Heidi Burgess Talks With James Coan about Taking De-Polarization Work "to Scale."



Newsletter #221 — March 19, 2024


On March 7, 2024, I (Heidi Burgess) talked with James Coan, the Executive Director and co-founder of More Like US (not to be confused with Starts with Us or More in Common, although all three organizations share the same goal of breaking down political polarization, as well as having confusingly similar names). James also served as the DC Alliance Co-Chair, and is now the Mid-Atlantic Regional Lead for Braver Angels as well. Though Braver Angels primarily works through dialogue processes, James has long been interested in ways to scale up those and other processes to reach larger numbers of people. The full interview is available here.


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Why Do We Need to Take De-Polarization Work "To Scale," and What Does That Mean?

by Heidi Burgess and Guy Burgess

March 15, 2024

Guy and I have been talking about the challenge of scale in society-wide conflicts for years, observing that bridge-building work that focuses on dialogue (as so much of it does), just can't be scaled up to the level needed to address societal-wide conflicts such as the red-blue divide in the United States. 

In our classes, we often told the story of the physicist who once observed that "one of the real privileges of being a scientist is to understand the incredible importance of orders of magnitude [factors of ten]."  He then went on to explain the concept of orders of magnitude in terms of nuclear weapons. Being peace advocates, we prefer to describe it in terms of human locomotion: the speed of a person strolling slowly through a park (at 1.7 mph) is four orders of magnitude less than the speed of an astronaut zipping around the earth at 17,000 mph.  The orders of magnitude difference between what we call a "mediation triad" (two parties at a table with a mediator) and the population of a semi-large country of 30 million is seven orders of magnitude — 1,000 times bigger than the difference between the slow walker and the astronaut!!  The U.S., at 332 million, is over ten times bigger than that.

So let's assume, for ease of calculating, that each dialogue involves ten people.  That means we would have to hold over three times 10— thirty three million — dialogues to involve everyone in the U.S. just once.  Even considering a much smaller country — Israel, together with Gaza and the West Bank, for example, (about 15 million) — would require 1.5 million dialogues.  Say you involve 20 people. You only need half that — 3/4 of a million dialogues.  It still isn't close to possible!  And, that dialogue would still be only one of the thousands of human interactions and news reports that shape the political views of each person.

So we have been arguing for years that we need to figure out ways to reach far more people than we can through traditional dialogues or other similar "table-oriented" processes.  We somehow need to scale up our peacebuilding techniques to reach tens or hundreds of millions of people.  So we were pleased when we met James Coan, founder of an organization called More Like US, who was saying the same thing with reference to depolarization efforts (also our area of interest).

James Coan's Scaling Efforts with More Like US

I talked with James on March 7 and the video of our full conversation can be found here

James explained that he got involved in this work after the 2016 election, when it appeared to him as if his country was "tearing itself apart." He began working with Braver Angels, where he is still the mid-Atlantic regional lead. But,  he explained, his focus "has always been about scale. How can polarization be addressed in such a large country in a meaningful way to reach enough people?"

About a year and a half ago, I decided that instead of working with the existing organizations in this space, I needed to create something new. The existing organizations in this space typically focus a lot on dialogue, deliberation, a lot of interpersonal communication techniques and opportunities. And there are a fair number of organizations that have conducted surveys, showing that we're actually more similar than we tend to think across the political spectrum. But then they don't tend to have much of an outreach arm, if anything. So I found this huge white space [and] I said [to myself], "I need to fill that".

Together with three co-founders (Ann Schockett, Dane Erickson, and Bazi Kanai), James started More Like US to "spread the message that we are more similar than we think" across the political spectrum.  Rather than waiting for people to discover this on their own through dialogue, More Like US sought out institutions with widespread influence that could share that message. They decided that secondary schools presented a good opportunity. 

So, they have created a fifty minute lesson plan that is focused on closing what they (and others) call "the perception gap," which is the difference between what different sides think "the other" believes, in comparison to what they actually believe. (This term was made popular by the similarly-named organization More in Common, which explains on their perception gap website that:

Americans have a deeply distorted understanding of each other. We call this America’s “Perception Gap.” Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider “extreme”. Even on the most controversial issues in our national debates, Americans are less divided than most of us think. This is good news for those worried about the character of this country. The majority of Americans hold views that may not be so different from your own.  

So, for instance, they illustrate in a set of charts that Democrats (Ds) think that only about 50% of Republicans  (Rs) would agree with the assertion that "properly controlled immigration can be good for America." In actuality, about 83% of Rs agree with that statement, a 33% perception gap. I was disappointed to see that they didn't ask identical questions of Dems and Reps, which would have made comparisons easier.  But they did ask Rs to estimate the number of Ds who disagreed with the statement that "The U.S. should have completely open borders." Rs estimated that only about 35% would disagree with that statement (saying, in other words, that they thought that 65% of Ds would agree with it). In reality, it was the opposite. Close to 65% of Ds disagreed with the notion that the U.S. should have completely open borders, while and only 35% of Ds agreed with it--again, a 33% perception gap according to their chart. 

