Editor’s note: This story is part of Deseret Magazine’s January/February double issue addressing political polarization.

Generations of civic dialogue have relied on a simple paradigm to describe the spectrum of ideological belief: conservatives on the right, liberals on the left and moderates in the middle. 

This model is increasingly obsolete. Fixing our politics will require a new model with new language for identifying and understanding the forces at work in our system.

To make sense of the disorder consuming the country’s politics, we propose adding a new axis to the models that Americans use to assess would-be leaders. In addition to the traditional measures of left and right, voters should evaluate whether candidates approach their work as “builders” or “performers.” 

The myth of left and right
Depolarizing ourselves

Like the old left-right diagram, the line between builders and performers is a continuum. Builders are characterized by a commitment to solving problems and bringing disparate people and viewpoints together. They tend to be data-driven, adapt their views in the face of new information, prioritize effective governance and recognize the necessity of choosing between less than perfect alternatives in the spirit of progress toward outcomes preferable to the status quo. They make good faith efforts to understand others’ points of view and, even when they disagree, they recognize others acting in good faith. Builders can be found across the political spectrum.

Performers tend to simplify and amplify conflict. Barbara F. Walter has referred to this group as “conflict entrepreneurs.” They excel in garnering media attention for profit and boosting their own profiles, but they exploit division and undermine institutions for temporary gain. 

Performers are not newcomers to public life. They have always been with us. However, shifts in media and technology have enabled them to weaponize synthetic outrage and made performers increasingly ascendant in American politics. This willingness to empower performers is devastating a once-vaunted political system. From government shutdowns to eroding trust in institutions, performers undermine the architecture that has supported our democracy for centuries. 

Our argument is not to persuade anyone to change their views about what they already believe constitutes good public policy, whether that be conservative, liberal or somewhere in between. Rather, we seek to add to the existing lenses through which we evaluate elected officials and other actors in the political sphere. We should begin to identify and support those that exhibit characteristics of builders while still honoring our deeply held policy views. 

In a time of political rigidity, embracing this new paradigm won’t be easy. We should offer ourselves and others a bit of grace as we pivot. But the moment demands a different approach. Throughout our history, the heroes who have helped lead the country out of periods of darkness were builders, not performers. We need to identify and empower a new generation of builders if we hope to repeat that process of collective renewal and redemption again today. 

Tomicah Tillemann is the chief policy officer for Haun Ventures and a board member of the Truman Center. Luke Johnson has worked in energy, environment and natural resource policy for the George W. Bush administration and for Republican members of the U.S. House and Senate.

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