How to rise above partisan politics to uphold our democracy

Recent polls have revealed that “threats to democracy” are a top priority for many of us living in the United States. On the one hand, this is good news. Acknowledging the dangerous path we are on will hopefully galvanize more people to get involved in our shared civic life. The bad news is that Americans have wildly divergent understandings of where the threats to democracy are coming from, who is responsible and the solutions needed.

Democracy has become a partisan issue, more and more politicized in today’s toxically polarized environment. While it is a foundational ideal and the system of government on which our country was supposedly based, the loud cries to “protect democracy” are increasingly divisive and seen as weaponized for political gain.

For example, Biden gave a prime-time “democracy in crisis” speech that has received critiques for being overly divisive. By squarely naming the “MAGA faction” as the biggest threat to democracy, the argument is that the president missed the opportunity to separate the specific anti-democratic behaviors of political leaders (and the systemic actors that support them) from the broad mix of everyday citizens who may have voted for former President Donald Trump. They may be left wondering where they fit in the democratic future Biden says he wants to build.

MAGA Republican politicians on the other hand have made very clear who does not belong in their vision of America by enflaming racial grievances and stoking fear of LGBTQ populations to dangerous effect.

As we celebrate the International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15, how can we better establish a shared national project to uphold and reshape our democracy that rises above any one political party? How do we mobilize citizens as partisans for democracy? Inviting our fellow Americans to sit on the same side of the table — confronting together this shared problem of democratic decline — will require all of us to re-evaluate the ways we define our most pressing priorities; who and how we engage across differences; and, what we demand from our elected leaders and institutions. Below are seven considerations for how we may come together as partisans for democracy.

1. Look beyond electoral politics. As the mid-term elections are fast approaching, many Democrats are gripped with mobilizing and expanding their base, and some Republicans are organizing to ensure that “anti-democratic” candidates within their party are not voted into office. This is crucial work because elections do indeed have consequences; however, partisanship for democracy cannot mean that only liberals or progressives will win elections.

As scholars of democracy from around the world have long shown, a pluralistic, inclusive democracy requires more than one functioning political party. We need leaders on both sides of the aisle who are committed to accountability and decision-making processes that are fair and transparent, allowing for ideological diversity and debate. Democracy entails much more than elections or voting, even as those essential institutions are currently being attacked and dismantled in many states.

How we engage in our electoral politics right now with a long-term vision of a healthy democracy that allows for ideological diversity is just as important as the outcome of any one election. The Republican party must be reformed from the inside. So, the way that current MAGA supporters are called into that work is key. We need all Americans to see themselves in a shared future where our system of government works for all, and everyone is free to advocate for the issues and policies they care about most.

2. Define “anti-democratic” behavior beyond partisan identities. “Democracy” is seen as an amorphous concept for many Americans distinct from their daily realities — and yet, “saving democracy” is also being deployed as a rallying cry by each political party and their donors and media ecosystems. Our partisan identities increasingly supersede other identities, hardened by those actively stoking division and fear of our fellow Americans. If we feel truly threatened (both in perception or reality) by our political opponents, how can we co-create a pluralistic and inclusive future where all people thrive?

Partisans for democracy therefore must take extra care not to further entrench political identities, instead naming the specific anti-democratic behaviors and systems that have dangerous consequences for our nation. We can do this without blanket statements and toxic othering of whole groups of people.

For example, all the Republican lawyers, judges, staffers and long-time partisan operatives who decided to testify publicly before the House Jan. 6 committee, spoke to their personal experiences of when they felt democratic norms and laws were being crossed. In addition, many Democrats in Congress vehemently opposed the campaign arm of the DNCC for financing ads in support of more extremist Republicans in recent state primaries in order to run against less favorable opponents in the upcoming mid-terms.

3. Bridge the understanding of “anti-democratic” behavior to mobilize against it. The majority of Americans think of themselves as good people, or are dealing with trauma and the impact of isolation and lack of belonging. Bridging work is necessary to find that sense of belonging to each other again, with the goal of mobilizing to co-create the country we want for our future. There is an urgent need, therefore, to jointly define what we all consider anti-democratic behavior that we must then agree to apply across the board to all our leaders no matter their political affiliation, distinguishing democratic norm-breaking from policy solutions.

The words we use matter and can trigger political identities and backlash, and we often get stuck in a loop of what-aboutism and both-sideism in our quest to find “common ground.” However, partisanship for democracy calls us to find ways to have hard conversations that address real threats we jointly face: Political violence and intimidation have no place in a democracy and those spurring violence with their rhetoric should not hold political office. No one is above the rule of law, and we must hold our leaders accountable if laws are broken or changed to rig the system.

All citizens should have easy access to voting and have their votes counted. Citizens have a right to organize, to freedom of speech and to all other internationally recognized human rights. All of us should expect our government leaders to focus on solving real problems that respond to our urgent needs as a society, instead of distracting us with cultural wedge issues and stoking fear and grievance.

Amplification of the “big lie” narrative that the 2020 election was stolen and that the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol was necessary to defend democracy are a clear and present danger to the country. Being a partisan for democracy calls all of us to find ways to speak truth, to jointly take courageous stands; and yet, do so in ways that calls in the biggest number of our fellow Americans to join in this urgent endeavor.

