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Bridge the divide

Polarization imperils democracy by Jerry Henderson and J. Glen White Special to the Democrat-Gazette | December 7, 2019 at 2:25 a.m.

Many Americans are understandably weary of the current uncivil roar of partisan politics. Pew Research shows a steady rise of political polarization in the past decade to record levels.

A corrosive force in our country, polarization is producing troubling tension between friends and family members, in addition to placing our democracy at peril. Jennifer McCoy, a respected political scientist, reports research that political polarization, as it intensifies, can significantly erode democratic institutions.

Freedom House, which monitors freedom and democracy worldwide, notes new democracies surged globally from the 1970s through the 1990s. However, since 2005, democratic institutions and civil liberties have steadily declined around the world. Many experts argue that democratic institutions, including our own, are much more fragile than we might assume. Deepening mistrust along with an unwillingness to seek common ground, are threatening the perfect polarization storm that could so seriously undermine social cohesion that our democratic institutions could be substantially endangered.

It is tempting to detach and simply view ourselves as a victim of the crazy political drama, but this response may unwittingly make us part of the problem. Most of us choose a team, either "red" (conservative) or "blue" (liberal), based on complex psychological and personal history influences (though we assume our views are based on well-reasoned facts).

As described in the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, once our tribal affiliation is chosen, additional factors, mostly beyond our conscious awareness, can transform us into highly dedicated soldiers for our team. Our personal identity and value system are basically hijacked by our political identity. These forces create deep distrust and animosity between red and blue teams.

That contempt for the other half of the American population is unhealthy both for us personally and for our democracy. At the extreme, polarization can result in demonizing and dehumanizing the other side, which can potentially put vulnerable and unstable individuals at risk for violence.

If the health of our American democracy begins to decline due to the pernicious effects of polarization, what would be the nature of our patriotic obligation to act? What if we started by stepping back from our tribal allegiance and re-oriented our personal attitude?

We could strive to be more compassionate toward the other side, to genuinely seek to understand their views, and to be open to the possibility that some of their ideas may have merit and could provide balance to our views. We can reach out and begin a dialogue with a friend or family member across the political divide with no expectation that either side will change their views. We can then commit to genuinely listening and speaking with respect in search of understanding and common ground rather than engage in fruitless debate.

To be successful, we must each honestly challenge our own negative stereotypes and the nature of our animosity toward the other side, as suggested by Parker Palmer in his book, Healing the Heart of Democracy. We can learn to monitor our emotional arousal as a cue we are in danger of being swept away by tribal instinct, which will likely cloud our thinking and lead to unskillful actions and decisions.

Another important step is to seek more balance in our "media diet" and avoid relying only on news sources that confirm our existing views and that vilify the opposing party. It is a strong, but psychologically unhealthy, high to drink in the nectar of moral outrage at our political opponents.

Push beyond the bubble and seek dialogue and friendship with people who have different views from your own. Pew Research has indicated that having just one close friend across the political divide softens our negative political stereotypes. We can also, by our votes and letters to our congressional representatives in Washington, express our support for civil bipartisan dialogue and reasonable compromise. Insisting on ideological purity and viewing politics as a zero-sum game only stoke the fire of polarization.

Remember, there is only one America, so to borrow from Lincoln, let us call upon the better angels of our nature and learn to respectfully live with those whose political views are very different from our own.

Finally, you don't have to take on the journey of depolarizing alone. You can join the Better Angels team and contribute to healing the heart and soul of our nation. For more information about Better Angels ( in Arkansas, contact Cindy Kyser at or Glen White at


Jerry Henderson and J. Glen White are members of Better Angels of Central Arkansas, a citizens' organization uniting red and blue Americans in a working alliance to depolarize America.

Editorial on 12/07/2019

Print Headline: Bridge the divide


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