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Democracy and division: Can democratic innovations reduce polarization?

Leighninger is the director of public engagement at Public Agenda, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to creating a stronger, more inclusive, more participatory democracy for everyone. This is part of an occasional series.


More than ever, Americans are concerned about political polarization. Public Agenda's most recent Hidden Common Ground survey found that 93 percent of Americans say it is important to reduce divisiveness in the United States. Over one-third say that partisan divisiveness has affected their personal lives. And while the United States has become the poster child for hyperpartisanship, people in many other countries have similar concerns about their own political systems.

At the same time, citizens have hope that polarization can be overcome. People seem to have a firm conviction in the basic capacity of human beings to communicate, understand each other, respect their differences and compromise.

People are more likely to place the blame for polarization on their leaders and systems of government. Most Americans (77 percent) think the inability to constructively disagree in the United States is driven from the top down. "Many politicians are artificially dividing society," agreed former Irish Prime Minister John Bruton in one of our recent webinars on Global Learning on Democratic Innovation, organized with Club de Madrid and Participedia. Part of the problem, Bruton pointed out, is the use of political strategies based on exploiting wedge issues. Another part, he added, is that "very few people support institutions in which they have no say."

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Our human capacity for compromise is impeded by the challenge of scale – the fact that bridge-building must occur across a nation that has been sorted into homogeneous clusters, geographically and online. It is also limited by the structure of our political systems today, which promotes conflict, even at levels closest to home, rather than providing ways to address it. And it is complicated, in America and other countries as well, by the persistence of racism.

To address the divisions in our societies, three kinds of democratic innovations have emerged: 1) local efforts to bring people together, 2) national or even multinational initiatives that use technology to try to build bridges at scale, and 3) changes in governance processes that try to make bridge-building and collaboration among citizens a regular part of public decision-making. The first two types take the form of activities or initiatives, while the third is more structural. The success of these three kinds of innovations probably relies on the extent to which they are able to build on and support one another.

Terms like "democratic innovation" may seem strange because, especially in the United States, we tend to treat our democracy as something that we've inherited and that doesn't change — rather than a system that can be improved. But of course it does change, and around the world people have been changing democracy, and we can learn a great deal from how those modifications have worked. One excellent source for finding examples of democratic innovations is Participedia, the largest online collection of examples, methods and organizations related to public participation.

Proven Local Practices

The first way of dealing with division, through local efforts at bridge-building and collaboration, has the longest history and the greatest track record of success. Most of these efforts rely on paired or small-group discussions that happen face-to-face, often with skilled facilitators or mediators. When people meet in these kinds of settings, where they have the chance to share experiences and interact on a more human level, they are more likely to empathize with one another, find common ground and understand the reasons for their disagreements.

Some of these practices are supported by ongoing dialogue programs like Corrymeela in Northern Ireland, which engages 8,0000 people a year. The skills for local bridge-building are often disseminated through training and fellowship programs, in places as diverse as East Africa and Israel. They have also been used as part of youth camps, regular bridge-building social events, or as part of efforts to spread awareness of historical incidents. Local bridge-building efforts are also connected and supported by national or international organizations like the Sustained Dialogue Institute, Braver Angels, Listen First Coalition, and others.

Many of these processes name racism as a central factor, spoken or unspoken, in polarization and division. Others simply aim to provide a 'safe space' for participants to address all kinds of racial, religious, political or other differences.

Scaling through technology

A new wave of initiatives are using these practices as part of online platforms that can allow bridge-building on a national or international scale. Organizations like Soliya were among the first to pioneer this sort of "virtual exchange."

Our research shows that the majority of Americans (66 percent) are looking for better ways to understand people with different political views than them, and 2021 promises to be an active year for these kinds of initiatives. A national engagement effort called America Talks, supported by USA Today, the Civic Health Project, the ListenFirst Coalition, Public Agenda and The Fulcrum, aims to involve thousands of people in one-on-one virtual discussions on June 12 and 13. To facilitate discussion across divides, participants answer a few short survey questions and are then paired so they have a chance to talk with someone who is politically different from them. America Talks is based on similar initiatives in Europe, such as My Country Talks.

Some online technologies use artificial intelligence to help people find common ground on policy questions. For example, Polis is a platform that allows participants to vote on different statements, uses AI to identify opinion groups and helps people craft compromise statements that bring together the opinion groups through further voting. The platform has been used as part of the vTaiwan process, a nationwide effort in Taiwan that also convenes face-to-face workshops for developing statements and action steps.

New machinery for collaboration in democracy

Whether the bridge-building focus is local, national or global, these efforts may reach their greatest potential if they can connect with another type of democratic innovation: reforms that provide more opportunities for community members to collaborate and contribute to public decision-making and problem-solving. Our Hidden Common Ground research shows the appetite for this: 84 percent of Americans say that "giving ordinary people a greater voice in the decisions that affect their lives" would help reduce polarization, and 83 percent say the same about "improving economic opportunity and security for all people regardless of race, ethnicity, or where they live."

Some communities and countries have been able to embed bridge-building in their official governance processes. One case is the Kahnawake Community Decision-Making Process used by communities of the Mohawk Nation in Quebec, Canada. Another is the system of National Policy Conferences in Brazil, which connects local discussions about a policy issue with state and then federal conferences, in a sort of pyramid structure. Participants at the local level elect delegates to carry their ideas and concerns to the higher levels of governance. Ireland has used Citizen's Assemblies chartered by the national legislature to address polarized issues. In many countries, Truth and Reconciliation Commissions have been used by governments to help build bridges and address past injustices.

To connect bridge-building with policymaking, both local and scalable practices seem critical. Public officials are unlikely to compromise with one another on a contentious issue if their constituents show no willingness to compromise. Local bridge-building efforts can establish common ground among community members, but scalable practices — and a system for aggregating the policy preferences of the people who participate — seem important for breaking legislative gridlock among state and federal officials.

The America Talks process will attempt to link local and national efforts by letting participants know about opportunities to get involved in bridge-building, deliberation and problem-solving efforts in their communities. Hundreds of those local initiatives will be happening in 2021, organized by networks like the National Issues Forums and many other organizations, as part of a National Week of Conversation.

Americans say they want to overcome political polarization, and at least in 2021, both community members and officials will have local and national opportunities to do so. To help these efforts succeed, both by attracting large numbers of people and by breaking legislative gridlocks on contentious issues, we should study how local, scalable and structural solutions can support one another, and we should take stock of what can be learned from democratic innovations in other countries.

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