Democracy in America has had a difficult start in 2021. The Capitol riot on January 6 underscored the depth of disagreement about the workings of our political system. Police killings and the disparate impacts of the COVID pandemic have intensified conflict over systemic racism and economic inequities in our society. In the midst of threats to democracy, entrenched polarization, and longstanding power imbalances, how can consensus builders use our experience to help Americans find wiser, fairer, and more durable responses to public problems?

First, a diagnosis. Across our society, many political leaders, advocates, and citizens have adopted a zero-sum mindset about our most challenging public issues: political partisanship, racial equity, economic opportunity, and protecting the environment, among others. As Heather McGee’s book The Sum of Us powerfully describes, racism and the backlash against the civil rights movement have led white majorities to make many decisions that have harmed both Blacks and whites, from draining public swimming pools to undercutting labor rights. This mindset is intensified by the growing power of identity politics on both right and left. For the conflict entrepreneurs on all sides, it makes sense to argue that racial and ethnic groups are in a win-lose competition for political and economic dominance, with whites holding an eroding demographic advantage. Our professional and ideological identities can be similarly polarized - in the environmental arena, for example, battles between the timber industry and environmentalists have paralyzed the management of many public forests, resulting in hotter forest fires that destroy both habitats and commercially valuable trees.

On each of these issues, the “fire starters” who benefit from conflict (the term comes from Amanda Ripley’s new book High Conflict) use appeals to tribe and emotion, often amplified through broadcast and social media, to fuel the perception that what is good for “them” can’t be good for “us.” More pernicious, as conflict escalates and becomes entrenched, we start to believe that it is not only our interests that are opposed, but also our values and our identities. We are right, and we are good; they are wrong, and they are bad. The intertwining of zero-sum thinking with negative views and feelings about other social groups blinds us to solutions that could be good for us and them. Our belief that there is no way for us to work together becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

To get past that profoundly unhelpful perception, we need to make two hard shifts. First, we need to work on acknowledging that our seemingly hateful opponents are people like us. Even if we strongly disagree with them, we can still acknowledge that at the most basic level, they also have legitimate hopes and fears, and that their success is intimately tied to our own. Second, we need try to imagine the possibility of a positive sum outcome, to motivate ourselves to see if we can create solutions that would leave us all better off.

Though these shifts are very challenging to make, they are possible, case by case, person by person, issue by issue. We have seen them happen in high conflict, polarized situations, many times. A few (true-to-life) examples that we’ve been privileged to facilitate: 

  • Members of Congress from both parties have an open dialogue on how the events of January 6th have affected them and their view of the possibility of working with the other party
  • A cross-partisan, cross-disciplinary group of scholars and practitioners frustrated by a stalemated debate on teaching US civics and history collaborate to create and advance a robust new national roadmap for civic education, weaving together the knowledge, skills, and capacities required to sustain a thriving republic
  • Employer and worker representatives and racial equity advocates find ways to improve both the quality and the productivity of low-wage, low-skill jobs
  • Landlords and tenant advocates in New York City overcome decades of mutual distrust to assess the risks of an eviction crisis trigged by job losses during COVID, and advocate together for funds and support for renters who lost their jobs during COVID and are jointly at risk of eviction
  • Ranchers, farmers, cities, and advocates for social justice create a new system for allocating groundwater rights in California

How might we humanize each other and start searching for solutions that could work for everyone? There are at least three things that we’ve seen work. Sharing our family and life stories, our sorrows and joys, creates ample common ground on which we can start to identify our similarities and work through our differences on important public issues. We can connect as people, in ways that make it clear that we have much more in common than we thought, and that we aren’t the unidimensional enemies that we have been painted to be.

Second, we might use curiosity, constructive questioning, and techniques like joint fact-finding as the antidotes to dueling facts and realities. By agreeing on a set of questions we want to ask together, and then agreeing on how we can credibly answer them, we create the possibility of learning something that is different from what we or they thought at the start. We also create a shared description of reality on which to ground our discussions.

And third, once we can relate to each other and to explore questions together, we can open a dialogue that takes our different interests and values seriously and negotiate in good faith to see if we can find a way to reach common and complementary goals. In this way, we can co-create both a shared platform for deliberation and its outcomes.

This is not to suggest that all of our problems can find mutual gains outcomes, or that there aren’t times where other goals – such as fighting injustice or building a movement – might supersede the benefits of collaboratively solving the problem at hand. There are places where our interests and values are incompatible, our visions in total opposition. For these situations, we need strategies like elections, protests, laws, and courts to deliver resolution.

We are also fighting hard against the hardwired tribalism of our human brains, amplified by our current divisions of race, place, class, and partisanship. But small steps are still usually possible – finding the positive sum space within any seemingly zero-sum landscape.

What we know how to do, at least some of the time, is help people sit down together, begin to tell each other their stories, and then help them through the twists and turns they’ll face along the way. What we’ve witnessed, in the lived experience of tens of thousands of leaders, advocates, and citizens we’ve worked with over the past 25 years, is that people have an extraordinary capacity to bridge their divisions and to find a common “we” that transcends “us and them.” The starting point is sharing and listening across our differences, so that we begin to see each other as whole people, with fears, flaws, strengths, insights, legitimate concerns, and goals. It’s simple, profound, hard, and necessary work. We will continue to make our modest contributions to it, and to share our experiences as a reminder that striving together for a more perfect union is well worth the effort.