Today, we are broken. Beyond the acute levels of hardship and loss that the global pandemic, ensuing economic crisis, and spike in outrage over racial injustice are bringing, they are also laying bare a host of deep fissures and fragilities within American society. Chief among them are the extraordinary difficulties we are facing in coming together as a nation to effectively address these—and many other—existential challenges. Even on the issues with strong bipartisan support like raising taxes on the ultra-wealthy, background checks for gun purchases, and the need for Medicare to be able to negotiate lower drug prices, we can’t come together enough to deliver. We are a house divided.
Of course, political polarization is not inherently a bad thing—it can make for a more engaged electorate and better policy-making by helping to mitigate the perverse effects of groupthink and oppressive single-party rule. Yet, the extreme levels of affective polarization and partisan contempt we are suffering have become pathological. It has resulted in a preponderance of negative partisanship, where Americans largely mobilize against the other party rather than aligning with their own. Today, when asked to imagine a loss of the presidency in 2020, 18 percent of Democrats and 13 percent of Republicans say they would support partisan violence. This suggests that the incidents of rioting that have recently taken place are perhaps a harbinger of things to come.
No, this isn’t only about Donald Trump—our current heated political divisions are largely a symptom of a decades-long trend in our society that goes back to the late 1960s. This trend created the conditions that led to such a divisive presidency and congress, and it is the underlying trend, more than the current administration, that we need to be concerned about. Whether we view the data on our elected leaders in Washington or our citizens across the country, the signs are the same: tribalism, partisan contempt and dysfunction rule.
The sources of our runaway discord today are complex and structural—in other words they are physically, psychologically, culturally, and politically incentivized. This means that how our brains work, how we feel about our political groups, what our moral priorities are, who we trust and learn from, where we live, the media we consume, and which leaders we support today are all reinforcing one another and working in concert to split us into a state of mass American psychosis—two parallel but divergent realities. Together, these forces create a dangerous landscape for our lives that readily attracts us into toxic, enduring patterns of repulsion and contempt for their side and love and loyalty of our own.
The adverse consequences of this degree of divisiveness become most evident and sweeping in times of need like these when we are unable to unite sufficiently as a nation to respond to dire emergencies. Rather than unify and mobilize us, the pandemic was almost immediately weaponized by more extreme voices on both sides, leading to radically divergent experiences of the disaster and levels of compliance with safety and mitigation orders. As the protests across the nation continue over the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by police in Minneapolis, America’s views are split over the movement, with President Trump’s tweets only inflaming more vociferous responses from activists.
Although research on something called disaster diplomacy has documented that warring groups at times will put down their arms in the aftermath of crises to help rebuild their communities—and there has been some indication of this occurring globally—the more recent studies on polarization in the U.S. show few signs of thawing.
So what could possibly dislodge us from such a deeply ensconced culture of division?
Since the early 1970s, scientists in fields as diverse as paleobiology, adult development, organizational change and international relations have been studying the critical role major shocks and disturbances play in bringing about dramatic changes in physical and social systems. Although most families, organizations, communities, and nations change gradually over time through tinkering and adaptation, significant qualitative changes in how they function are mostly the result of dramatic jolts to their status quo.
This is because change of this nature is thought to require a disassembly and reorientation of their deep structure, essentially the assumptions, values, and incentives that determine their most basic decision-making processes. This is the opposite of the Butterfly Effect—it’s more like the bulldozer effect. Research on this type of change, known as punctuated equilibrium, has found that significant shocks are often a necessary, albeit insufficient, condition for bringing about transformational change.
Fortunately, for these purposes, we are currently living through a profoundly destabilizing series of shocks—including the radically unorthodox nature of the Trump presidency, a deadly global pandemic, the subsequent derailment of our basic social and economic foundations, and now widespread and prolonged civil unrest over racial injustice. This instability is somewhat akin to the experience of a major earthquake, tsunami, and extreme wildfires hitting the same community in succession. The exact impact of these events is unknowable except for the fact that they will destabilize and change us profoundly.
The good news is that studies have found significant shocks to be a common precursor for ending deep-seated divisions. Research on international conflicts that become stuck in decades of enmity have found that between 75 and 90 percent of these disputes end within 10 years of a major political shock. These shocks are either local events like assassinations or coup attempts, or global occurrences such as the ending of the Cold War or 9/11, that sufficiently destabilize nations, regions, or the global political order such that they trigger a variety of basic structural changes over time that—across some threshold—lead to major shifts from open conflict to long-term conciliation.
To illustrate, consider the polarization dynamics displayed in the above graph, from a study by political scientists Nolan McCarty, Keith T. Poole and Howard Rosenthal. It displays voting patterns in the U.S. Congress (both Senate and House) from 1879 until 2015. The higher the lines, the less bipartisanship, or the more polarization in Congress. According to this data, the last time America was as politically polarized as it is today was in the late 1800s, just after the end of the U.S. Civil War. These divisions understandably lasted quite some time, but then around 1924 we started to see a precipitous decline in polarization in the U.S. Congress.
Of course, it is logical to ask what happened in the early 1920s to bring about such a change? But if you look further back to 1914, you see the onset of World War I, the “war to end all wars,” an unprecedented global political shock that radically destabilized the world order, including the U.S.’s role in it (you also see the Spanish flu hit in 1918 and killed 50 million people across the globe—a shock upon a shock). And then, around 1924, we see the beginning of a significant depolarization trend in our Congress, followed by decades of much-improved bipartisanship and functional problem solving in Washington. This is what the research on these types of shocks tell us—their effects often take several years to coalesce and crystalize.