On their webpage, More Like US quotes More in Common on why this matters:

Why does [the “Perception Gap”] matter? Because when Democrats and Republicans believe their opponents hold extreme views, they become more threatened by each other. They start seeing each other as enemies, and start believing they need to win at all costs. They make excuses for their own side cheating and breaking the rules to beat the other side…This is how countries fall into a cycle of deepening polarization, and how democracies die.”

This is exactly what worries James, and what he is seeking to reverse through outreach to wide audiences — first through schools.

More Like US is just in the early stages of this effort, piloting the lesson plans in select schools for testing.  If you are a teacher watching this, James noted, and are interested in seeing or piloting the lesson, please get in touch with him! 

I asked James why they were focusing on schools, and he explained that schools are just where they are starting, that they might go further later. He went on to explain

A lot of activities in depolarization encourage people to go to a separate activity [such as a Braver Angels dialogue]. So participants need to have the time, interest, and energy to actually attend some kind of workshop. We want to reach people where they are. And so initially, we were thinking about religious congregations. What could religious leaders say from a pulpit? And we conducted these informal focus groups, from across the political spectrum. But I was thinking "this is not going to scale." There are denominations that are very decentralized. There are denominations that are very centralized. And we're probably not going to convince the Pope of this, for instance. There's not much what you could call "connective tissue." There aren't many organizations that are really trying to bring different denominations together on a topic like this.  There are interfaith communities, but really they're like a religious NATO — an attack on one is an attack on all. And they just kind of stand up for each other, but they don't tend to do this.

So we asked 'where else do we find an audience that's there that doesn't have to actively go somewhere? It's  students. There are a lot of students, and there's actually some work on trickling up that they may talk to their parents, and there's very strong connective tissue.  There's organizations like the CivXNow Coalition that really tries to bring a lot of organizations together that care about civics.  There's a National Council for the Social Studies

James went to their meetings and found that they were very welcoming and very supportive. So schools are where they are starting.  

To supplement this work, More Like US is also debuting something that they are calling The Similarity Hub which they are building with AllSides. 

The Similarity Hub will be a one-stop shop to see survey data of overlaps between Republicans and Democrats and also areas of overlap with supermajority support among all Americans across about 20 different policy domains.

AllSides is a well known media watchdog that presents stories on important issues from the right, the center, and the left. They don't draw conclusions — they let the readers do that themselves. But they make it very easy to see the way all sides are framing various contentious issues.  This is an excellent way to help more people better understand how what they think is similar to, and different from, what others think, and has the potential to reach several more orders of magnitude of people than individual dialogues do. 

While this is useful, I wondered how (or whether) this would influence the Democrat's existential fear that, if elected, Donald Trump would end democracy in America, and the reverse fear that Republicans have that Democrats would impose such strongly "woke" rules, that they, too, would end core democratic values such as freedom of religion, and freedom of speech, and alter voting rights such that Republicans could never get elected again.

James answered this in terms of his theory of our current problem, which he prefers to call "fear and loathing of the other side," rather than "polarization," which he thinks is a "pretty confusing term."  But everyone, he asserts, understands the meaning of the words "fear and loathing."  It amounts to, he says, "and overblown sense that the other side is very threatening."  

And also that they're lesser,  they're inferior in some way, morally and or cognitively. And in that case, people can say,  "I can't imagine that these people could have power. I need to prevent them from having power at all costs, even if I break some "democratic norms" or engage in political violence. And obviously, trust, which is necessary for society, is not fostered very well when there's a lot of fear and loathing.

James' solution to this problem is "dissuading and disincentivising." "A lot of people," he pointed out, "accidentally will say things or do things that inflame passions, that increase fear and loathing." His simple solution: "just don't do those things." But that's hard, because

in many cases, people are incentivized to do those [things], to say those things, to take those actions. When we look at news media, and social media, and increasingly, AI and electoral systems, what are their incentives? What are the incentives for news media or social media? It's to get attention to maximize ad dollars. How do you get attention? By having emotive content that activates identities. What we'd all call politically polarizing content is really good at that. And so if people want followers, if people want attention, it makes a lot more sense to say polarizing things than to say, oh, you know, [saying that] we all get along.

So, he said, those incentives need to be changed, and people need to be dissuaded and disincentivized from playing this game. 

When I asked him how this might be done, he answered: "You regulate them or you sue them." He suggested that a class-action lawsuit that alleged harm to social media users might get them to change their behavior. There is currently a lot of attention right now, he said, on protecting kids.  Maybe that can be leveraged into wider control of social media. He also suggested changing or even getting rid of the algorithms that show people evermore inflammatory material, replacing them with a simple chronological feed. 

