The message often heard in America is that liberals want to do something about climate change and conservatives do not. But what if it’s not that simple?

If you look at the polls, most Americans — on the left and the right — think that climate change is a serious problem we need to deal with. But the structure of the political system, the influence of money in politics and the warping effect of polarization have bifurcated the issue along party lines, making it nearly impossible to take necessary action. In our latest interview with researchers from Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab, Samy Sekar explains how even an undeniable crisis can get caught in the web of money and politics, and how institutional change could break it free.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Tell us about yourself.

I just completed my PhD in environment and resources at Stanford University. Specifically, I was trying to understand what was causing the misrepresentation of Americans’ attitudes at the state and federal policy level when it comes to climate change. 

Is there any debate to be had about climate change at all?

It is beyond a reasonable doubt that anthropogenic climate change is happening, and that we are causing it. Where there is room for debate about climate change is around policy: How should the government address it? How much should it spend trying to address it? Who should pay the cost of addressing it? A whole slew of policy issues can be debated, but the phenomenon itself can’t be debated.

There’s a commercial from 2008 featuring Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi sitting side by side on a couch, saying, “We don’t always see eye-to-eye, but we do agree our country must take action to address climate change.” These days, Newt Gingrich is a climate change skeptic, and the word “climate” doesn’t appear once in the Republican Party’s platform. What does this say about how politics can change politicians’ views (or, at least, their messages) about climate change? 

More than 70 percent of Americans believe that climate change has happened. And most [of those people] have believed that climate change is human-caused. In a 2018 study by Stanford’s Jon Krosnick’s lab, the political psychology research group found that 78 percent of Americans support some sort of government action on climate change.

The fact that a huge number of members of Congress and our president don’t believe in climate change, or claim that climate change isn’t happening or that it’s a hoax, is not representative of the American public’s views.

There’s a name for this mismatch that occurs when an issue is polarizing within institutions, but is broadly agreed upon by the public: “democratic deficit.” Can you talk about this?

A paper by David Brockman and Chris Gavron found that both Republicans and Democrats at a state legislator level were actually less progressive in their policy views than their constituents. And there was a study in 2019 that showed something similar at a federal level when it came to congressional staffers predicting their constituents’ views. They were asked, “What percent of your constituents do you believe want the government to reduce CO2 emissions?” and similar questions about health care and other policies. That paper by Fernandez, Stokes and Miltenberger found congressional staffers were underestimating how progressive their constituents were. 

Samy Sekar

There are a few different reasons why this democratic deficit could exist. One reason could be that people have policy preferences, but those policy preferences don’t necessarily map on to how people vote for their representatives. 

Alternatively, you could vote for a politician that theoretically supports [your policy preference], but then you and all of your fellow constituents don’t voice your opinion loud enough for them to hear what you want. 

What causes this disconnect?

What you find is that the congressional staffers who most poorly predicted what their constituents wanted were the ones who are getting the most visits from lobbyists. That means they’re getting signals about what companies in their districts want that may be louder than the signals they’re getting from their constituents.

“While there is some polarization on the climate change issue among the American populace, there is extreme polarization on the climate change issue among American legislators or politicians.”

Where does the climate fall on the priority lists of voters?

There was a survey done by the political psychology research group at Stanford and [the nonprofit] Resources for the Future. It was the 20th or 25th year in a row that they ran the same climate change survey. They found that the percentage of Americans who say climate change is extremely important to them personally is higher than ever. 

There aren’t a lot of options if you want to vote for a Republican who is passionate about climate change. While there is some polarization on the climate change issue among the American populace, there is extreme polarization on the climate change issue among American legislators or politicians.

So if you’re a Republican who is very passionate about climate change, you can either have your general worldview represented in the context of electing a Republican, or you have to have your climate preference represented in the context of electing a Democrat [who supports] climate change. 

The small number of options there were for Republican climate voters, they are losing because of political polarization.

How strongly does polarization drive the actions of both voters and politicians?

One problem with political polarization is the competition ends up being not between the two parties, but within each party. There are people who are perhaps willing to sit out the election because they don’t believe that Joe Biden is going to take climate change seriously enough. It’s not because the other candidate is going to take climate change more seriously, it’s simply because in the primary, their candidate who was more serious on climate change lost.

But because affective polarization is so strong, the majority of Democrats, even if they think Joe Biden doesn’t represent them or their views, will vote for him because they hate the other person and other party. There is a competition of ideas within the Democratic party and then whoever wins that competition gets the support of the vast majority of Democrats.

