In one of American cinema’s more haunting scenes, two cars careen toward a cliff in the 1955 coming-of-age drama ”Rebel Without a Cause.” The game of chicken means the first driver to bail before the cars barrel over the cliff loses. The film’s famous scene ends in tragedy.

“As played by irresponsible boys,” the British intellectual Bertrand Russell once observed, “this game (of chicken) is considered decadent and immoral, though only the lives of the players are risked.” But, he continued, when such games are played “by eminent statesmen” or politicians, too often they’re considered displays of “wisdom and courage.”

Increasingly, the nation’s political parties are caught in what seem like perpetual games of chicken as each party seeks advantage over the other with no intention to swerve first. Whether the issue is national debt, immigration, health care or national defense, the focus of each party is as much about humiliating the other party as it is about crafting bipartisan policies that work for the vast majority of Americans.

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One nation indivisible

While there’s certainly wisdom in competing parties serving as a check on one another and providing a robust contest of ideas, the levels of contempt and political brinksmanship in recent years is corroding the country and putting the union itself at risk.

In this special double issue of Deseret Magazine, we’ve assembled a variety of preeminent thinkers actively seeking to address America’s polarization problem. You can find the stories mentioned below on this web page.

Hélène Biandudi Hofer, journalist and co-founder of Good Conflict, points to the power of story to change our perspective and bring us closer together. John Wood Jr., a national leader with Braver Angels, details why Americans need to start seeing each other as family rather than foe.

Gov. Spencer Cox, Utah’s 18th governor, details his nationwide “Disagree Better” initiative, launched as Cox serves this year as president of the National Governors Association.

National commentators Ezra Klein and Rachel Kleinfeld outline discrete actions individuals can take to depolarize while political scientist Yascha Mounk points to how lowering the stakes of political competition might lead to more unity.

Scholar Hyrum Lewis explores the myth of the left and right, and journalist Michael Mooney provides a window into the controversial presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., whose run for office represents a swath of Americans whose political lines are increasingly scrambled in ways that don’t easily fit in the Republican-Democrat paradigm.

The takeaway: There is a path out of the perpetual game of chicken. It won’t be easy, but it starts with each American. It starts with more constructive dialogue, better disagreeing, more listening and understanding, and individual decisions to treat our political opponents with greater dignity and trust, or, in the words of Wood, like they’re family.

As Abraham Lincoln asserted, perhaps naively, at the nadir of the nation’s polarization on the brink of civil war: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”

This issue offers the hope that such bonds of affection are still within our reach. 

This story appears in the January/February 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.