However, destabilizing shocks have been found to be quite fickle. In fact, the research also shows that about 95 percent of these more harmful, enduring conflicts between nations in fact begin within 10 years of a shock. Note that the uptick in polarization seen in the above graph beginning around 1979—which is often attributed to Reagan’s conservative revolution but also occurred about a decade after the U.S. experienced several political assassinations (John F. and Robert Kennedy, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King) in addition to a full-out anti-establishment culture war—was the onset of the very path we are stuck on today.
So, shocks can reunite people and bring solidarity, have no visible impact whatsoever, or trigger new divisions that endure for decades. In fact, this range of results has been on display across the across the Middle East and North African region for years after the 2011 “Arab Spring” uprisings, a series of insurgency movements that occurred roughly 10 years after the shock of 9/11 and the American military incursions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Different nations in the region experienced vastly different outcomes from these events, including a promising turn toward democracy emerging in Tunisia, a return to the status quo in Egypt, and horrific civil wars in Syria and Libya.
So, the big question is, will COVID-19 and our highly destabilized state usher in a new period of functional bipartisan leadership and problem-solving for us, or just make matters worse?
It definitely helps that most Americans are currently ripe for changing course. Research on what motivates warring parties to end long-term, entrenched disputes finds that two things really get them moving: sufficient levels of mutual misery and a vision of a way out. Even before COVID-19 hit, a significant and growing group of politically moderate Americans reported feeling increasingly worried about the potential for political violence in our streets and eager for the parties to come together. After the 2018 midterms, 86 percent said they felt exhausted by division in politics and 89 percent said they wanted both parties to try to find places to compromise. The stress and anxieties brought by our government’s inept responses to the pandemic and the current tensions over racial injustice will likely only add to this exhaustion with the status quo. So, luckily, we are sufficiently miserable.
All we are missing now is a vision of a way out.
Of course, entrenched cultural patterns like ours are not going to be easily altered and changes in them are often highly unpredictable. Transformation at the scale needed will require adjustments at many levels—in individual mindsets and habits, community norms and processes, institutions like the media, internet platforms, business, and politics, and in leadership and legislation. They will also require strategic action and a long-term commitment to adaptive problem solving. In other words, change of this nature—in our deep structure—will require a movement.
What might this look like? Recent research on the application of punctuated-equilibrium strategies to social change initiatives has informed a particularly promising approach to leveraging opportunities for revolutionary change. In this scenario, members of a failing system (like us) who have a particularly nuanced understanding of the specific challenges they are facing locally—as well as the more promising remedies—lack the resources, confidence or vision to mobilize and realize them. Thus, they at times will welcome trustworthy external actors into a collaborative process that is centered on local understanding and initiative, but is supported and brought to scale through the value-added of outside agents. Together, through problem solving and persistence, they realize radical change. Such strategic inside-outside partnerships have been found to be quite effective in realizing transformative solutions to a variety of chronic challenges such as urban poverty and violence, child protection, health and conservation, and peacebuilding.
In the U.S. today, we have the pieces of a nascent solidarity movement. Currently, there are thousands of groups and organizations across the country that are working actively to support political dialogue and mobilize action to bridge divides. Some work at the local community level to help red and blue Americans come together and build common understanding, and others are focused on mitigating polarization within influence sectors such as in journalism, social media, education, and governance. These groups provide the guidance and support that is often necessary to learn to navigate difficult political conversations and build bipartisan alliances.
But more importantly, they often help participants to move beyond dialogue to build politically diverse teams who together are better positioned to take on some of the many structural incentives that are driving our divide. This step is critical to substantive change. We will never talk our way out of this division alone, it must lead to structural change.
However, much of the work of these bridge-building groups is conducted quietly and confidentially, as to not expose or bring negative consequences to the participants. When people try to build bridges in the context of deeply divided societies—particularly when they start to be effective and draw attention—they often face mounting resistance, obstruction, and even violence, often from both sides of the fissure. This happens regularly to peacemakers in Israel-Palestine, South Sudan and Colombia, and is not uncommon in the U.S. today. So, their work needs to be protected and bolstered.
This is where outside actors could come in–by helping to connect, convene, support and scale the impact of the many bridging groups currently working on their own. Helping these groups to gain a more comprehensive sense of the large national network of organizations currently addressing polarization could help to bolster a greater sense of purpose, efficacy and inevitability in this work. And increasing public awareness of this heretofore nascent movement—carefully and strategically—may motivate more of the Exhausted Majority of Americans to join in common cause. In addition, supporting communities of practice addressing divisive incentives within different sectors like journalism, tech, and governance, might also help to attract the resources and influence needed to take on the vested interests who are currently benefiting from our divisions. In other words, we have the components of a unity movement, and now is the time to connect the dots.
I have recently begun work on a new project with a nonprofit to do just this. Launched by Tim Shriver, former chair of the Special Olympics, Unite is a national initiative to promote unity and solidarity across differences. Over the past several months, we have begun identifying and networking with many U.S. based organizations—large and small—who are working on depolarization, and are beginning to map the ecosystem of the movement. This will allow us to better connect these groups, and to conduct a strategic analysis to see where there may be gaps, redundancies, complementarities, and opportunities to cooperate and achieve economies of scale. Our goal is simple: to nurture and support the ecology of bipartisan solidarity in the U.S. that is ready to emerge.
The moral of this story is one of potential. These days bring an extraordinary opportunity for our nation to reset, change course and realize a more practical, functional and hopeful era. They also present a dire warning of the dangers ahead if we fail to act. To do so will take great effort, support and leadership from us all. The question is: will we seize this moment or squander it?
Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict and sustainable peace, and whose next book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization will be released in 2021.