Any given issue gets swept under the rug when people are holding their nose and voting for the less bad of two candidates. It’s very obvious at the presidential level. I’m less certain it’s happening at the congressional level because you see progressive candidates beating out centrist Democrats because of their progressive stances on many issues. The Green New Deal has been front and center almost every time.

So what would it take to create a major policy shift?

About five or six years ago there appeared to be some hope among economists and natural scientists that a bipartisan climate policy was possible. Now, because parts of the Republican Party with particularly extreme views on climate change have won out, and because progressives and Democrats have started to expect more urgency from their leaders in addressing the crisis, a bipartisan solution seems further away than ever. 

If you were to ask Republican voters, “Do you believe climate change is happening? Do you believe that it’s human-caused? Or at least partly human-caused?” you will still get about 50 percent to 60 percent of Republicans saying yes to those questions. It could be that the remaining 40 percent are the loudest 40 percent, but I think there’s another component, which is lobbyists and all of these other things that elevate the voices of a small percentage of the Republican party or Republican voters.

If you had a magic wand, what institutional changes would you make to increase the likelihood of passing climate policy?

My research has shown that Republican state policymakers are willing to update their policy preference to be more in line with their constituents’ climate mitigation policy preference. So my view on how this could change is to start at the state level — pass strong, stringent climate policy at the state level, as we’ve seen in New York.

One key component to make serious climate policy more likely at the federal level is reducing the extent to which lobbyists can knock on any member of Congress’s door and influence their beliefs and attitudes.

Essentially, [overturning] Citizens United, money in politics, lobbyists in politics — the extent to which we can reduce that, I think that is the biggest barrier to implementing or passing climate policy.

“What you find is that the congressional staffers who most poorly predicted what their constituents wanted were the ones who are getting the most visits from lobbyists.”

Another thing we’re seeing at an extreme level in this election is making it harder to vote. We’ve seen it over and over again that the American people really want this climate policy. [It would help] if we made it easier for them to vote [instead of] making it harder to actually cast a ballot without a voter ID or without waiting in line for 10 hours without getting sick.

Giving people Election Day off and having more people vote the way Australia does [Australia has compulsory voting] would be excellent mechanisms. Getting the people’s voices heard more clearly is a key factor.

Ultimately, my argument is that the people’s will isn’t being represented because the political elite are more polarized than the people themselves are on specific issues. If you made it easier for a third-party candidate to get into the mix, that would make it easier for a Republican to choose someone that actually aligns with their views on some issues, but who is also not a Democrat.

This story was produced by The Guardian, a We Are Not Divided collaborator.

When Glenn Stanton and Sheila Kloefkorn first ended up in the same room together, they knew they were not going to see eye to eye.

Stanton, the director of Global Family Formation Studies at the evangelical Christian values organization Focus on the Family, had spent years vociferously fighting gay marriage.

Kloefkorn, on the other hand, had married her wife in 2014, on the day gay marriage became legal in Arizona. Having fought for equal marriage for decades, finally being able to wed meant letting go of feeling like a second-class citizen.

But today, Stanton and Kloefkorn are friends. They met through Braver Angels, an organization that encourages people to befriend and understand people who have differing political opinions. Today, they laugh when people are surprised at their friendship.

“I don’t believe that Glenn is out to get me in the way I probably would have in the beginning of my activism. I just really believe he feels strongly about the things he cares about, and that’s a great thing,” says Kloefkorn.

For Stanton, those things include being passionately anti-abortion (he believes that life begins at conception); a firm belief in what he calls the “traditional” family structure (he calls fatherless families a “human tragedy”); and he is so against gay marriage, he says he wouldn’t have gone to Kloefkorn’s wedding if they had met before she was married. Kloefkorn, for her part, rejoiced when the rainbow flag was projected onto the White House for Pride. She believes that functioning families come in all different shapes and sizes, and is pro-choice.

Reaching out to the other side may sound like self-inflicted pain, but Kloefkorn took those steps for a very personal reason: she is the only liberal in her staunchly conservative, evangelical family.

Glenn Stanton, director of Global Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, is anti-abortion and against same-sex marriage. Credit: David Williams / The Guardian

Growing up, her mother was the only person she could relate to politically, so when she died in 2015, Kloefkorn found herself increasingly isolated. And Trump’s election only exacerbated this feeling.

