As the nation’s political polarization teeters on the toxic, the downstream consequences are becoming apparent. These include political gridlock, erosion of faith in institutions, extremism, social unrest, and even violence. This begs the question: Why are Americans so bitterly divided over politics? Did we choose this?
Maybe not intentionally. For answers, we at Civic Health Project look to extensive academic research describing why humans tend to be “groupish” or “tribal.” For millennia, the innate abilities of our species to form cohesive in-groups helped protect our ancestors from the threat of opposing out-groups. Further research indicates that political tribalism may be a modern-day, albeit unhelpful, adaptation of survival behavior. Our lingering tribal tendencies can be exploited—even weaponized—in an era of instant communication by those who stand to gain from political division.
To borrow a term from economics, we are in an unhealthy supply-and-demand pattern. Our tribal nature leads us to demand reassurance that we’ve identified both the righteousness of our “in group” and the threat of the opposing “out group.” Meanwhile, political elites and powerful media outlets are more than happy to supply the polarizing content that leads us further down our partisan rabbit holes.
America’s cigarette industry offers an instructive analogy. For decades, tobacco’s broad social acceptance and its addictive qualities drove growing demand. Cigarette companies were keen to supply both the product and the aura of “in-group” appeal, while masking the toxic health consequences of tobacco use.
Like the tobacco kings before them, today’s suppliers of political outrage want to keep us hooked on a stream of polarizing ideas, attitudes, tropes, and scapegoats. The more we buy into the “outrage machine,” the more benefit accrues to the bad-faith actors across our political, media, and social media landscape.
As America’s struggle with tobacco suggests, it can take decades for people to break unhealthy patterns of demand. Cigarette use declined in the U.S. only through the sustained effects of awareness campaigns, targeted educational efforts, legislative and regulatory actions, and direct health interventions.
So, what combination of remedies is needed to address toxic political polarization, which damages our civic health just as surely as cigarettes damage our lungs?
There’s no ready answer but there is good news. A growing body of research points the way towards tools, resources and activities that ratchet down the levels of toxic political polarization. Better yet, these research-based approaches are being adopted by individuals, organizations and communities across America.
Business is the newest actor here and may emerge a powerful one. For one thing, business settings have inherent advantages in tackling toxic polarization. More than most other social settings, our workplaces place us in proximity to people with diverse political, racial, economic, and/or religious profiles. In this sense, workplaces are living laboratories for how the concept of “bridging across differences” can be applied.
Further, businesses tend to enforce healthy norms on how employees interact. This can help foster an environment where active listening, respectful dialogue, and informed understanding of different perspectives can flourish.
A growing number of initiatives effective against toxic polarization, many of them discussed in this report, are well suited to business use. These include group education programs such as OpenMind Platform, dialogue conveners like Living Room Conversations, Braver Angels, and the National Conversation Project, and corporate alliances that include Business For America and Time to Vote.
It’s true, not every company will decide to tackle toxic political polarization. Some will conclude that maintaining the workplace as a “politics-free zone” is the best path to employee cohesion. However, before deciding that toxic political polarization is “not our problem,” businesses should ask and answer these questions:
- How might toxic political polarization intersect with other conflicts or tensions playing out in our workforce, for example, around race or gender?
- How might our business be explicitly or implicitly treating employees, customers, or other stakeholders differently, based on political affiliation?
- What are the risks to our business, long-term, if government dysfunction continues unabated?
- And, upon reflection, is our business part of the “outrage machine?” Are we contributing to—or benefiting from—the supply of polarizing content?
We need not allow the consequences of toxic political polarization to come to roost. We can understand it as an unhealthy supply-and-demand pattern, and then overcome it. This will take time, but it is possible, and business can do much more to pave the way. Together, we can build a “coalition of the willing,” that is, willing to listen, talk, build consensus, and move forward on our most pressing issues, refuting those who profit from dividing us.