4. Calling out toxic othering. Partisanship for democracy will require all of us to refrain from dehumanizing language, and we must actively call out our colleagues and political leaders who fuel toxic “othering” if we are going to rebuild our democracy. The MAGA faction within the Republican party has been successful in stoking fears with great message discipline, using labels for their political opponents like “communists,” “groomers,” “terrorists” or “Antifa.” The constant reinforcement within MAGA echo-chambers of the great replacement conspiracy theory furthers racial resentment. Democratic leaders have also engaged in toxic othering language and tactics, such as equating a vote for Trump with being a racist or homophobe.

5. Now is not the time for neutrality. There are too many overlapping existential crises facing humanity for our democratic system of government to fail us; and in fact, these crises should and could be a force for bringing us together. The United States has a long history of movements coming together to face hard challenges and we can do it again. To find common cause with our fellow Americans, however, does not require being “neutral” as we bridge across divides, when core values and injustices are at stake. Rather, we must stand united against those specific anti-democratic behaviors and unjust systems.

Calls for “bringing down the heat” in society does a disservice to the seriousness of the threats we face. It also  misses an opportunity to use this moment of high societal conflict to propel us forward, which George Lakey describes as “good polarization.” Yet, our mobilizing tactics and organizing strategies must always center the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings if we want to achieve long-term societal healing.

6. Partisanship for democracy versus bipartisanship. Many pro-democracy efforts prioritize bringing representatives of the two political parties together to form bipartisan alliances to address specific reforms. The Our Common Purpose Report released by the American Academy for Arts and Sciences for example includes 31 recommendations that were carefully crafted with bipartisan input, many of which take a long-term view towards renewing a culture of citizenship and institutional responsiveness and accountability. All of this work is necessary and worthy of attention.

And yet, to maintain their bipartisan inclusivity, many of these coalitions often shy away from some of the most divisive and difficult issues, such as confronting the “big lie,” the outrageous independent state legislature theory, or engaging with racial truth, healing and transformation processes. In particular, we cannot achieve democratic renewal in the United States without addressing the historic and current nature of systemic racial injustice. Just because this has become such an effective wedge issue for many within the MAGA faction doesn’t mean that partisans for democracy shouldn’t be courageous and insist that we attach our national conversation about race to the conversation about democracy. This is an opportunity, as Heather McGhee has so eloquently written in “The Sum of Us,” to address the ways that systemic racism hurts everyone in the country.

7. A cross-ideological democracy movement is both necessary and possible. Many on the progressive left have treated “saving democracy” as a solely left-wing issue. Yet, there are many conservatives organizing pro-democracy efforts that need to be better linked to progressive democracy movements. Robert Kagan has called for a “national unity coalition,” Christine Todd Whitman is advocating for a “common sense coalition,” and Rep. Adam Kinzinger is building a “country first” movement. Multi-sector platforms are establishing concrete targets to measure progress, such as the Partnership for American Democracy. Additionally, there are many issue-area coalitions like Issue One, focused on protecting poll workers, and grassroots organizing platforms such as People’s Action (and many, many others.)

Whatever this broad democracy movement is called, a unified front must come together that cuts across partisan, ideological, race, class, geographic and other divisions. Many segments of society are feeling the immediate threats of our democratic decline in different ways; and, pro-democracy initiatives are coming to this work from various vantage points, focusing on either short-term or long-term priorities to bring about societal change.

All of the work is essential and potentially reinforcing, and yet coming (and staying) together as a front won’t be easy. Building the connective tissue between and amongst these different democracy efforts, centering the problem not so much on our polarization but our fragmentation will help in achieving a renewed and mobilized group of partisans for democracy.

This story was produced as part of the Democracy Day journalism collaborative, a nationwide effort to shine a light on the threats and opportunities facing American democracy. Read more at usdemocracyday.org.

Building A United Front

*This article was written by former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.

The scope of the challenges of democracy in the United States are vast. For a movement to protect and expand American democracy to succeed, it is crucial that that movement be broad and united, including people from across America’s diverse identities and from all points along the political spectrum. Participation and diversity are key advantages for movement success. Yet building such a united front comes with numerous challenges. Scholars of social movements have long recognized that coalition-building, particularly across major ideological or identity differences, can be near-impossible to achieve without favorable conditions and significant work. In particular, when groups come from different identities, or have different understandings of the core issues at stake, building a sustainable coalition is difficult.

So how can a broad-based pro-democracy movement be forged in this moment of democratic crisis? When have coalitions in the past and in other countries facing moments of democratic crisis been able to unite across differences? While many factors vary across cases, research points to two particularly key factors.

People Unite When They Share an Understanding of the Problem

One of the central challenges of forging a pro-democracy coalition comes with the gradual, step-by-step process of 21st century democratic backsliding. While democracy in the 20th century tended to collapse all at once with tanks in the streets, democracy in the 21st century tends to fall apart piecemeal, as opponents of democracy slowly whittle away at its foundations. This is a particular problem for forging a united pro-democracy front because research shows that groups and organizations are motivated to collaborate across partisan or ideological boundaries when they feel a shared sense of threat. The first crucial step in building a united front is thus to bring people into a shared understanding that the situation presents a crisis that can only be met through combining efforts.

Some researchers have found that to build this shared understanding frequently requires lengthy processes of what sociologists call “frame alignment,” where different interpretations of the situation are gradually, frequently through lengthy discussion, brought into congruence. For example, pro-democracy movements in Africa have focused on how protecting democracy also has implications for fighting corruption, an issue that appeals to many different social groups.