“My dad’s wife texted me the day after Trump won and said, ‘We are so happy that Trump won. We are sorry that your life’s work is over,’” Kloefkorn explains. “I kept on thinking, I’ve got to figure out how to handle this. I very much do not want my dad to die and for us to be on a bad foot.”

Stanton’s motivations are less fraught: he sees pairing up with someone different from him as an opportunity. He likes the idea of making new friends, and wants to learn how to become a better citizen. “Gaining all the friends that we can, and learning all of the different stories that I know nothing about: that’s worth the effort,” he says.

The work can sometimes be tough, revealing, anxiety-inducing. It requires workshops, disabling one’s own ego, and sometimes even being subjected to offensive ideas.

And yet thousands of people across the U.S. are returning every week to do the work and broaden their friendship circles and their minds, in hopes that the country will be healed by learning to get along.

“Where did we get the idea that we can’t be friends with people we don’t agree with?” asks Stanton when I talk to him on the phone, in his chipper, almost singsong voice. “I work in a very partisan world, and I am an advocate for things I believe deeply. But I really am troubled by the divisive nature of our culture and the way we tag each other so dismissively.”

That might sound simple enough, but the polarization currently gripping America is about more than just disagreement.

Most Americans today choose to spend their time with people who vote the same way as they do. People increasingly look badly upon — even loathe — people with differing views: a 2016 Pew poll found that 47 percent of Republicans judged Democrats to be more immoral than other Americans; 35 percent of Democrats said the same about Republicans. And this year, a Gallup poll recorded the most divided results it had ever seen on Republican (89 percent) versus Democratic (7 percent) approval of the president: an 82-point gap.

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    And while it might feel like politicians have always hurled mud at each other, our political culture is becoming increasingly antagonistic. During the 1960 presidential campaign, only 10 percent of political advertisements were negative; by Obama’s second election in 2012, only about 14 percent of campaign ads were positive.

    This increasing polarization has devastating effects on our capacity to show compassion, and on our emotional and political health.

    Sheila Kloefkorn spent years advocating for legal same-sex marriage. Credit: Cassidy Araiza / The Guardian

    “When people become over-identified with a very negative or judgmental stance, it has a way of limiting their ability to perceive larger possibilities in their world,” says Kirk Schneider, a psychotherapist who has been researching polarization and its effects on the human psyche for decades. “Being continually consumed with seeing the other as evil [prevents a person from] experiencing a wider range of relationships in their life, of having new discoveries, and also perhaps feeling a sense of wonder about the world.”

    Polarization is also dangerous for democracy. Schneider, who is a Braver Angels moderator, points out that when societies become heavily divided, they tend to reach an impasse. Political objectives seem less achievable. People who have a less mixed range of views tend to move away from a give-and-take approach to politics, and start to endorse the idea that the other side — not their own — is the one that should be doing the giving.

    “People have to sit with some discomfort if we’re going to have sustainable peaceful coexistence with one another,” says Schneider.

    Wesley Dennis is so terrified of racism in Trump’s America he has already started planning his exit route should Trump win another election. But he doesn’t want to be this scared. He wants to hear why he shouldn’t be afraid of Trump voters — he wants some reason to feel, if not optimistic, at least not horrified.

    Dennis has been engaged with Make America Dinner Again (MADA) since the 2016 election, an organization that started out by asking people to have polite disagreements over dinner in people’s homes, and has moved online since the pandemic.

    “I don’t believe that Glenn is out to get me in the way I probably would have in the beginning of my activism.”

    Sometimes the posts that he submits to MADA’s Facebook forum take two, three, maybe even four attempts to write. He will carve out six paragraphs explaining why he believes it’s not anti-American to take down statues honoring Confederate generals, and then he will screen his own writing. He wants to be as approachable, rational and careful as possible to help Trump voters understand his side.

    Sometimes the responses he receives are infuriating. People call him over-emotional about racism, or unable to be rational. They suggest that Black people are inherently criminal. Sometimes they don’t even gratify him with a response.

    “Some days I spend hours writing comments to people who have said things that are offensively misguided, only for them to say, ‘I don’t like your tone,’” he says.

