Meet the reformer: James Coan, professional depolarizer
James D. Coan is co-director of the Media Initiative for Better Angels, a national organization dedicated to reducing political polarization by convening liberals and conservatives in a variety of settings and preaching the virtues of civility and cross-party alliances. A D.C.-area native, he started his career at a Rice University think tank before spending seven years as a strategy consultant, mainly for private-sector energy clients. Starting around the 2016 election he has established himself as one of the country's few depolarization strategists. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
What's the tweet-length description of your organization?
Better Angels is building a house united to save our republic. We will overcome polarization. We help Americans see what we share and what can keep America together, both in small workshops and through mass media.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
In fifth grade, I wanted soccer goals installed at my elementary school. I wrote to the parks board. Magically, the board listened, and two goals were installed. I doubt anything will be that easy ever again, but perhaps it gives me hope to tackle more difficult topics.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
I should preface this answer by noting two things: I still have a separate full-time job as a strategy consultant. And much of my work in depolarization is behind-the-scenes, planning out what can be successful. What I'm most proud of as a depolarization volunteer: substantial progress taking academic research from various fields to formulate a strategy that can ultimately impact large numbers of Americans. First, I feel I've focused the problem on what researchers like political scientist Shanto Iyengar call "affective [emotional] polarization." What matters most is our intense animosity for the other side, and I've identified a few of the most troubling emotions. Then I feel like I've developed solutions, often influenced by social psychology. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows emotions and intuitions dominate when it comes to reasoning and politics, and one must appeal to emotions to make change. Haidt's most famous article is "The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail." It's ironic; the most intellectual people in this space say it's best to keep it simple by speaking to emotions and highlighting commonalities. We're now finding the right messengers who can amplify messages to reach millions.
And your most disappointing setback?
I initially got my start in this space by sharing stories of friends and those in close relationships across political divides. I called it Red Blue Together. I successfully collected these stories. Starting the project helped introduce me to many people in the field. However, I think I'm a much better strategist than an Instagram influencer, so my follower count always stayed low.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
I'm an American, and I feel my country is tearing itself apart. I have to do something to keep my country together. Reducing polarization has become part of my identity, and it's a major part of my purpose in life.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
A former boss said those who are lucky enough to have any choice can still often only choose one of the following: money, fame or influence. I guess by doing this profile maybe it appears I'm choosing fame. However, I try to focus on influence as much as possible.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
"E Peppermint Unum": Upon opening up the pint, there is a little American flag made out of tiny candy cane pieces.
What's your favorite political movie or TV show?
I think old episodes of "The Simpsons" have enough politics for me. I read a lot of news, but I don't believe I go out of my way to use politics as entertainment.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Some combination of personal email, FiveThirtyEight.com, Facebook and The Washington Post
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I don't really like peppermint, so I might not like my Ben and Jerry's flavor.
More voters see "corruption in our political system" as the country's most pressing problem than any of the other issues getting greater attention in the 2020 campaign, new polling shows.
The online survey conducted in September asked voters whether seven different issues were an "extremely serious problem" for the country, and the only one where a majority said yes was political corruption; rising health care costs came in second at 49 percent.
The poll is only the latest to declare the electorate's dire concern about the broken political system. In just the last month, two-thirds of voters told one poll they believe the country is on the "edge of a civil war" and a plurality in another poll identified the government itself as the country's biggest problem.
But the topic of democracy reform is getting hardly any mention in the presidential race. Though most of the Democratic candidates have plans for limiting money in politics, making voting easier, securing elections and restoring the balance of powers, few have emphasized these ideas on the trail. And President Trump, who four years ago ran as the candidate most interested in "draining the swamp," rarely mentions this aspiration anymore.
A Democratic advocacy group has filed a third lawsuit in less than a month challenging Michigan laws and policies it says restrict voting rights.
The focus on Michigan voting laws by the super PAC Priorities USA reflects the importance of the state's 16 electoral votes in the 2020 presidential election. President Trump won Michigan, a swing state, by less than half a percentage point in 2016.
The latest lawsuit, filed Friday in state court, challenges actions taken after a successful 2018 ballot initiative expanded voting options, such as allowing people to register to vote at any time (including on Election Day). It also automatically registered people to vote when they obtained or renewed their driver's licenses.