One of the most effective ways to promote this shared sense of urgency and threat is by focusing on an upcoming event that captures the processes of democratic backsliding and around which different groups can build a shared understanding. One of the most common of these events are elections. Their regularity and importance for shaping the political future both make them ideal factors around which to frame mobilization, particularly if a major change in democracy is on the ballot. For instance, across Africa, elections where an incumbent president was seeking to change constitutional rules and run for a third term have been the spark for major alliances uniting previously competing civil society and political opposition groups.

People Unite When They Share Social Ties

Even when many kinds of people and organizations feel a sense of threat, a united front is not inevitable. The people and organizations feeling that sense of threat also need to have social ties through which trusting relationships of cooperation can emerge. The denser and more sustained the connections between key nodes in the movement network are, the likelier the formation of a broad united front.

Because of this, bridge-builders play a critical role in building united fronts. While a situation of crisis can motivate previously competing organizations to work together, pre-existing social ties make that collaboration much more likely. Bridge-building activities build relationships of trust that can help overcome challenges to effective coalition formation, such as differing ideologies or backgrounds, or competition over resources and media attention.

United Fronts Face Challenges Later On

But creating a united front is only an initial step. Maintaining that united front requires significant organizational, rhetorical, and relational work. Without this work, these coalitions frequently fall apart, with disastrous consequences for long-term democracy. For instance, political and civic organizations in Ukraine were able to unite to fight election fraud in the 2004 “Orange Revolution,” but competition over political power and the personality of leadership figures led to this coalition collapsing and significant democratic backsliding.

Power imbalances between members of a united front are one particular challenge. Given that the process of uniting will require groups to compromise and come to agreement on their shared goals, groups that feel at a power disadvantage relative to others are likely to feel particularly vulnerable and be hesitant to give up their preferred policies and processes for the sake of the larger front. More powerful groups are in danger of dominating the agenda and driving others out.

Alliances between activists on the streets and more established social or political institutions come with particular difficulties. Activists invested in sparking change may have little patience for quiet, behind-the-scenes processes of dispute resolution. Political, business, or religious leaders may see protest or other confrontational tactics favored by activists as disruptive or harmful to resolving political challenges.

Bringing It All Together

So, how can the pro-democracy movement unite across difference, and stay united over the long-term? The research shows, first and foremost, that this will not be easy. But leaders in the movement can help forge a united front first through building a shared understanding and feeling of threat that requires collaboration across difference, and through building dense networks of social ties that can build trust and foster communication.

To stay united will require maintaining those relationships of trust through regular communication, recognition of power imbalances and differing perspectives, and willingness to compromise and adapt for the sake of maintaining the coalition.

Violence and the Backfire Effect

*This article was written by former Director of Applied Research Jonathan Pinckney.

Any movement that seeks to stand up against powerful opposition and advocate on important political issues must be prepared for a violent reaction. Eighty-six percent of major nonviolent movements around the world have faced significant violent government repression. And other forms of resistance to movements, such as disorganized violence or harassment by movement opponents, are so common that social scientists call it a “law” that movements will experience them.

But there are ways that movements can handle violence to their advantage. Through skillful rhetorical and practical strategies, they can cause the violence directed at them to backfire. Violence, rather than suppressing the movement it targets, can end up strengthening it. For instance, during the civil rights movement, attempts by the Selma police to violently disperse civil rights marchers backfired when dramatic pictures and footage of dogs and water hoses being turned on peaceful protesters sparked widespread outrage.

Why does violence backfire?

Violence backfires when news of violence is widely disseminated and the violence is framed as unjust, illegitimate, and possible to do something about. When these messages are clearly communicated and accepted, it can become psychologically costly for previously passive observers to simply stand by and ignore the violence. People sympathetic to the movement who have previously not participated in it can become emboldened to participate, and it can even change the perspectives of former opponents to be more sympathetic to the movement.

All these aspects (wide dissemination, framing as unjust, and framing as possible to do something about) are critical. If violence is perceived as regrettable but justly and legitimately carried out, then those learning about it will not be motivated to attempt to do anything about the perpetrators. If violence is perceived as unjust, but impossible to change, then audiences are more likely to be motivated to simply shrug their shoulders and accept it as inevitable. For instance, the rising frequency of mass shootings in the United States and lack of meaningful policy responses have sparked widespread apathy among most Americans.

What situations make it less likely that violence will backfire?

Structural racism and engrained patterns of prejudice make violence less likely to backfire. In an online experiment, simply showing a picture of Black protesters made American survey respondents more likely to describe a protest as violent and say that police should stop it. However, survey respondents disapproved much more vigorously of actual physical violence. People from marginalized groups face additional challenges when it comes to sparking backfire. Yet through maintaining nonviolent discipline they can maximize their chances of doing so. Highly polarized environments also make backfire more challenging, as partisans may be more likely to simply perceive their opponents’ actions as violent, no matter what they do.

A media environment suffused in misinformation and disinformation also presents a significant challenge to sparking backfire. For example, in 2020, data clearly shows that the Black Lives Matter movement was overwhelmingly peaceful, even more peaceful than the civil rights movement of the 1960s, despite facing significant violence from police forces and movement opponents. Yet polarized media discourses that spread misleading or inaccurate information about high levels of violence in BLM protests undermined support for the protests and reduced the backfire of violence directed towards them.

What can movements do to increase the potential for violence to backfire?