    Dennis points out that while he knows it is not his job to educate anyone, if he doesn’t speak up the “other side” might never hear from a Black American. “Take this idea that Black people are somehow inherently suspect; or that police brutality stories are just an example of ‘one bad cop,’” he says. “People [on these forums] will say, ‘Well, the solution is more education, or for Black fathers to stop being so derelict.’ And I say, look, I grew up with both parents and I have a Yale degree, and I still experience this sort of profiling and harassment.”

    There have been small points of relief throughout his work. He is now less likely to lump all conservatives together, which he believes is good for democracy. Sometimes he will see a post about guns that makes him certain someone is an archetypal, evil orthodox Trumpian — and the next minute, he’ll see the same person attending a person of color-led Zoom talk about race that makes him reconsider his assumptions.

    And while he can’t be sure he has helped the more conservative members to see his side of things, he has certainly made ground with some. One of his MADA partners, Patrick Yu — who voted Republican until Trump’s election — said he struggled to understand systemic racism in the very abstract ways he felt it was written about in news articles and academic studies. But meeting Dennis helped to broaden his worldview.

    For Dennis, there is another benefit: he feels less powerless. At least if he chooses to engage with those he disagrees with, he might broaden their perspective, and that is something he can hold on to.

    Depolarizing is not easy. Some people years into the process say they still have paranoid fantasies: they fear the sum of their values could be compromised by talking to their political opponents; that the other side will take over and destroy society; and that those they care for could be harmed as a result.

    Sometimes those fears materialize. After Kloefkorn joined Braver Angels, her own friends berated her, accusing her of compromising her values by being friends with a man who had opposed same-sex marriage.

    That is why the Braver Angels model focuses on techniques taken from marriage counseling to help repair wounds. People listen to their partners talk about the stereotypes they have been subjected to, and how it makes them feel. Ultimately, they are filling out their political opponents’ humanity, putting the parts of them back together in a way that makes them less of a caricature.

    “It helps to expose myself to other beliefs and I have an understanding of where people are coming from, even though I don’t agree. It helps me because then I don’t have to feel so bad all the time, especially at family dinners,” says Kloefkorn.

    What’s more, she isn’t carrying around the weight of assuming that others are against her anymore. “It is just negative for me if I have that as a belief because I am just going to look for confirmation and then I am going to feel unsafe.”

    Now, at Thanksgiving, Kloefkorn tries not to persuade, not to rationalize or reason with, but to disarm herself and take in what her father’s fears are. “On a bad day, I just try not to talk about it,” she says. “But when it is good we just focus on the things that we love about each other.”

    The experiment’s participants were politically minded, sure of their ideologies. Which is why, upon learning that they had just expressed support for an issue they actually oppose, many of them tried to insist they must have misread the question. More than a few were flat-out confused. And, perhaps surprisingly, a handful were relieved to find that they were more ideologically flexible than they realized. 

    “They told us, ‘Thank God I’m not a left-winger,’” says Philip Parnamets, a psychologist who helped design the crafty experiment that would trick its subjects into defending a political view they disagreed with. “They were like, I didn’t know I could think this way.” Which made Parnamets realize something: “You could see this as a tool for self-discovery. It seemed to open up the possibility of change.” 

    “The idea that one arrives at their political beliefs through careful and considered reasoning only is fictional.”

    The premise of Parnamets’ experiment — that a simple psychological game could meaningfully alter a person’s political positions — is something most people probably assume couldn’t work on them. Most of us see our ideological viewpoints as the result of thoughtful, objective consideration. “We live in a world where people think political attitudes are sacred things,” says Parnamets, “that they shouldn’t be changeable at all.” 

    But a growing body of research suggests that’s not true, and that our politics may be far more flexible than we think. “The idea that one arrives at their political beliefs through careful and considered reasoning only is fictional,” says David Melnikoff, a postdoctoral fellow at Northeastern University who studies attitude change. ”Whether it’s about a country, party, policy or politicians, attitudes can be radically changed on the basis of your current stimuli.” 

    Parnamets’ experiment did just that. He and his colleagues gave their subjects an iPad that contained a series of polar opposite ideological statements. The subjects used their fingers to draw X’s on the spectrum between the two statements to indicate their level of support or opposition to each. 

    What they didn’t know was that the iPads were programmed to secretly move some of their hand-drawn X’s to different parts of the spectrum. Suddenly, an X drawn next to the statement “I support raising gas taxes” was now closer to “I oppose raising gas taxes.” The researchers then showed the subjects their iPads to see how they would react. Some of them cried foul. But more than half accepted the altered opinions as their own. 

