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To save America, add trust and subtract polarizing words and actions

Building the word "trust"
Banking, democracy & trust
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Coan is the co-founder and executive director of More Like US. He previously served as DC Alliance co-chair and mid-Atlantic regional lead for Braver Angels.

When I tell people that I work on improving our nation’s politics, they typically have one of two responses, a skeptical “good luck,” or a confused “how?”

I think these people are justified in their skepticism or confusion. I have worked on efforts to reduce polarization since shortly after the 2016 election, but from my standpoint, the overlapping bridging/civic health/civic renewal fields so far have not articulated a particularly plausible and understandable “how” for achieving goals at scale.

The main problem from my perspective is an overblown and distorted sense that those in the other main political party are more threatening and inferior (morally and/or cognitively) than they really are. Unsurprisingly, this pairs with low levels of trust. To use a widely known phrase, Americans are increasingly on a path toward “fear and loathing” across the political spectrum.

Under these conditions, some will feel a need to “win at all costs” to prevent the other party from basically ever having power. Actions to achieve this can involve voting for candidates determined to fight rather than work with those in the other party, testing boundaries of legal or typical means of trying to gain advantage over the other party, and sometimes going beyond legal means even into political violence, all of which weaken or destroy democratic republics.

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Meanwhile, I frame solutions using a simple structure of arithmetic of addition and subtraction, not to suggest that the necessary steps are easy. Add more trust that can bring us together. Meanwhile, subtract polarizing rhetoric and behavior, especially the underlying factors worsening them.

I create this add-subtract structure to provide an easy-to-remember mental model for the vast multitude of potential depolarization solutions. Adding is not necessarily better than subtracting, or vice versa, and certain individual solutions may have both elements.

Starting with addition, it is possible to take steps to directly add to levels of trust. The subcategories of addition, just like an addition sign, have “horizontal” and “vertical” components.

  • Horizontal trust is interpersonal and intercommunal between Americans across the political spectrum. This can include highlighting cross-partisan similarities such as in Similarity Hub from AllSides and More Like US, the organization I lead and co-founded. It can also include portraying those across the political spectrum in a better light, such as efforts from Bridge Entertainment Labs, as well as facilitating civil discourse like many groups in the #ListenFirst Coalition.
  • Vertical trust concerns institutions, especially when they are commonly associated with one political party.

Yet it is also vital to deal with factors that got us to this point. The current information environment deserves some of the blame for these distortions that put us on a path toward fear and loathing. When people hear similar divisive, distorted content again and again, many start to find it plausible or accept it. Of course, certain actions can also worsen polarization.

I frame the categories of solutions to subtract polarizing words and actions as negatives – dissuade, disincentivize and (in extreme cases) disallow.

  • Dissuade people and institutions from rhetoric and behaviors that exacerbate negative perceptions across the political spectrum, essentially following the maxim “First, do no harm.” This also involves dissuading donors from funding polarizing institutions, as well as dissuading people from believing inaccurate and divisive statements, which means increasing media literacy and its variants.
  • Disincentivize the worst aspects of news media, social media, artificial intelligence and electoral systems. News media and social media currently face perverseincentives to encourage politically charged content to engage users and maximize advertising revenue, and electoral systems often perverselyencourage politicians and candidates to play to a more extreme and partisan base to win primaries in otherwise safe districts. These are all macro-level incentives that cut across entire fields, involving approaches including incentives for advertising and mechanisms of election systems. Disincentivizing preserves free speech, but tilts the scales away from amplifying polarizing statements.
  • Disallow the most extreme speech and actions, such as incitement to “imminent lawless action” or actions that become violent. At times, individuals or groups will suffer consequences from these actions, including fines or imprisonment.

Separately, a last set of actions involve broader issues such as loneliness and lack of wage growth. These matter, as they can exacerbate a path toward interparty fear and loathing. However, these are massive topics that cut across many domains, so I believe it is best to usually play a supporting role to other kinds of organizations that focus on them more directly.

The add-subtract structure includes space for a vast array of individual initiatives but itself is straightforward. Add trust both horizontally and vertically. Subtract polarizing words and actions, especially the factors that cause them. Remember broader issues affecting Americans.

Many groups have roles to fill, working in parallel to add trust and subtract the words and actions tearing us apart. Let’s get to work.

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