Moving Forward in 2021: A Guide to Depolarizing America from Psychology Today

January 8, 2021

America is a deeply divided nation. Here are four ways we can fix this crisis.

In 2020, divisions ran deep in America. A new Pew poll found that rarely before have Americans been more polarized than today. Journalists, scholars, and political leaders are increasingly taking note of the hyper-polarization of our political climate. Public figures like President-elect Biden, for instance, have vouched to unite the country and end “this grim era of demonization.”

But the task of reconciliation is daunting: Some who try to overcome polarization often concede all too quickly that it is “a waste of time” to engage the other side.

We cannot afford to embrace defeatism and retreat into our political tribes if we want to keep this Republic. As academics who both emigrated to the United States—from the Middle East and Eastern Europe, respectively—we do not lack the imagination for what could be in store if we fail to fortify American democracy against the corrosive forces of polarization.

We must depolarize America now if we want to avoid a repeat of the past four years—or worse. From the vantage point of history and psychiatry, we offer a set of solutions to America’s polarization dilemma.

Fear, Tribalism, and Misinformation: the Triangle of Division

Our evolutionary biology primes us for tribalism. Humans are hardwired to think and act to help maintain and strengthen their belonging to their social group and against rival tribes. This innate human desire to form in-group alliances against out-groups is often exacerbated by a culture that has conditioned many Americans to view social life through the competitive lens of a team sport. Most of us are lifelong members of a football club (regardless of their performance), a religion, or a political tribe.

What is often ignored is that competition is not as amicable an exercise in civics as sports fandom would suggest. Instead, it is a blunt cover for darker tribal instincts. Social media algorithms push us farther into the corners of digital tribalism. Through calling-out, we police each other from adopting diverging views. It is time to reconsider the role of cooperation as a necessary glue in the democratic life of the nation if we are to find back to one another.

Add to our tribal dispossessions our dysfunctional information landscape. Keen observers of contemporary media culture, such as Steven Pinker, have shown that negative news receives disproportionally more attention in the public square. Because crisis stories sell better, they dominate our daily news feeds and social media diets. Worse, they also mislead us from correctly assessing threats and risks in everyday life.

In effect, we are constantly bombarded by all that is negative in the world and lose sight of the many positive accomplishments around us. Today, both traditional news outlets and social media serve a rich buffet of angerfear, and paranoia.

This negativity bias systematically drowns out the many instances where humanity has accomplished remarkable feats: combatting HIV, lifting millions of people out of poverty in the Global South, developing green energy. In fact, we live in one of the safest times in the history of mankind today.

Finally, a negative and biased information environment that mobilizes our tribal instincts often requires fear as a vehicle to solidify group cohesion. Fear-based thinking is ubiquitous on both sides of the political divide: Republicans fear that Democrats will confiscate their guns and banish Christianity. Democrats fear that Republicans are turning the country into a theocracy. Regardless of one’s political tribe, fear is what underwrites these opinions about the “other side.”

Fear makes us more tribal and prompts us to follow authority. Obedience to power has an evolutionary function as it preserves life: When our ancestral elders cautioned us that going to a predator-infested corner of the woods would lead to our demise, we followed their advice. When our modern elders exploit this loophole in our biology, we see a rise in tribalism.

In today’s divided climate, the negative (mis)information that our tribe-mates and elders share incites more fear. What makes fear so potent is that it bypasses our logical thinking and makes us more impulsive. The result of this cycle is a rise in polarization.

Despite the growing divide, we are convinced that America must not abandon the ideal of becoming a more perfect union. As a nation, the polarization of our current politics should be treated as an unacceptable (but not permanent) stain in our social fabric.

A Short Guide to Depolarization

Breaking out of this digital tribal fear matrix requires many reorientations at the collective and personal level:

  1. We need a media landscape that is less fear-based. This is, of course, not to suggest that we should ignore or whitewash injustice. But the media must think harder about its role as an educator and mediator of knowledge. The constant alarmism that sells well is great for the bottom line, but it is unsustainable for democracy. We need to support media models that serve the public good and de-incentivizes journalism from market rationales and better informs the public. At the personal level, we should introduce diverse outlets into our media diets, including news sources that challenge our preconceptions.
  2. We must regain the ability to acknowledge collective achievements. We often do so at the individual level when we celebrate birthdays, graduations, or job promotions. The many forms of progress in American society also demand more acknowledgment and praise in our public discourse. Such measures could help us overcome the negativity bias and reduce fear and paranoia. As citizens, we can expand our information intake beyond hours of negative political news, to the impressive ongoing progress in science, art, and culture.
  3. As we turn our gaze towards collective gains, we should also seek out new shared projects as a community. Americans have a rich tradition of associationalism that can bring people from different backgrounds together and overcome division. Redeeming the nation as a worthy cause that requires constant care and active civic participation must also be reformatted as an aspiration for all Americans in the twentieth century, as political philosopher Richard Rorty argued. Each of us should remember that those who hold a different political view are not our enemies and resist the habit of “unfriending” and “blocking” those with whom we disagree.
  4. To generate new shared projects that spur civic engagement, we need to listen to voices from across the political spectrum. With their sprawling think tanks, political organizations, and media outlets, both the left and right-wing must take their voter bases back into the terrain of bipartisan conversation. Civil debate should be presented to Americans as a virtuous model of democratic discourse. The constant partisan humiliation that pollutes our information airways need to recede in favor of a political culture of mutual respect that celebrates expertise and diversity of ideas. We can also cultivate a new informed citizenship by consuming knowledge that takes us beyond the present political moment. Rediscovering the value of liberal arts can make us more critical, independent, and sensitive in our thinking. Perspective is a powerful antidote to tribalism.

If you can relate to our suggestions, then you are the person we are talking to. Depolarization starts with you.

Read “Moving Forward in 2021: A Guide to Depolarizing America” from Psychology Today.

Learn more about Arash Javanbakht, M.D.

Moving Forward in 2021: A Guide to Depolarizing America from Psychology Today
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