When I asked James what other avenues might be used to address what he calls "fear and loathing" and we call "polarization," he again noted the importance of teaching people not to "other" other people. He also suggested that institutions should be more welcoming of marginalized people, but he included marginalized whites in that group — people who perhaps don't have college degrees, or people who do have degrees, but couldn't find a good job and are feeling left out.  These people should be welcomed into institutions too, just as racial or gender minorities are being welcomed by DEI.

One of the things that I wondered about James' approach is that it seemed to focus on negative: dissuade and deincentivize.  What about positive approaches, I asked, persuading and incentivizing constructive behavior.  James responded that his next step after dissuading and deincentivizing is getting people to build what he calls "horizontal trust" and "vertical trust."  Horizontal trust is building trust between peers — people on "the other side" in roughly the same position as themselves, and vertical trust, building trust with institutions. Horizontal trust can be built, he suggested, by portraying the other side as complex, rather than a simplistic stereotype; and as admirable, rather than immoral. Vertical trust, he said, "sometimes involves institutions making changes."  He suggested listening tours would be a good start.  So, too would be expanding DEI to include marginalized whites as noted above.

James also stressed the importance of having simple ideas that everyone can use and remember.  He compared our field to the fire safety field, asking if I remembered "stop, drop, and roll?" "Yes, I did", I responded.  Well, we need to develop a similar simple rubric that people will remember.  He is advocating that people be "civil," but not C-I-V-I-L, S-V-L. Share your stories, relate to their values, and listen. (I was reminded of the guidance I always gave at the end of my semester-long conflict-skills class, where I told students "if you don't remember anything else from this class in 5 or 10 years, just remember two words: "respect" and "listen."  He also suggests that people " 'CAST' others in a better light" where CAST stands for complexity, admiration, similarity, and togetherness.

More Thoughts on Working at Scale

James touched on a number of the ideas we have been thinking about when it comes to working at scale, but not always in the same ways. We agree that much more should be done to address hyper-polarization (a term we still think is an accurate description of what he calls "fear and loathing") and that dialogues alone aren't enough.  But we see a lot more activity in what he calls "the white space" than he referred to in our conversation. 

We have been describing something that we had originally called "massively parallel peacebuilding." We are now broadening it to "massively parallel problem-solving" and "massively parallel democracy building." (We agree with James that this "field" lacks a name, although that is for good reason — it encompasses lots of people and organizations doing many different things for different reasons, but all working in mutually-supportive ways towards building a better and more sustainable society.)

As we explained in Newsletter 179 and elsewhere, MPP (a short abbreviation to refer to all three types of massively parallel efforts), is not just the Burgess's crazy theory about how to save democracy.  It is, rather, a description of what is already happening. We have identified more than 40 different roles that are currently being played by different people and organizations which, taken together, are already helping to depolarize us at all levels, and strengthen our governance, again at all levels, from the family to the nation and globe. (We will be fleshing out these roles in two upcoming newsletters.)

By writing and talking about MPP, we are trying to make all these efforts more visible, so people will gain hope that "all is not lost," and, ideally, become sufficiently encouraged to join the MPP effort. As James suggested when he explained why More Like US is working in schools, people (kids and adults) can engage in MPP without going "outside" their normal activities. They don't need to go to a Braver Angels workshop.  Rather, they can just start listening better to their own friends, family, and co-workers.  They can start asking better questions of themselves and others about what they truly believe and value, and why.  They can broaden their "news" and "entertainment" intake to widen their understanding of other people and the issues of the day.  They can consider the possibility that their own side isn't always right, and that the other side might have legitimate concerns or critiques of your side's views that are worthy of consideration. 

They can play any of over 40 roles that we began to lay out in Newsletter 179, and which we will be fleshing out more shortly. Rather than changing careers, most of these roles can be played where people are — in the home, in schools, at work, in PTA, community, and faith meetings and organizations. People can also practice any of the 50 or more "civic skills" that we began to describe in the past in our Things You Can Do To Help Seminar, and which we will be fleshing out in much more detail in an upcoming Guide to Building a Better Democracy (coming, we hope, late spring or summer of 2024.)

The bottom line is there is a big need to scale up our peacebuilding/democracy/anti-polarization efforts beyond dialogue. James is right: we are not as different as we think, and there certainly is potential for us to work effectively together on many shared goals. But we all have to start doing that, and stop simply blaming all our problems on the other side and working to "get them" out of office and out of power. The biggest threat to American survival is not the other side; it is the destructive conflict dynamics that we are using to try to "block them" and "save us."  If we want to "save us," we are going to have to broaden our understanding of who "us" is and work with "them" to address our many pressing problems together.


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