The standard toolkit to prevent violence from backfiring involves five key steps: cover-up, devaluation, reinterpretation, official channels, and intimidation/bribery. Perpetrators of violence seek first to prevent information about the event from emerging, then to devalue the targets of violence, then to reinterpret the facts to make them seem less damaging, then often to diffuse and redirect popular anger through time-consuming official channels, and finally, when all else fails, to intimidate or buy off those who might spread information about the violence. In a polarized environment, reinterpreting the facts is often the centerpiece of this toolkit. For instance, media and political figures on the far Right have sought to downplay the violence of the January 6th attack on the Capitol or claim that the attack was a “false flag” operation conducted by government agents or the far Left.

Enhancing backfire involves denying opponents these five strategies: clearly communicating information about violence, validating the target of violence, interpreting the situation as unjust, refusing to let official channels sap legitimate outrage, and insulating against intimidation and bribery. These struggles over communication and interpretation can be deeply challenging and are best taken advantage of when they have been extensively planned and prepared for in advance. As scholar and activist George Lakey put it: “it is not repression that destroys a movement, it is repression plus lack of preparation.” Researchers have studied many avenues that can heighten the “paradox of repression” and increase the chances of backfire. While the specifics vary widely across cases, a few consistent patterns stand out.

Build Institutions and Trusted Networks: Movements that have strategized about how to respond to violence, and put in place structures to respond to it, are much more likely to successfully spark backfire. One study found that backfire was much more likely when movements had previously invested in external and internal institution-building, particularly in institutions that facilitated “communication channels and tactical adaptability.” Movements that had built strong networks throughout social groups were able to draw on those networks to mobilize in response to that event, and to mobilize participants to engage in follow-up tactics that could show their opposition to the violence while putting them at reduced risk of violence themselves.

Get the Word Out: One of the key things that organized institutional structures can do is ensure that violence is clearly communicated and that attempts to cover up violence fail. Social media has made government cover-ups more difficult, leading to protests spreading more rapidly once they’ve been initiated. Yet social media has also exacerbated misinformation and disinformation, reducing people’s trust in publicly communicated information. Building relationships of trust across partisan and identity lines before a violent event occurs may make it easier to diffuse information about violence when it occurs. Movements should strategize each step in the communication chain, from the original source of information about violence, to the ways in which it is transmitted, to how different audiences receive and react to it.

Maintain Nonviolent Discipline: By adopting and sticking to nonviolent tactics, even in the face of violence, activists can highlight the injustice and illegitimacy of violence towards them, preventing attempts by their opponents to devalue the targets of violence, for example by reinterpreting state violence as necessary law enforcement. A growing series of studies show over and over again that even modest levels of physical violence significantly reduces support for that movement. Movements can improve nonviolent discipline through training, choosing more dispersed tactics that reduce the chances of direct physical confrontation.

Focus on Overcoming Fear and Apathy: Backfire is a product of society’s interpretation of a violent event, not directly of the event itself. One part of shaping this interpretation is through highlighting violence’s injustice. A second is not allowing the violence to lead to paralyzing fear and apathy. In Zimbabwe, the Women of Zimbabwe Arise movement achieved this through building a culture where they “turned arrests into a celebration of successful resistance…beatings, arrests, and detentions became a badge of honor.” Leaders walked at the front of protests that were likely to face police brutality, and thousands courted arrest when a single protester was arrested.

While the situation in the United States differs from Zimbabwe, and the movement for democracy faces a variety of different forms of violence, from online harassment to threats from heavily armed conspiracy theorists the same underlying principle holds reinterpreting violence as a badge of honor and sign of the impact of resistance can keep core members of the movement motivated and defang the power of the violence turned against them. Violence towards the movement should never be accepted as just or inevitable, but neither should it be treated as something so horrific that it paralyzes a movement with fear. Instead, movements can empower their members to accept violence as a sign that their work is touching on critical and impactful issues and is even more important to continue.

THE VISTA: September 2022

The Horizons Project is growing! We are pleased to formally welcome both Nilanka Seneviratne as the Director for Systems and Operations, and Jonathan Pinckney as the Director for Applied Research. September is always a busy month.

We have new resources available on our website, including a compilation of “mapping” initiatives within the ecosystem of social change working on democracy, social justice, and bridgebuilding in the US. Please share others that we might have missed! Horizons also just released the first in a series of resources on the intersection of bridge-building and power-building.

We continue to be so inspired by all the amazing work and thought leadership happening throughout the country. Here’s a sampling of what we’re reading, watching, and listening to these days:

READING 

The Bridge Project: Reframing the Prevailing American Narrative for 2052

by Connie Razza and Angela Peoples

You don’t want to miss the Reframing the Prevailing American Narrative for 2052 Report, a narrative “destination” project that “takes a different approach from much of the narrative work that aims to win an election, to pass a policy, to make progress in the near term. The Bridge Project attempts to craft a story that aligns with who we are working to be in 30 years, and to strategize for transformation by building backward from that future narrative to inform the stories that shape our work today and in the coming years.”

My final column: 2024 and the Dangers Ahead 

by Margaret Sullivan 

Editorialist, Sullivan, extolled fellow journalists to tread carefully in covering the upcoming elections. “One thing is certain. News outlets can’t continue to do speech, rally and debate coverage — the heart of campaign reporting — in the same old way. They will need to lean less on knee-jerk live coverage and more on reporting that relentlessly provides meaningful context.”

Surviving Polarization

by Adrian Rutt

This is a meaty overview of several different takes on polarization, but one insight that was particularly powerful: “…we are all bundles of contradictions, whatever else we like to think about our expressed beliefs and their consistency and cogency…It is not the case that we possess rigorously formulated ‘belief systems’, which stamp out our thoughts and reactions in a fully determinable way. People alter their reactions and expressions to cope with the particularities of the situation they find themselves in.”

