I’ve spent more than 30 years leading peace-making efforts in other countries as the founder of Beyond Conflict, a Boston-based nonprofit. About a decade ago, leaders from countries in Africa, Central America, and the Middle East started warning me that I needed to focus our work here in the United States. It wasn’t just that the United States faced profound challenges — they sensed a growing division and deepening dislike among Americans that they had never witnessed before, and it deeply troubled them. One of those leaders, a former national security adviser for Guatemala, told me “that deepening inequality in the US is going to undermine the public’s trust in democratic institutions, drive people further apart, and lead to social unrest.”
To heed their warnings and to help gain a deeper understanding of this issue, we began work with researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, who conducted three national surveys over two years to assess the state of political polarization in America. Just days before the first COVID-19 patient was diagnosed in the United States, my colleagues and I were putting the finishing touches on our report, America’s Divided Mind. What we found is that our differences are becoming less about policy issues, and more about personal identities, leading to an Us versus Them mind-set.
Such mind-sets are dangerous to countries. What I’ve seen in my work over the last few decades is that when leaders stoke people’s fears, reminding them of threats to their identity and safety from generations or even centuries earlier, it can lead communities to descend from harmony to hatred, division, and violence.
Here’s how our report starts: “Deepening political polarization in the United States is a profound threat to the American people and to the very core of American democracy. As polarization worsens, it will continue to undermine the social fabric of the nation, drive Americans further apart, and make it more difficult to find collaborative ways to address urgent challenges.”
We found both Democrats and Republicans hold false beliefs about what our political opposites think, and think of us. Each group significantly overestimates how far they differ from each other on a range of critical issues from immigration to gun control. We also found that Democrats and Republicans grossly overestimate how much the other side dislikes them, and, more disturbing, that 79 percent of Democrats and 82 percent of Republicans overestimate — by more than twice as much — the level at which the other side dehumanizes them.
The results were alarming even before this pandemic began. We delayed our report because of the crisis, and we’ve seen our conclusions borne out during what is one of the most urgent challenges our nation has ever faced.
The coronavirus affects every single American, and will change all of our lives for years to come. Yet our response is being shaped by our polarized psychology — in the past few weeks we’ve seen people react along identity-based lines. An Axios|SurveyMonkey poll found that Democrats are more likely to avoid public spaces such as restaurants, shopping malls, and theaters than Republicans. Protests against shelter-in-place orders have sprouted up around the country, while in Massachusetts House Republicans and Democrats struggled to reach an agreement on emergency rules for conducting business during the pandemic.
Brain and behavioral science shows that when an identity-based mind-set kicks in, a whole range of unconscious psychological processes can take hold and accelerate our polarization, driving us further apart. Humans have evolved to be acutely sensitive to our group identity — particularly when we feel under threat—and our brains often discount or even ignore information that could threaten our group cohesion.
But along with these alarm bells is cause for hope. The same psychology that leads us to exaggerate partisan differences can also be leveraged to reduce polarization. Research from scientists at Harvard University found that correcting our misperceptions around issues such as immigration can shift partisans toward being more willing to think differently and more positively about the other side. These people are more willing to engage in productive dialogue and to seek common ground.
Identity-based polarization will continue to get worse unless we take steps to mitigate it. Beyond Conflict has spent the past two years using insights from science to develop a diagnostic tool called the Polarization Index. It both measures polarization and makes research-based recommendations on ways to reduce polarization and promote better engagement across partisan lines.
Beyond Conflict is now engaged in several projects in the United States, including one that aims to address issues of racism and inclusion in Boston. Working with local partners and researchers, we are developing a new framework to better understand the psychology of the racial wealth divide and help local cultural institutions redefine what inclusion and belonging look like in a rapidly changing world.
This pandemic offers a rare and significant opportunity to correct false perceptions of each other and the world outside our borders. To recognize that our fate — our very lives — is intertwined with others very different from ourselves begins to soften the lines that divide us. It will help us understand that we will overcome this crisis not as partisans, but as a nation.
Tim Phillips is founder and CEO of Beyond Conflict, which has been involved in conflict resolution in more than 70 countries, including South Africa, Northern Ireland, and El Salvador. He has advised the United Nations, the US Department of State, and the Council of Europe. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.