    Even more remarkably, when asked to explain their thinking behind these opinions, many of the subjects took pains to describe in detail why they had supported a political stance that they hadn’t actually chosen. It was these participants whose political opinions shifted the most dramatically — in fact, their “new” opinions held fast even a week later when the researchers checked in on them again. 

    “We see a larger attitude change when participants are asked to give a narrative explanation of their choice because they’re then more invested in that view,” says Parnamets. Psychologists call this “choice blindness” — when people have to rationalize a choice they didn’t actually make, their preference can naturally shift toward that choice.

    Melnikoff has conducted similar experiments into attitude change, in which participants are primed through exercises to generate positive feelings toward things they don’t actually like. In one such experiment, Melnikoff’s subjects exhibited lower feelings of disgust toward, of all monsters, Adolf Hitler after being told they would have to defend him in court. “All it takes to change someone’s affective response to something is to induce them to have a positively or negatively valenced action toward that person or thing,” says Melnikoff. Even if, intellectually speaking, the subject knows this person or thing is bad, they can still “feel good” about it, like a dieter salivating at the sight of an ice cream sundae they know they shouldn’t eat.

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      Part of the reason our choices and beliefs can be so easily changed is that our brains have evolved to help us navigate life by avoiding friction and complications. “The brain’s job is to predict, to guide you through an environment without making too many errors, and to help you adapt to that environment,” says Jordan Theriault, a researcher who studies the neural and biological bases of behavior and judgment. “The behaviors people take on and the beliefs they hold are about managing stress and arousal and discomfort.”

      Our brains are built to anticipate and avoid friction, which may help explain where our ideologies come from. Illustration courtesy of Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett

      Looked at from that perspective, it makes sense that our beliefs should adapt to fit our environments, coalescing into ideologies that make the world feel easier to navigate and understand. You can see this most clearly in partisan politics, wherein an ideology’s potential to bind you together with “your group” may be more important than the ideology itself. 

      “Part of partisanship is about being part of partisan conflict,” says Theriault. “You have your people and you have the other people you consider yourself against, and that’s an environment where it makes sense to have these beliefs. But if you’re removed from that conflict position, your partisan beliefs may not serve as much of a purpose anymore.”

      Removing ourselves from that conflict position is easier said than done in a world where it feels like every politician, pundit and loudmouth on Twitter wants us to do the opposite. But in those rare instances where we can manage to put conflict aside, it’s possible to free ourselves from our rigid political mindsets and see the other’s point of view.

      One technique that has gained interest in political advocacy is “deep canvassing.” Traditional political canvassing involves identifying your supporters and making sure they get out and vote — basically, it seeks to leverage partisan feelings to the party’s advantage. Deep canvassing, on the other hand, does the opposite: Canvassers go door to door, but instead of pumping up the passions of their supporters, they listen closely to those who hold opposing views. “What we’ve learned by having real, in-depth conversations with people is that a broad swath of voters are actually open to changing their mind,” Dave Fleischer, one of the technique’s best-known practitioners, told the New York Times Magazine in 2016.

      Deep canvassing can leverage the same tribalist power of partisan politics, but turn that power toward finding common ground rather than fighting to the death, according to Theriault. “Just by showing up on someone’s doorstep to talk to them about what they believe, you’re essentially building a new relationship” — a tribe of two — “even though it’s a very short one at the door,” he says. And in an age when so many political affiliations are cultivated online, the face-to-face offering of an olive branch becomes all the more powerful. “It’s difficult to be genuinely listened to on social media,” says Theriault, “so I think being genuinely listened to is a way of building a connection to people — and even working out what you believe, too.”

      In essence, deep canvassing functions not unlike Parnamets’ experiment with the iPads. Both encourage their participants to slow down, rethink their initial position, and then, engage in a meaningful narrative about the opposing point of view.

      Such narratives have powerful effects on our brains — we are more easily swayed by them than we realize. In his book Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky writes that simply naming a game the “Wall Street Game” is likely to make players compete more ruthlessly than if they are told the game is called the “Community Game.” Telling doctors a drug has a “95 percent survival rate” makes them more likely to prescribe it than if they’re told it has a “five percent death rate.” Subtle cues can alter even our most cherished beliefs. In one experiment conducted in the U.S., survey respondents were more likely to support egalitarian principles if there was an American flag hanging nearby.

