Beyond Intractabillity

Kristin Hansen talks about Civic Health Project’s Work on Depolarization in America

Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess • January 10, 2023 • 8 min read

On December 5, 2022, we talked with Kristin Hansen, the Executive Director of Civic Health Project. Kristin has so many important insights that we hope many of you will just jump to the full discussion.  But to draw more attention to it, and to pick up those of you who don’t have 75 minutes to spare to watch the full video (or read the transcript), we want to share some highlights here.

Read/Watch the Full Interview

Early in the interview, Kristin talked about going to a conference convened by the Ford Foundation in Barcelona, focused on polarization. Many attendees expressed concern that polarization was preventing them from reaching their social justice goals.  At the end of the meeting, each participant was asked to share one closing thought. Kristin observed that, in the U.S. at least, many people work on polarization as means to an end — for instance to make sure Trump doesn’t get elected again.

But the the problem with that is to really do bridge-building work credibly, you can’t assume an outcome. And you also can’t assume that one outcome is good and another outcome is bad, even though you might, in your personal beliefs, want certain outcomes. But you 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. And you must participate credibly, and with integrity, in the means of building bridges between people who hold different worldviews. And sometimes those worldviews do not bend in the direction of “social justice,” at least not as a typical left-leaner or progressive might describe those outcomes.

She explained that she got pulled into this work by the 2016 election.

The very simple premise that started me in this work was that I saw 65 million Americans believing and expressing opinions that 65 other million Americans were bad. Evil. Stupid. Wrong. And 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.  …  I guess it’s because I just deeply, deeply need to believe in the inherent goodness of people. That’s what drives me. … [I believe] 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 critical to doing bridge-building work.

As did several of our other discussants, Kristin distinguished between “issue polarization” and “affective polarization.” Issue polarization, which she described as a simple disagreement on issues, or contradictory worldviews, “is a fundamental aspect of human existence” that can’t and shouldn’t be changed. But “affective polarization” is very much more about how we feel towards each other and how we treat each other. And there is a spectrum from (1) just having negative feelings towards another, but keeping them to ourselves; to (2) expressing them; to (3) acting on them. Far too many people are moving down that spectrum she said, towards hostile expressions and actions.  That’s what she’s trying to change.

“And complicating all of this,” she says, “are the perceptions we hold that all the issues are existential. That all of the conflicts that are erupting are a matter of life and death.” The astonishing thing she’s discovered, by making a concerted effort to talk to people on the other side (“I like to say I live on the left, but I visit the right as often as I can …”) is that both sides have existential fears, but “the perceived threats are just completely different! What the left sees as threatening, what the right sees as threatening. There’s virtually no overlap!”

She points out that in the U.S., all of the outcomes that have happened have happened in the context of a functioning democracy. A “flawed” democracy? Perhaps, although she notes that she is

… a little bit suspicious of those indices [describing the U.S. as a flawed democracy] 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 not because we’ve had an actual failure or collapse of our democracy. 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. In fact, they all happened within a democratic context. So, the only the only real answer, although it’s not one that everyone leans into, is this: if you don’t like the outcomes, you just have to participate harder in the democracy. You just have to work harder.

Kristin makes a distinction between our “supply problem” and our “demand problem.” “We have an unhealthy supply and demand loop,” she says.

I liken it sometimes to smoking. Like tobacco and nicotine, our tendency to be tribal and polarized 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, on the supply side the problem is that there are strong incentives to use divisive rhetoric and strategies. You might want votes, donations, viewers, likes shares. You name it. On the demand side, well, that’s us. We are 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?

You can try to fix this damaging loop by diminishing either the supply or the demand.  There are two ways to address the supply side: one, by reducing the amount of “bad stuff” going out: “Can you change the incentive so that people don’t have as much incentive to put divisive, vilifying, condescending, demonizing rhetoric and concepts out into the world?” Or two: “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 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 the focus needs to be. Because I tend to think that the supply of divisive, polarizing, demonizing rhetoric is going to be there until the demand diminishes. There’s always going to be someone.

We talked about future visions for democracy that would work for everyone; we talked about interventions and that have been tested and seem to work and how and whether they can be scaled up;  we talked about mobilization work and how that relates to Guy’s and my notion of massively parallel peacebuilding. We talked about Civic Health Project’s funding program, and we talked about conflicts in school boards and the collaboration between the National Association for Community Mediators and Living Room Conversations to create a toolkit for school boards, which are seeing increased conflict around the country.

And we talked about lots of other important and fascinating things. If you have read this far, why not go to the source and watch/read the whole discussion? We are sure it will be worth your time!

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