Editor’s note: This essay is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.
Democrats and Republicans have long disagreed on policy issues — that’s the normal, useful contestation that drives democracy. Today, each side fears the other will destroy the nation if they achieve power. When obliterating the other side becomes the ultimate goal, democracies fall apart.
How can we heal our country’s toxic polarization? Here are seven research-backed ideas for pundits, politicians, reporters and regular citizens to bring down the temperature.
Call out your own party
Humans are social creatures — we want to belong. We look to those with status to tell us what it takes to be part of the in-crowd.
That means politicians, pundits and ideological leaders should stand vocally against polarizing and hateful language and actions.
Public stands by people seen as associated with a political side can change partisans’ perceptions, by making such behavior appear unacceptable to that group.
Professors at NYU, Harvard and UCLA have found that it is most influential to criticize one’s own “tribe.” That is because critiquing one’s own group signals what is acceptable to group members in a way that taking potshots at the other side doesn’t.
Avoid bad jokes
You might never dream of condoning partisan murder — but you might still share a funny meme to that effect. Watch it: jokes have a particularly strong effect on normalizing prejudice — far more than an overtly prejudiced argument.
Particularly dangerous are jokes that employ violent rhetoric or dehumanize with language like “groomers” or animal comparisons. A slew of research shows that dehumanizing language removes inhibitions to perpetrating violence, especially when the language cultivates preexisting grievances and the speaker is respected by his or her group.
Make social media kinder
You may not be able to alter someone’s deeper beliefs, but there are three ways regular people can reduce the spread of hateful memes and curb prejudiced or polarizing speech on social media.
First, remind users that online speech has real-world, offline consequences (both to the writer, since employers can see posts, as well as to the person or group targeted). Second, making a personal or empathetic connection with the speaker can lead to posts being deleted. Finally, humorous words or images that make fun of the original idea can also defuse the spread of hateful speech.
Downplay the fringes, and highlight the median
Americans are more polarized emotionally than ideologically — we actually disagree on policy far less than people think. Stunningly, a majority of Americans agree on the broad strokes of abortion, immigration and gun legislation.
Because partisans tend to have distorted views of who composes the other party and how many people believe stereotypical views attributed to that party, providing real information that overturns these beliefs can reduce polarization.
Emphasize disagreement within parties
Reminding people that partisans have a range of opinions can dial back polarization. Immigration policy can be framed as left versus right, or as a complex issue that pits some right-wing business owners against others, some left-wing unions against more progressive activists, and so on.
The Difficult Conversations Lab at Columbia University found that when people read nuanced articles on policy issues that underscored this kind of intraparty disagreement, their conversations with people from the other party were of higher quality.
Avoid repeating misinformation, even to debunk it
Repetition leads our brains to think things are true, regardless of the accuracy of the information being repeated. This tendency is even stronger when people want to believe a piece of false information, because our brains seek out information we want to hear.
So, if people read that “the 2020 election was not fraudulent,” many will remember “there were questions about the 2020 election.” The best way to avoid deepening misinformation is to simply state alternative information: “American elections are well run.”
Support reforms that help political moderates
Many countries are as emotionally and ideologically polarized as the United States — but are in much better shape. America is in particular peril because polarizing the public has become a winning political strategy.
With more than 80 percent of Congressional seats and 39 states controlled by one party, politicians have no incentive to speak to the center. Instead, the real elections are the primaries, which are dominated by small numbers of more polarized voters.
That means politicians win votes and donations by intensifying the emotion of their base, not reaching out to the center. No wonder they benefit from telling voters that the other side is not just wrong, but is malevolent and immoral.
Competition can change these incentives. Reforms like ranked choice voting in primary elections and Alaska’s final four system allow all voters to get a say. These systems can moderate polarization and create more positive elections.
Can America fix itself? It’s time to give these ideas a try.
Rachel Kleinfeld is a senior fellow and Aaron Sobel is a former James C. Gaither junior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.