      “I think we have an untapped reservoir for flexibility in our attitudes and beliefs,” says Parnamets, “but it’s difficult to access because there are many reasons for holding tightly to beliefs — sense of security, sense of belonging, self esteem — and those might actually close you off to other views, even if you’re the type of person who could actually hold a different belief than the one you’re holding.”

      “But if you can have a discussion with yourself, which our method allows you to do,” adds Parnamets, “we see a real possibility of change.”

      Last fall, Jax Richards ducked into a coffee shop near the Oregon State University campus in Corvallis to talk about criminal justice reform at a discussion hosted by a student organization. Richards is a junior majoring in economics and public policy, so he is no stranger to discussing hot-button political issues. He considers himself politically liberal on almost every issue though he emphasizes that he doesn’t “walk the party line.” He’s been called a “baby killer” by conservatives for believing in a woman’s right to an abortion and “incompetent” and “stupid” by those to his left for not supporting Medicare for All. A lifelong Boy Scout, he was labeled a “fascist” by some for attending the national jamboree in 2017 where President Trump spoke. 

      With criminal justice reform, however, the issue is personal. Richards survived childhood abuse at the hands of his father, who is now a convicted felon. When he sat down with eight other students at the discussion, hosted by the OSU chapter of a national student group called BridgeUSA, he had a hardline view of how the U.S. should treat people convicted of crimes.

      Jax Richards
      Jax Richards

      “We should throw the book at them,” he told them. “I believed in the death penalty and that prison should not be a top priority when we start addressing social justice and social change.”

      When students started making the case for a rehabilitation rather than punishment model for addressing criminal justice, the conversation could have easily gone off the rails, with Richards drawing on his backstory to shut down dissenting views. “I did what a lot of people do with an emotional issue,” he says. “I came right off the bat and said I think rehabilitating the prison system isn’t feasible and my personal experience was what I used as my evidence.”

      But the conversation did not devolve into a shouting match. Rather than push back or retreat to their preconceived views, the other students were empathetic to Richards’ experience. They asked him questions to better understand his mindset. Some brought more empirical evidence to the conversation about the disproportionate incarceration rates of people of color and offered up alternative European criminal justice models that focus on reintegrating convicted criminals into society.

      An hour and a half later, Richards had begun to soften his view. “That conversation with BridgeUSA opened up new possibilities and curiosities for me to learn more about alternatives to hardline punishment,” he says. “It also provided more objective opinions from my peers and was a supportive environment that understood why I would hold those views.

      While Richards didn’t walk away that fall day with his convictions changed, it sparked him to explore the issue more in depth in his classes, through his own research and in conversations with others. Several months later in the wake of George Floyd’s killing, he has come around to a different attitude. “At the end of the day, rehabilitating individuals is a lot more beneficial as opposed to putting them in a horrible system.”

      BridgeUSA is a national campus-based organization working to promote civil discourse in an increasingly polarized era through facilitated small group discussions. As higher education institutions struggle to balance free speech policies, safe spaces and deplatforming, BridgeUSA is one of several groups working to foster intellectual tolerance on college campuses. For Richards, the experience captures the best of what the college experience can be for young people still working through their opinions and worldviews.

      “Bridge isn’t even at the level of contentious political family dinners,” says Richards. “The closest comparison I can make to the conversations I’ve had at Bridge are the long midnight car rides I’ve had with some of my best friends — not debates, but conversations of mutual understanding.”

      That spirit of friendly, empathetic curiosity was sorely lacking at the University of California, Berkeley on February 1, 2017. That evening, right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a speech amid a climate of rising ultra-conservative and white nationalist views just weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as U.S. president. Student protesters attempted to block the event nonviolently. They were eventually joined by self-identified anti-fascists who turned the protest into a riot by launching fireworks at police, then smashing store windows on campus and in downtown Berkeley. University police put the campus on lockdown and canceled the speech.

      “The only dominant narratives are the extremes. Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

      BridgeUSA co-founder Manu Meel was a freshman at the time. He was leaving math class when he found himself caught in the melee. He later ended up in a campus building watching CNN, which was broadcasting a live feed of his own college going up in flames.

      “I was shocked at the state of democratic engagement and what this means for higher education and learning,” he says. 