Combatting Misinformation and Disinformation: A Struggle for Democracy and Racial Justice

by Kitana Ananda

This Non-Profit Quarterly article provides an excellent summary of a rich webinar discussion, that left the audience with three key takeaways: (1) build networks that plug people into ongoing efforts to combat disinformation through narrative analysis and solution building; (2) hold Big Tech accountable through advocacy and legislation to advance a racially equitable digital society; and, (3) diversify media, tech, and academic institutions that are working on these issues to center the analyses and needs of impacted communities.

WATCHING

Joe Bubman, Executive Director of Urban Rural Action

Watch this great short video describing the work of Urban Rural Action, highlighting the experience of folks in Maryland coming together from different ideological perspectives to tackle issues of immigration, economic development, and inclusion with practical local solutions for their state.

Study Looks to Strengthen How We Feel About Democracy

Stanford University’s Robb Willer is interviewed on MSNBC to discuss their new study on reducing toxic polarization and reducing Americans’ anti-democratic attitudes. An overview of the study was also summarized by Fast Company or you can read the full report: Strengthening Democracy Challenge.

Faith and Polarization

Vice President for Programs at One America Movement, Chandra DeNap Whetstine gave an inspiring talk at Stand Together’s Catalyst Summit describing their approach to combatting toxic polarization, working with faith communities across the US.

LISTENING TO

Power Building with Alicia Garza

Finding Our Way Podcast 

In this episode, author, political strategist, and organizer Alicia Garza, breaks down what power is, how we build it, and why we need it in order to build a more equitable society.

The Power of Crisis, Ian Bremmer

Future Hindsight Podcast

This interview discusses The Power of Crisis: How Three Threats – and Our Response – Will Change The World, a new book by Ian Bremmer which posits that the climate crisis, disruptive technologies, and pandemics are existential threats to humanity, but also offer an opportunity for real cooperation across the world.

Journeying on the Road to Reconciliation

Think Peace Podcast

“Going down the road of reconciliation is a daunting path that not many people can take. This road may test you in ways you couldn’t imagine but when the end result leads to tangible and sustainable change, you realize that the journey is worth it.” Director of the Mary Hoch Center for Reconciliation, Antti Pentikainen discusses his journey into reconciliation, his experiences working in different contexts, and what have been the most effective methods in working towards reconciliation.

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

At The Horizons Project we love all genres of music, but we have a special place in our hearts for all those who can rock the mic. We were recently introduced to Harry Mack who brought us so much joy. Please enjoy his most recent freestyle and try really hard stop at one (or don’t because they are all great)!

THE VISTA: August 2022

In the Northern hemisphere, August is a quiet month when we try to stay cool, hopefully take time off, and then prepare for the academic year to kick off again. The slower pace has been a perfect time for the Horizons team to dig into so many new narrative resources, like this meaty compilation from the Narrative Initiative. Narrative competency is a key area of exploration for Horizons; and we remain committed to weaving bridgebuilding and powerbuilding concepts into our Narrative Engagement Across Difference initiative.

This IFIT report on Narrative, Power and Polarisation highlights that instead of one unifying narrative to counter polarization, we need to illuminate narrative biases, change narratives from within, and amplify smaller stories that help build social engagement at scale. This aligns with More In Common’s new report on American identity, which finds that personal stories of family history are a powerful way to break through the “us vs. them” narrative.

Many narrative practitioners are coming to the conclusion that we must be more conscious of fostering a sense of agency and community, rather than perpetuating a competitive, scarcity mindset that often comes with stories of crises. Framing choices have the power to inspire all of us to work through shared problems and to embrace a civic identity that respects differences, as also highlighted in this wonderful video series from Doing Things With Stories.

Here are some other resources we have found inspiring this month:

READING

Callings from “Fierce Civility”

By: Curtis Ogden

Civility has (almost) become a dirty word, seen as naive and impossible by some (at least when considering certain cultural and political divides), and as harmful by others, if ‘being civil’ means not speaking or hearing truths or working for social justice.” Fierce civility is not about ‘chronic niceness’ or conflict avoidance, but rather advocates for stances of assertiveness (as opposed to aggression) and receptivity (as opposed to passivity.)”

Cancel Culture

By: Amna Khalid and Jeffrey Aaron Snyder

“In the United States today, the left and right alike have aggressively embraced cancelation campaigns. Each side has its own distinctive objectives, strategies, initiatives and networks—as well as its own particular strongholds.”

How to Be Influenced

By: Ian Leslie

“We live in age of social influence, and while there is no shortage of advice on [how] to influence others, how to build a following, how to change minds – there is a dearth of thinking on how to be influenced…Each human being is bounded but permeable, a creature capable of making its own thoughts and actions but prone to copying and adapting those of others. When everyone around us is doing the same thing, we feel a pressure to join in that is almost physical in its force.”

Not Knowing

By: Maree Conway

“If we accept that we don’t know why someone is doing something we don’t accept, we can begin to accept that it may not be a case of us right, them wrong. We’ve observed something that arouses something in us, but we can reject being judgemental as a response. We can accept that not knowing is okay. Of course, there are situations where this stance won’t apply and events that cause harm to others in particular are just wrong.”

A Funder’s Guide to Building Social Cohesion

By: The Democracy Funders Network, in collaboration with Civic Health Project, New Pluralists, and Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement

This guide is intended to orient funders to the different ways civil society actors are thinking about and addressing the problems of affective polarization and eroding social trust.

