Opinion: How to stop polarization among Americans

A few months ago, I knocked on the front door of a home in El Centro while looking for Republicans to interview for a story. An elderly white man opened the main door of the house but left the screen door closed. I tried to see him through the screen of the screen door. I told him I was a journalist hoping to learn about his political views and that I couldn’t see him very well. “That’s the point,” he told me.

He seemed angry. He said President Biden was a “fool,” adding, “We’ve got to hunt down all the illegals and get the fuck ’em out of this country!” I asked, “Hunt them?” He said, “Hunt them!” As I tried to understand his perspective by asking more questions, he became more and more condescending: “Don’t you read? Don’t you get the story?” When I replied that I’d been covering the border since Obama’s presidency, he interrupted me, “Obama was a fool, n—.”

I ended the interview. What was the point of continuing a conversation with a man so unafraid of his bigotry? This man, I thought, is a threat to me and the people I love. He obviously felt the same for me. We were not alone in our grim judgements. Most Americans today see other Americans as a threat. According to a CBS News/YouGov poll released last summer, many believe other Americans pose the greatest threat to their way of life. In the fall, an NBC News poll found that 80% of Democrats and Republicans believe political opposition “poses a threat that, if left unchecked, will destroy America as we know it.”

It has become a belief in activist circles, both left and right, that a crucial way to confront the threat is to name it. Republicans are no longer Republicans and Democrats are no longer Democrats. Instead we are all called fascists.

But what if the threats we pose are rooted in our demonizing each other? What if our perception of adversaries as mortal enemies is a delusion that creates its own reality and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy?

The two sides are not situated equally. Studies show that Republicans are more to the right than Democrats are to the left, and right-wing extremists are the most likely to embrace violence. The GOP is involved in an assault on the physical autonomy of women, people of color and transgender people. There is no comparable attack on people’s rights by Democrats, although many Republicans would disagree.

But how can I hope to convince Republicans to change their minds when I’m convinced they’re all extremists? Wherever I see fascists and neo-Nazis, I see no opportunity for dialogue. As accurate as these labels are, they also limit my ability to see an opponent’s potential for change. As Mónica Guzmán wrote in her book I Never Thought Of It That Way, a guide to talking to our opponents, polarization is “the problem that eats other problems, the monster that convinces us that we are the monsters.” .

Earlier that day in El Centro, I interviewed Republicans who voiced ideas I thought delusional and dangerous, but I was able to hold conversations with them. Unlike the angry old man, they spoke to me as equals. They did not use insults or other labels.

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A man who said he believes immigrants are “replacing” Americans at the border also expressed sympathy for “these poor souls coming across the river.” Not exactly the words I would have expected from a man who subscribes to a white supremacist conspiracy theory.

Since this man is likely to vote for the same politicians as the angry old man, he arguably poses just as much of a threat when it comes to putting right-wing authoritarians in office. But if I don’t allow the possibility of finding common ground with him, I give up all hope that this country can survive the chasm that separates us.

Of course, there is a place for strong condemnation. That’s why, against my dislike of labeling people, I’ve titled my biography of Trump adviser Stephen Miller Hate Killer. The media too often glosses over the actions and rhetoric of those in power. We have a responsibility to criticize our leaders.

But I’m not so sure there’s any point in labeling ordinary people who support these leaders. While it is true that the demagogues’ power emanates from the masses of ordinary people who support them, it is also true that the devotion of these masses stems from a moral outrage reinforced by the moral outrage of the other side.

When we use derogatory terms, we disregard the lessons of nonviolent communication that are well known among psychologists and mediators working in peaceful conflict resolution. “Most of us grew up using language that encourages us to name, compare, demand, and voice judgments rather than being aware of what we feel and need,” wrote psychologist and peacemaker Marshall B. Rosenberg in his acclaimed 1999 book, Nonviolent Communication.

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In the age of social media, trolling and shaming has become even more trendy. But most of us in therapy have learned that moralistic judgments—in the form of labels, insults, diagnoses, blame, and more—promote defensiveness and doubling down on others. According to Rosenberg, this style of communication also fuels violence.

It’s not fair that anyone should have to deal with people who are less inclined to see them as equals, but what choice do we have? The only other options are national divorce or civil war.

For a relationship to survive, it’s best to communicate “what we observe, feel, and need,” Rosenberg wrote, rather than naming each other’s flaws. Communicating with an open heart inspires others to do the same. It is human nature to mirror other people. We all need more confidence in our ability to connect with others. As risky as that sounds, it couldn’t be riskier than forsaking the humanity of our fellow Americans.


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