it's like, okay, let's get organized and let's move up and out into the world. Let's move out into the into our country. Let's go find people where they are.
Guy: I have a sort of a combination Google Maps/Adopt a Highway image of how to do this. What Google Maps does is it draws upon data from billions of people to draw a map of the current conditions of traffic, where you can identify where things are going wrong in the system. What I try to do is extend that metaphor with an Adopt-a-Highway program. So what we need at one level is a map that lets people see where the problems are, and then you attach an Adopt-a-Highway program to each problem. You want something that can match people up with problems that don't that nobody has adopted yet.
Kristin: Oh, boy, I love that metaphor, too. I’m taking on board a lot of metaphors from you guys and relate to what you just said. You know I mentioned a minute ago the community mediation centers, (CMCs). So one of the big problems that was becoming more and more apparent to me is conflict erupting in school boards. And again, there are bad-faith actors at the national level that are involved in creating some of the conflict we're seeing now in school boards. But then there's also just sort of again the demand side, the genuine local conflicts and differences of opinion that emerge just organically, naturally emerge, because people are all different. How do we get involved in that? Most bridge building organizations, or a lot of them, anyway, have a kind of a national focus, and nobody seems to have a particular focus on school boards. And yet this is emerging as a real hotspot in terms of conflict in our country. So what do we do about that? And who can do it?
And that more than anything, was what motivated me to reach out to a gentleman named D.G. Mann, who runs the National Association for Community Mediators. I raised it to him by saying "you guys are like the army on the ground. You have 300 CMCs all over the country, and I want to understand better, what CMC's do, and what are mediators trained to do? And do they get involved in these kinds of community initiatives, dialogue, rifts, conflicts, and so on? It was a good, timely, conversation of DG and me, because, historically, or for the last 30, 40 years,CMCs haven't really done as much of this community bridge building work. They've done more court ordered mediation and resolving neighbor disputes and marital disputes and custody disputes and things like that. But, he said, that's not how CMCs started, And he expressed a point of view on behalf of at least some of the CMCs that they really want to do more community bridge building, which he described as being back to their beginning, back to how they were originally founded. I was like good! Because, you know, I can give you a laundry list of things that are coming up predictably in town after town. The same patterns are emerging around how certain subjects are being taught in schools, or housing and housing affordability issues, and homelessness, and drug use, and da da da. But even with all the capacity we have, with all these organizations, we're still dear in the headlights when it comes to some of this pattern matching in school boards. How do we tamp down the demonization, vilification, and affective polarization going on there?
So that was kind of the starting point. What's emerging out of that is that now? D.G. is partnered with Becca who runs Livingroom Conversations, and they're putting together a toolkit for school boards and planning to work through community mediation centers as a way of disseminating awareness of this toolkit and activation of the toolkit, and where the capacity exists, they'll be doing more hands on work with school boards to be both reactively, and even better yet, proactively, addressing this potential for high conflict within school boards
Guy: For: 6 or 7 years of our life, we were involved in school conflicts around here which invoke what I call the "mother grizzly effect." The conflicts are over the future of people's kids. They will do anything to protect that. This isn't just the Trump era--this was 15 years ago now.: But it's probably one of the most important, most intractable areas, and there are a lot of really tough issues that come up. The bitterness that swirled around was pretty extreme, and it's not rare. I was on the high school governing board at the same time Columbine happened just down the street, a couple of schools south of us. So it was terribly, terribly important to address these school conflicts.
Kristin: It's terribly, terribly important. It just felt like a really— I'll borrow your word— it felt like a terribly unmet need that our field was not responding to. A lot of bridge building work, again, is more focused at a national level, where it's looking more at the supply side. It's like we've got to fix Congress, or, we've got to get reds and blues to get along better through debates and workshops and skill building and stuff, and it's like all of this, all the divisive rhetoric and strategies are cascading now down and out into our local communities.
And now to your point--it's it's not entirely new, right? These conflicts have have been there, but the same amplifying and accelerating factors, like social media, and and just the increasing savvy of the bad faith actors that there are and frankly, on both sides—right Heidi? You talked about the the Democratic party funding the extremist candidates. You also have national organizations that are recruiting polarizing candidates to run for school boards in local communities to convert school boards. What is that motivated by at the local level? I trust that it's motivated by that Mama grizzly instinct, and by the organic desire to do the right thing for the kids. But it's being preyed upon by savvy actors at the national level.
Guy: Another thing that's happened in the intervening 20 or so years is that we've nationalized politics. When we were involved in school issues, local news was the thing. There were local newspapers that had high quality reporting. People showed up at local school board meetings. And now, as local news has disappeared and been replaced with largely inflammatory national news, horse race kind of coverage —did the Dems win or lose points today? That is now starting to filter down and affect local decisions. So a big part of saving democracy is restoring the ability of local communities to struggle with their own problems. And that is another unmet challenge that we have to find a way to address
Yeah, I’m really concerned about it, because you know, it's one thing to watch the gladiator matches on cable news or social media in your social media feed. But it's another thing when you start to really feel those divisions viscerally in your hometown, in the place where you live, and you know, when you walk outside your door. Now it's not entertainment anymore. It's real lives. And seeing the kind of the wildfire component of this happening in school boards, which I think, I'm not sure if there's really wide awareness of it yet. I mean, it really is because of the fact that there's a lot of inbound coming into the bridge building field from school boards, from people involved with schools locally. And we're seeing the inbound patterns from all over the country which enables us to do the pattern matching. But it doesn't mean we have a great response. It just means we're aware.
Heidi: What is name of the person who's with Livingroom Conversations who's working on the toolkit?
Kristin: Becca Kearl. She is now the Executive Director of Livingroom Conversations. She's just lovely. I’m so grateful that in our steering committee and the people who are at the core of the bridge building field, in a country where we have both right and left leaners, and she comes from a more right-leaning perspective and background. She's from Utah and grew up in the Mormon faith, and you know, she would characterize herself as right leaning, but she is very, very committed to bridge building. She's just terrific. And she's partnered with DG.
Well, look guys. it's been so delightful. I don't know if we really used the question set that you had sent over, because I hadn't looked at it in a little while.
Heidi: We didn't, but what we did was better so, so that's great. This is very much the kind of thing that we wanted to do, and I think so many of your points were important.
So thank you very much!
Kristin: Thank you!