Is the Partisan Divide Too Big to Be Bridged? | The New York Times

The Project for Civic Health is one of many ongoing efforts in the nation to improve our public discourse and promote collaborative problem-solving. Recently, Jonathan Weisman, a reporter at The New York Times, published an article titled “Is the Partisan Divide Too Big to Be Bridged?” This article caught our eyes as it showcased the sentiment that drove our effort to build common ground in Washington state.

Weisman mentioned the “outrage industrial complex” — which includes politicians, cable news, and social media — as contributing to worsening our nation’s heightened divisions. It produces media content that specifically increases engagement by provoking anger or rage. The intent behind this ranges from generating more ad revenues to causing social disruption; meanwhile, the effects may negatively impact the actions or attitudes of those who view the content. It also exacerbates the political polarization that we have today, making it harder for anyone to reach principled compromises or find common ground when possible.

In his article, Weisman also highlighted a number of nationwide civic health-related organizations and movements that are working to counter the effects of the “outrage industrial complex.” Trust for Civic Life, for example, is providing financial awards to groups engaged in community-level democracy efforts, backed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the MacArthur Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and others.

Some other organizations that were mentioned as part of the bridge-building effort include Rural-Urban Exchange (Kentucky), NewGround (Los Angeles), The Lyceum Movement (Midwest), BridgeUSA, and Braver Angels — with whom the Project for Civic Health has worked closely in the past.

Weisman did note that these efforts to promote democratic pluralism seem small and beyond reach when big actors such as cable news and social media push the wave in the opposite direction. As many subjects today have become increasingly divisive, if you don’t engage in genuine conversations with people holding different thoughts and opinions, one participant said, “that lets them [the ‘other side’] drive the narrative” — which Weisman stated as a recurring issue in the movement.

However, many individuals involved in the organizations mentioned previously find the effort worthwhile, even with all the challenges. Quoting another participant in the article, “Relationships are the root and the flower. They are the point at which social infrastructure creates infrastructure for anything to happen.”

Read Jonathan Weisman’s article in The New York Times.

How to Disagree Better

Many organizations across the nation are promoting civic health and respectful public discourse despite our differences – including Braver Angels. They are a leading cross-partisan, volunteer-led movement in bridging partisan division in the U.S. through community gatherings, real debates, and grassroots leaders working together.

They have a chapter here in Washington state that is working in our local communities, holding workshops and public presentations designed to bridge the rising political polarization in our country.

In October 2023, the Project for Civic Health hosted a day-long summit which was opened by keynote speaker Mónica Guzmán, Senior Fellow for Public Practice at Braver Angels, journalist, and the author of The New York Times recommended book I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times.

Our summit also held a panel which included writer, rancher, and columnist Sue Lani Madsen – one of the Braver Angels coordinators in Washington state.

Braver Angels regularly hosts workshops with the goal of understanding the values, perspectives, and concerns of those who differ from us. One of these workshops is called “Listen, Acknowledge, Pivot, Perspective (LAPP)” that emphasizes those four skills:

  • Listen carefully:
    • Turn off your inner debater and don’t prepare your response yet.
    • Be ready to to summarize what the other person is saying.
    • Focus both on the other person’s point of view and their underlying values and concerns.
    • Look for something to agree with if possible.
  • Acknowledge the other person’s view before you share your own perspective:
    Most political conversations go this way: “You say up, I say down; you say hot, I say cold; you say my candidate is terrible and I say yours is worse.” The principle behind the Acknowledge skill is to connect first before you disagree.

    Acknowledging means letting the other person know that you heard their viewpoint and the strength of the feelings, values, and concerns about it. You are feeding back what you heard without just parroting back their words.
  • Pivot
    A pivot signals that you are about to offer your own point of view. Think of a pivot as signaling that you are going to make a turn in your car, though the actual turn comes later. Examples: “Can I offer my thoughts on this?” or “This is something I’ve thought a lot about.”