WATCHING

Building a Larger Us

Larger US put out this great video to accompany their new report on the need for collective psychology to counter tribalism and polarization. You can also find excellent explanatory Twitter threads here.

Are Americans Thinking More Systemically?

Check out this roundtable discussion hosted by the FrameWorks Institute featuring community leaders and organizers discussing the implications of shifting mindsets from individualistic to systemic level thinking and the impacts on health equity, the economy, race, and politics.

Radical Belonging and Bridging: A Path Forward for Societies in Crisis?

“…for too long, civic leaders concerned centrally with democracy and those concerned with the rights of marginalized and minority communities have worked in silos, despite the many shared goals and values that both groups share.” Watch this important conversation, the first in a series, that launched the Democracy & Belonging Forum of the Othering & Belonging Institute.

LISTENING

Hungarian Autocracy and The American Right

By: Fresh Air

“New Yorker journalist Andrew Marantz says Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s administration has rewritten Hungary’s constitution to consolidate his power. U.S. conservatives are taking note.”

Radical Grievance with Malkia Devich-Cyril

By: The Emergent Strategy Podcast

“Grief is power…and a way to strength and intimacy.” This is a great conversation about our collective embrace of grief that can also aid in our journey to build belonging.

Eboo Patel and the Vision for an Interfaith America

By: Ashoka

Eboo Patel discusses his most recent book, We Need to Build: Field Notes For Diverse Democracy, to inspire and equip changemakers to move beyond critique and begin to build the next pluralist chapter of American life.

INTERESTING TWEETS

FOR FUN

Reach for the stars! The images released by NASA’s Webb telescope captured everyone’s imaginations this month. Check out this great breakdown from The Washington Post, which provides more background into exactly what each photo portrays.

So much of the news is consumed with what’s going wrong in the world that it can be hard to point to the bright spots and beauty that also exists. Check out the Peace Dots Project, which seeks to do just that in Buffalo, NY.

Presenting Horizons Presents

There are two types of people in the world, those that like podcasts and those that do not. If you’ve checked out any of our VISTAS, then you know that there are some serious podcast fans at Horizons. So we’ve jumped into the mix and for your listening pleasure we give you Horizons Presents.

Our first season is a group of intimate conversations with a group of inspiring women leaders on their own personal approach to sensemaking as a practice of network leadership.

Episode 1: Introduction and Sensemaking with Uma Viswanathan
Episode 2: Sensemaking with Michelle Barsa
Episode 3: Sensemaking with Melanie Greenberg
Episode 4: Sensemaking with Julia Roig and Tabatha Pilgrim Thompson
Episode 5: Sensemaking with Evelyn Thornton
Episode 6: Sensemaking with Nealin Parker

Enjoy!!

Rethinking “Polarization” as the Problem

On June 6, 2022 Horizons’ Chief Network Weaver Julia Roig, shared the main stage at Rotary’s 2022 Presidential Conference in Houston with Gary Slutkin, the founder of Cure Violence and Azim Khamisa, the founder of the Tariq Khamisa Foundation. The following article has been taken from her remarks as she followed Gary’s overview of their approach to treating violence as a public health epidemic and Azim’s personal journey of forgiveness and healing after tragically losing his son to a gang-initiation murder.

I’m going to take a deep breath.

Which I invite you to do too.

First, I want to acknowledge what an emotional time it is right now, probably for everyone in this room in one way or another. We all know that Rotary is a non-political organization, and yet these issues of violence, loss, and forgiveness are so very hard when we are living through a moment in history where there is so much pain, and division, and seeming paralysis to solve some of these existential challenges we face. How do we confront these dynamics and think about the role Rotary might play in creating stronger, more resilient relationships at all levels where you are working and have influence?

I was invited to speak to you about polarization. So, I wanted to share some insights that have been galvanizing my work at The Horizons Project. After more than 30 years working on peacebuilding globally, I recently launched Horizons to focus on the conflict dynamics and democratic decline in the United States. When I first conceived of The Horizons Project, honestly, we did start with the framing of polarization as the problem that needed to be addressed. And I was focused on what the peacebuilding approach might be to work on depolarization in the US, bringing with me the lessons from many other country contexts. But over the past year and half, our team has revised that framework, and I see the limitations of polarization as our central problem. In fact, might there be a way of considering polarization as healthy, and even needed for society to change? I’ve recognized more and more that there is a distinction between “good polarization” and “toxic polarization.”

So let me explain a bit more.

One metaphor for the polarization we’re experiencing right now – articulated by Quaker activist and peacebuilder George Lakey – is that society is heating up, like a hot forge. I.e., the fire that we put metal into that becomes so malleable, we can hammer it into something beautiful… or not. Conflict. Disruption. This is the heat rising. And that is not necessarily all bad – because it’s a sign that we need change. What comes out of the forge, the sword or the plowshare – that’s up to us, how we organize ourselves.

Sometimes this takes the form of actions that are loud and disruptive – naming where they see injustice for example. There is a saying that “we need to polarize to organize.” You are staking out a side (a “pole” … saying that “this is what we stand for!”) And after a lifetime of being in the peacebuilding business, I know that we are living through a moment in history when we need to stand up for what we believe in. It is not a time to be neutral. I’m not talking about anything that has to do with partisan politics. I appreciate so much how much Rotary guards its non-partisanship.