      In the aftermath of the February riot and subsequent campus unrest over controversial conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro and Ann Coulter, who were met with a sometimes violent response from far-left demonstrators, the university appointed a free speech commission to examine the recent events. The commission grappled with UC Berkeley’s legacy as the bastion of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, when students protested for the right to discuss political issues like the Vietnam War on campus. In 2017, the Berkeley College Republicans and invited speakers, who ranged from political commentators to fringe alt-right activists, argued that they also had a right to free speech for their views.

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        Meel volunteered on a student council advising the commission, which concluded that students are either apathetic about politics or, if they are engaged, they take radically polarized approaches like right-wing trolling or anti-fascist property damage because violence and destructive engagement is the only model of discourse.

        “The only dominant narratives are the extremes,” says Meel. “Not extremes in political ideology but extremes in terms of temperament. The norm is crazy discourse.”

        Manu Meel
        Manu Meel

        That conclusion inspired Meel to engage with what he saw as a silent majority — those who were neither rioting in black bloc nor reveling in right-wing provocateurs — in the hopes of fostering an alternative mode of political discourse. Soon after the Milo riots, students at Notre Dame, which had started a non-partisan political discussion group called BridgeND, reached out to their Berkeley counterparts. In the heat of the moment, the concept took off at Berkeley. Over 100 people showed up at the first BridgeBerkeley conversation in mid-February to debrief from the Milo riots. 

        From Berkeley, the Bridge concept spread to 24 campuses. Meel graduated in June 2020 and BridgeUSA has since become a non-profit start-up with Meel its first CEO, working out of a San Francisco apartment with a handful of Berkeley alumni.

        “Our theory of change is that you have to show young people what it means to engage with democracy,” he says. “We elevate young people who believe in empathy, respect and engaged dialogue as a prerequisite to action.”

        While BridgeUSA chapters occasionally host speakers — provided they have a history of constructive engagement — the organization generally eschews lectures. “Talks are a one-way mode of engagement. The core principle of Bridge isn’t about presenting your views, it’s about listening and engaging,” says Meel. 

        Instead, Bridge favors small group discussions like the one Jax Richards found his way to at Oregon State, where Bridge-trained moderators facilitate the discussion parliamentary-style, so that speakers address the moderator rather than someone else in the room with whom they disagree. 

        A student discussion at UC Berkeley organized by BridgeBerkeley. Photo courtesy BridgeUSA

        Not that there aren’t moments of tension. Meel recalls an immigration discussion with thirty-odd students in attendance where a DACA recipient, or “Dreamer,” made her case for why she believes Dreamers have a right to stay on campus. At the time, Trump was pushing Congress to cancel the DACA program and the university administration reacted by providing financial and legal support to undocumented students. A white student from El Paso, Texas stood up to rebut her argument. He put on a red “Make America Great Again” hat before stating his views that allowing so-called “illegal immigration” is a bad precedent that risks crime and violence, making him scared for his family.

        Rather than the Dreamer backing away and leaving, or shouting in response to his argument, she responded to his values by expressing her fear of deportation and likening it to his fear of crime. After their back-and-forth, the moderator asked if anyone else had something to add. The other students, who had quietly let the two debate, didn’t talk about immigration. They latched on to the level of understanding that the two students, who couldn’t otherwise be more different, had reached. 

        “While they had totally different policy positions, they shared the same notion of safety, security and stability,” says Meel. “The process of empathy is to get at the level of values, and at the level of values you can break down arguments and find common purposes.”

        Observing the process was at least as important as actually discussing the issue at hand. “A lot of kids have never spoken with anyone they disagree with politically,” says Meel. “The chapter builds the clout for them to do that.”

        Flying book

        Moderation is also the key to success at Linn-Benton Community College in Albany, Oregon, which serves a politically mixed student body of more conservative Linn County and more liberal Benton County. Communications professor Mark Urista advises the student-led Civil Discourse Club, which arose in 2017 following controversy over sexually explicit artwork displayed on campus.

        “What stood out to me right away was a clear divide between those who were enthusiastically supportive and those who thought it was completely inappropriate,” says Urista. “They were talking in their own echo chambers but not with each other.”

        Promoting a collegewide discussion is difficult for a commuter campus, as many community colleges are. One experiment the club has tried is a public whiteboard that asks controversial questions like “Should vaping be banned on campus?” so respondents can weigh in at different times of day. While comments can be made anonymously, moderators from the club erase personal or partisan attacks.

        “We have an etiquette sign,” says Urista. “This is not a free expression whiteboard — we are trying to teach people how to do civil discourse.”