    If the other person seems open to listening to what you have to say, then continue. If not, if they just repeat their point, ignore your pivot, or show wariness about taking your turn (verbally or nonverbally), then consider backing up.
  • Perspective
    Elements to consider:
    • I-statements rather than Truth-statements (e.g., “This is how I see it” as opposed to “This is how it is.”)
    • Name your sources
    • Share a life experience or personal story behind your point of view
    • Try to mention something you agree with
    • Avoid negative labels
    • Avoid “You Democrats/Republicans” language; instead, focus on the people in the conversation rather than lumping anyone into a larger group.

We commend groups like Braver Angels that are working in our community to strengthen the skills needed to disagree better.

Does your group help improve our state’s civic health? Let us know!

Having Conversations Across Differences

The Project for Civic Health applauds the many groups who are promoting efforts for a more respectful discourse in our diverse body politic. 

Numerous organizations across the nation have made recommendations about how we can more successfully engage with each other in civic life. One that we want to highlight is the Better Arguments Project.

This national civic initiative was created to bridge divides by helping people have discussions that bring us together rather than drive us apart. By working with communities and advisers across the country, the Better Arguments Project has developed an approach to improve our dialogues

As part of their approach, the Better Arguments Project promotes these “Five Principles of a Better Argument”:  

  1. Take winning off the table
    Lead with a desire to understand and learn, rather than to win. Many debates have participants battle it out with the goal of winning or defeating the other side. A Better Argument, however, is about presence and the robust exchange of ideas.
  1. Prioritize relationships and listen passionately
    Focus on building honest connections. An argument is improved when we prepare to listen, not just advance our own points of view. Seek to learn more about a person beyond their opinion on the topic about which you are arguing. Also make a point to share more about yourself than just your own opinion.
  1. Pay attention to context
    Acknowledge the many factors that may influence beliefs. Civic debates don’t take place in a vacuum. Rather, they are surrounded by the context of lived experiences, access to information, culture, and more. Make room for these influences by trying to understand why a person holds a belief, rather than having a knee-jerk reaction.
  1. Embrace vulnerability
    Vulnerability is necessary to enter a conversation that is not simply confirming your own worldview. Being vulnerable can open new avenues for human connection, but it can take experience to gently push your comfort zone while ensuring you are still comfortable with the interaction.
  1. Make room to transform
    Be open to new and varied perspectives. Without a goal of winning, the experience of a Better Argument can change how we engage with a difficult issue and with one another in daily interactions.

The Project for Civic Health encourages us all to use these techniques to strengthen our communications and civic connections. Have you found ways to hold better discussions and improve your civic connections? Please let us know!

There is hope to restore our common ground

In a 2018 poll, 93% of Americans said incivility is a problem in the U.S., and 69% believed it to be a “serious” problem. Moreover, the Elway Research Poll found that 1 in 4 Washingtonians have stopped talking to their friends or family members because of politics, and 89% of Washingtonians are worried about the future of democracy (Source: “WA’s Voters on the Health of the Political System”).

We understand that this super-majority of concern is an important call to action. We also feel encouraged by the good things that are happening.

For instance, we saw strong bipartisanship in both behavior and productive policy outcomes at least in the past 5 years of the Washington state legislative sessions. Overall, 365 of 381 bills received support from both sides of the aisles during this year’s session (95.8%), as did 467 of 481 bills that passed last year (95.9%). Even the final Senate vote on the state operating budget—typically divided—was strongly bipartisan. Many of our local governments are also centers of civility.

While we are not immune to the incapacity for cross-partisan dialogues, there is fortunately a growing chorus of people and organizations who are thinking, meeting, and writing about how to turn the tide. The Project for Civic Health is a venue where we will highlight these efforts, elevate successes, and make connections among those who want to engage.

For all the past generations who fought and worked to sustain democracy, and for all the future generations whose legacy is in our hands, this is our civic duty. Please join us and let us know what you’re doing to improve our situation.

Learn more about the current state of our civic health in our Common Ground for the Common Good report.

Are you working on civic health in Washington state? Let’s connect! Let us know what you’re doing so we can add your organization to our site.