This concept of good polarization feels uncomfortable because conflict is uncomfortable and messy. We have different opinions about how to move forward together. Different truths and sources of information that we trust. We have different ways of being in the world. Holding those tensions of our diversity and agreeing to keep going together is what will make something beautiful out of that forge. Rising heat is a sign of change. What we’re really up against right now is complacency. For example, complacency that these levels of violence that Gary spoke about, in all their forms, continues to be tolerated; and complacency against the forces who are actively trying to divide us to stay in power.

Toxic polarization on the other hand is when we may tip over into “dehumanizing” those we consider “other.” We see this rhetoric alive and well from many politicians, on social media, perhaps even behind closed doors when we hear our colleagues use derogatory terms to describe an entire group of people (for their political affiliation, religion, or ethnicity.) Toxic polarization looks like zero-sum thinking; when we think in binaries (everything becomes black and white – there’s little tolerance for gray;) when we fall into group think (“us vs them”) or herd mentality; when we become increasingly afraid to speak up within our friend groups, for fear of being ostracized.

The social science behind toxic polarization shows how much of these dynamics are fueled by a deep sense of threat to our identities and our way of life. These threats can be perceived or real. But this level of toxic “othering” can ultimately lead to condoning violence, or allowing violence to continue, against those we see – even subconsciously – as less than human. When we feel that our identity, or our group, is under threat we no longer have the ability to deliberate. We have a harder time engaging in difficult conversations where we are able to discuss nuanced, complex issues, to debate solutions. How can we come together across difference if we consider those “different” from us as actually dangerous to our way of life? We see these dynamics playing out all over the world and they are manipulated and weaponized by those who wish to stay in power at whatever the cost.

So then, I don’t believe now is the time to turn down the heat. I believe we need to be organizing together across difference to stand up loudly for our values. We all want to live in safety. We believe in the dignity of all human life.

Martin Luther King Jr has a famous sermon, called “When Peace Becomes Obnoxious” where he described peace that comes at the expense of justice as a negative peace. Rotarians know a lot of about positive peace because of your long-standing partnership with the Institute of Economics and Peace that gives a wonderful framework for bringing together all the ways Rotarians are investing in helping to keep societies peaceful. But to actively work against negative peace, this means we have to incorporate injustice into that same framework. Calls for bringing down the heat; for unity; finding common ground – it may be quieter; we may be civil to each other. But are we sweeping the hardest issues under the rug to keep that peace? Are we seeing the violence in all its forms, hearing some of the loudest voices who are asking for the violence to stop, looking at the root causes as Azim did when he recognized there was a system that needs changing to prevent more gang violence?

I am personally trying to sit with the discomfort of the heat, the polarizing conflict that is pushing us to change, demanding louder action of us. And yet, we CAN all be more aware of the temptations of dehumanization. While we organize and work for change, how are we always centering each other’s shared humanity and our interdependence, even as we confront these hardest of issues? Because another way of reframing polarization, is that what we really need to work on is our “fragmentation.”

Interestingly, forgiveness experts will note that one of the signs of being unforgiving is that we start avoiding each other. We stop working with people – those who have hurt us, those who have offended us. In fact, when we feel “offended,” which so many of us do right now, (we are constantly outraged), the very normal psychological response is that we look down on those who have caused the offense. We feel morally superior. This is another form of “othering” and is deepening our fragmentation.

Gary mentioned the violence of autocracy as one of the forms that is spreading like a pandemic throughout the world. Toxic polarization and dehumanization, this keeps us feeling threatened and staying fragmented. We are fearful and outraged. These are all tools of autocratic systems that ultimately lead to violence. We see this in Russia, and in many other parts of the world, including alarming trends in the US – where people are manipulated and denied the ability to have meaningful voice in the decisions that affect them, to assemble and organize, and to stop the spread of violence. Toxic polarization is a symptom of an increasingly authoritarian regime, not the cause.

So here we are at a Rotary convention, and you have to go back to your communities and your clubs. What do you do with all of this? Hopefully, get comfortable living with tensions and being in relationship with those who think differently in your communities (maybe even in your clubs and your districts.) Reflect on when you may find yourself feeling offended or outraged and how you want to channel that – not to turn away, not to feel morally superior – but committed to being true to your values in a way that is restorative of relationships and allows for healing together.

Rotarians are so good at acting together and conducting shared activities that build on a common identity as Rotarians. We need to remind each other of our many shared identities – we are all complex, not just one thing. And we need to put a stop to dehumanizing behavior. Gary mentioned behavior change to prevent the spread of violence and the need to establish new norms.

Rotary can be a big part of establishing these new norms, not just in the projects you fund, but also in the way you work together and with others. You set an example by living your values. These new norms won’t really take hold when we convene dialogues that center our identities as different from each other, for example, blue hats and red hats in the US. They do grow when activities center what we share, as mothers, football fans, or gardeners. Whatever helps us connect as human beings, that slows down our thinking, allows us to live with complexity and nuance again – not black and white. Everything Rotary does, whether it’s projects on maternal health, clean water, girls’ education. All of Rotary’s areas of focus are potential peacebuilding efforts when you bring together unlikely bedfellows and combat that fragmentation, to work on problems together. When you recognize and see injustices in a system that needs to change no matter where you’re working, use your collective voices to call for change, centering those values.

I am here today because I believe in Rotary as a force for changing norms. Sitting with tension, feeling the rising heat. Something beautiful can come out of the forge because we are all here, working on the different pieces of peace together.

Thank you.

THE VISTA: June + July 2022

To say June was an intense month in the US would be an understatement. We encourage everyone to keep tuning in to the January 6th hearings, a testament to the rule of law and the importance of accountability that we cannot take for granted, as stated in this powerful op-ed by Pastor Evan Mawarire.