        Survey data and scholarly research on the political views of higher education instructors suggest that creating intentional spaces for students to share contrary views is necessary. In a 2019 survey on campus expression by Heterodox Academy, a non-profit advocating for viewpoint diversity on college campuses, 55 percent of students reported that the on-campus climate prevents them from saying something they believe, with one in three students reluctant to share political views in the classroom. Republican students were more reluctant than Democrats or Independents to talk about controversial topics like race, sexuality and gender, although not religion.

        That sensibility is backed up by the ideological tilt of professors. In a 2018 paper, Mitchell Langbert, a business professor at Brooklyn College, analyzed the political affiliations of 8,688 professors at 51 liberal arts colleges. He found the Democrat-to-Republican ratio at an overwhelming 12.7 to one. In several colleges’ humanities and social sciences departments, he found consistently there were zero registered Republicans.

        John Wood, Jr., Vice-Chairman of the Republican Party of Los Angeles County, and Ciaran O’Connor, a campaign staffer for Barack Obama and in 2014 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, speaking at a Respect + Rebellion event at UC Berkeley in 2019. Credit: Loren Curry / BridgeUSA

        Debra Mashek, a tenured psychology professor at Harvey Mudd College who is now Heterodox Academy’s executive director, identifies as very liberal. She knows the problem all too well. “One of our founders spoke at a psychology conference where I was in the audience,” she says. “I remember him asking if anyone who was Republican could please stand up. One person did.”

        Mashek’s field of research is close relationships, which is also where she finds the seeds of successful efforts to overcome division. “We need to cultivate the habits of heart and mind that allow you to engage constructively across lines of difference,” she says. Those habits start with relational aspects. “You need to know enough about the other person as a person, not as an avatar, to actually see where they’re coming from,” she says. “You have to take the risk of letting yourself be seen and known. When you do take that risk, it tends to resolve in more connection.”

        Finding those relational aspects is at the heart of Respect + Rebellion, which brings so-called “divergent speaker pairs” to college campuses who disagree vehemently but remain friends through a cross-cutting bond. With names like “Black & Poor + White & Privileged,” “Anti-abortion Feminist + Abortion Access Fanatic,” and several variations on “Red + Blue,” the framing of the pairs goes straight for the jugular of ideological divides. But by going to the precipice of fundamental disagreements over hot-button issues while ending in agree-to-disagree comity, the speaker pairs serve as models of successful relationships across political and ideological differences.

        Inside the Student-Led Movement to Depolarize College

        Jacob Hess, one of the organizers behind the project, is himself a participant: A politically conservative adherent to the LDS church, he pairs up with Philip Neisser, a Marxist atheist. They disagree on everything. Almost. “We’re both into uber-healthy stuff,” says Hess. “We both think Monsanto is the devil.” That connecting thread, plus their shared professional background in academic research, is enough to forge a friendship that can soften student attitudes when displayed publicly.

        “I have seen the shift firsthand with students who show up ready to fight us,” he says. “After they see that we’re just being real and human with each other, it loses the charge.”

        Respect + Rebellion brought its divergent speaker pairs to over 2,500 students during the 2018-2019 school year and conducted surveys at eight events across four campuses, drawing responses from 400 attendees. Overwhelming majorities responded that the event helped depolarize their views. 73 percent agreed with the statement, “I understand and/or like people who I disagree with at least a little bit more than before.” 78 percent agreed with the statement, “I feel like it is more possible that I could learn something from people on the other side of the aisle.” And 83 percent agreed with the statement, “I’m more optimistic about conversing with people whose political views are different than my own.”

        Shortly after the hotly contested 2018 midterm election, Linn-Benton College hosted the “Red Mom + Blue Mom” speaker pair. Several instructors brought their classes to the talk and built assignments around the presentation. “Students claim they really appreciated seeing two people model what civil discourse looks like in the flesh,” says Urista. “For a lot of people, civil discourse is this abstract term. They don’t know what it means or how to do it. Those results gave me tremendous hope about the future.”

        Meel feels that same depolarizing effect at work when students find themselves in a BridgeUSA-moderated conversation as opposed to yelling at each other across the campus quad.

        “I almost feel like I’m not a part of my generation when I talk about the need for relationships,” says Meel. “Social media has hampered our ability to engage.”

        With that uphill battle, Meel said, their work is cut out for them. “We have to figure out unique ways to market empathy to my generation, which is very pissed off and very angry.”