With the barrage of recent Supreme Court decisions sowing deeper divisions and disorientation, there are many resources such as those compiled by Citizen Connect to help us keep talking to each other and organizing for a just, inclusive, and plural democracy. Special thanks to The Fulcrum for highlighting the work of Horizons and for elevating the call for a mass pro-democracy movement. We agree!

Horizons’ Co-Leads published two articles marking our Independence Day describing the importance of individual and collective action to countering authoritarianism, and the healthy tensions between accountability and healing as a nation.  Finally, Scot Nakagawa offered up sage advice on how to keep up our energies to stay in the fight. The Horizons Project hopes the following compilation of insights will also provide you with some inspiration and needed energy:

READING

Beyond Conflict’s Renewing American Democracy: Navigating A Changing Nation is a treasure trove of information on the psychological drivers that are underlying our current social division and how they have been leveraged to erode democratic norms and processes. The authors include recommendations for how citizens and lawmakers can begin to counteract these forces.

The Frameworks Institute released a meaty report: How Is Culture Changing In This Time of Social Upheaval?, offering an in-depth look at mindset shifts taking place; the tacit assumptions that Americans are drawing on to think about social and political issues (for example individualistic vs systemic thinking.) Highlights from the report can be found here.

This article published by The Intercept, “Meltdowns Have Brought Progressive Advocacy Groups to a Standstill at a Critical Moment in World History“, also spurred a strong debate on Twitter about the systemic causes of the internal strife and challenges described in the article.

America Is Growing Apart, Possibly for Good” is a sobering read in The Atlantic that includes a historical perspective from Michael Podhorzer, laying out a detailed case for thinking of the two blocs within the country as fundamentally different nations, uneasily sharing the same geographic space.

WATCHING

This edition of the Braver Angels video podcast includes John Woods Jr. interviewing Manu Meel from BridgeUSA on Gen Z and the “new center.” Manu shares some great wisdom on new theories of change coming from young people for making progress on our most pressing social challenges.

The Future OfThe Verge’s Netflix show about the future of everything is now streaming. Because our relationship to the future and our imagination skills are such an important aspect of successful organizing, this is a show intended to make people feel like an exciting and hopeful future is possible, “if we put our minds to it”.

Check out this series of five videos featuring panel discussions from the Global Democracy Champions Summit co-hosted by Keseb and the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University intended to spur dialogue and action to advance inclusive democracy in the US and globally.

LISTENING TO

The Good Faith Podcast discusses Replacing White Replacement Theory with special guest Chuck Mingo, pastor and founder of Living Undivided. He helps unpack the history behind the insidious “theory” and why he feels its scarcity mindset is in direct contradiction to the “abundance of God revealed in the Bible.” The podcast also explores the connection of current tragedies to broader understandings of immigration, as well as to the nation’s history of racially motivated violence like the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

This episode of the How Do We Fix It Podcast features Elizabeth Doty, Director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan, discussing constructive ways for businesses to help counter hyper-partisanship in society. We also highly recommend the Erb Institute’s overview of how the private sector can contribute to countering authoritarianism, a key institutional pillar needed to incentivize pro-democratic behavior.

Amanda Carpenter joins The Focus Group with Sarah Longwell Podcast to discuss the January 6th Committee hearings, how they matter for history, and whether they’re contributing to the “Trump voters’ blues.”

On The World Unpacked Podcast by The Carnegie Endowment of Peace, author Moisés Naím discusses his new book The Revenge of Power: How Autocrats are Reinventing Power in the 21st Century, covering the “three P’s” of authoritarian regimes: populism, polarization and post-truth.

INTERESTING TWEETS

Scholar-Activist Helen Neville shares all the resources accompanying a special Juneteenth edition of the Journal of Black Psychology focusing on the “Psychology of Black Activism in the 21st Century”, including a series of podcasts that explore the topics in each article.

Sara Grossman tweeted details about the launch of the new Democracy and Belonging Forum, an initiative from the Othering & Belonging Institute to share efforts between Europe and the US. (Horizons is pleased to support this effort, with Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig, serving as an Advisor).

Tim Dixon breaks down new polling from More in Common to show that Americans are more concerned about threats from within the country than from abroad. And a related thread from Citizen Data describes their research on Americans’ views on electoral integrity and ways to combat election mistrust.

Professor Neil Lewis Jr. lays out the arguments in his recent article in FiveThirtyEight on various research that demonstrates what actually happens when we teach students critical lessons about American history.

James Savage from the Fund for Global Human Rights shares a thread on the amazing new resource, Narrative Spices: An Invitational Guide for Flavorful Human Rights, created together with JustLabs and based on the experiences of narrative change efforts in Mexico, Hungary, Venezuela, Australia, and Sri Lanka.

Arnaud Bertrand explains the ironic findings of the annual Global Democracy Perceptions Index in a twitter thread that highlights the challenges with defining what “democracy” is.

Nick Robinson, the head of US Programs at ICNL, put out a thread on the impact of the Supreme Court’s recent Bruen decision (gun control case) on assembly rights, democracy, and the insurrection.

FOR FUN

“It’s a summer day. You have a long drive ahead of you. No work to do. Cold beverages in the car. Windows down. You have to put on an album that sounds exactly like summer to you and listen to the whole thing, no skips. What are you playing?” Rachel Syme, staff writer at The New Yorker, posed this question that generated hundreds of great summer listening recommendations. Enjoy!