Building Trust Across the Political Divide
The surprising bridge of conflict.
We are arguably living in the most polarized time since the Civil War. And what’s more, the particular variety of polarization that presently plagues our society is an especially nasty one. Two kinds of polarization are spiking: negative polarization—“It’s not that I like my team, I just hate the other team”—and affective polarization—“Not only do I disagree with you, I think you’re a bad person.” According to the Pew Research Center, when asked to rate how they feel about people on the other side using a thermometer, the number of Democrats and Republicans who give one another “very cold” ratings has risen by 16 percent and 14 percent respectively since 2016. As the same report notes, increasing shares of partisans of both persuasions say those on the other side are “closed-minded” and “immoral.”
The fuel driving us apart has many ingredients, but let me rehearse a few. Many of the forces that used to bring us together are no more: a common enemy, a basic trust in our governing institutions, a shared conception of what the idea of America is, a fairly reliable bet that opportunity was widely distributed. Add to these crucial erosions the fact that media sources once shared across a wide swath of American life have been supplanted by media modalities whose success literally depends on their ability to generate outrage and division. Local community institutions have dissolved. Residential patterns of behaviour have shifted away from the neighbour and toward the self. Social isolation deepens unabated, and the structures that used to bring differently thinking people into positive contact with one another are now relegated to philanthropic grasps at hope.
Our differences are our glory, and we need to examine what it would look like to really celebrate them—to face them boldly, and respond with the trusting inquiry that leads to love.
All of this leaves the human mind susceptible to the temptations of tribal demonization, to incomplete if viscerally satisfying narratives of one’s own reality (as well as plausible narratives explaining the motivations of those you do not know), to political hatred, and eventually to violence. At this point, much of the most serious division in our country is explainable not by divergent values but by much more basic divergent impressions of what is going on. We are divided not only on questions of truth, but by reality itself.
This state of affairs leaves us in quite the pickle. Talk of bridge-building is on the rise, and the skills and virtues involved have arguably never been more necessary. But when it comes to political partisanship, do we really know what effective bridging requires?
It’s trickier than it seems. A variety of organizations have sprung up in more recent years to forge a kind of depolarization field, most of them sincere and well intentioned. But there is a bias in the soil: a Blue bias. (Blue = leans liberal; Red = leans conservative.) The vast majority of leaders, funders, and participants in the bridging field are Blue, and this imbalance dictates the approach taken to depolarization.
People interested in bridging often believe that the primary aim of bridging work is to get people on both sides to see each other’s humanity. Blues usually approach this through exercises designed to build the empathy of one group for the lived experiences and emotions of the other. For example, one group of people will be asked, “What life experiences led you to this view?” Or “What does it feel like to live as a [insert category] person in America?”
The goal is for people to listen to others’ experiences and feelings and to walk out saying, “That person isn’t so different from me,” or, “If I’d gone through that experience, I might feel exactly the same way.” If a substantive conflict arises, the facilitator is likely to redirect the group back to sharing.
This sounds right and good, doesn’t it? It focuses on personal experience, presumes identity categories. Most importantly (and actually rare), it’s an approach rooted in asking questions. The virtue of Blues is that they are very open (at least at the beginning), and they’re always the first to reach out a hand and say they want to learn about the other side. The vice, however, hidden to themselves most of all, is in the fact that many Blues assume that if Reds could just be taught what is true, they would be enlightened into Blueness.
Reds, understandably, smell this train and dislike the tracks. To be fair, Reds have their own version of arrogance, which I can best describe with an example: If I hear one more Red say “Well, but he’s not a real . . .” (fill in what you like—American, Christian, soldier, leader), I might actually say something I shouldn’t. The virtue dancing with this vice is that Reds tend to be stubbornly caught up in grace: they are extremely loyal, and, interestingly, very forgiving. The religiously based belief that we’re all sinners but we’re also all children of God leaves room for a lot of human complexity.
The Blue-inflected traditional empathy-building forms of bridge-building have a great deal to recommend them. But there is a flaw: the implicit belief underlying this style of bridging is that we can learn to love each other by seeing that we are all deeply the same. While true in some senses, this misses a fundamental insight about relationship that most of us know from experience: We have the capacity to build relationship through conflict.
Take marriage: It is well studied that conflict and its resolution can make the relationship stronger. It makes clear the differences between people that often wind up being the very reasons for love—my fiancé loves me because I’m me, with my own distinct charisms and moral topography and personal idiosyncrasies, not because I am a version of him.
Reds often feel like they are walking into a trap: they are expected to participate in “empathy building” by sharing sensitive parts of themselves, but people won’t approve of who they really are and what they really believe.
Or take your relationship with your mother. You know her so well that even if you don’t get along, I guarantee you have affection for some of her quirks, as well as for the good sides of her heart, no matter how different they are from your own. In my case, my mother has the most adorable quirk as to how she finds family members in a crowd: she will mimic a small dog and offer a little “Arf!” that all family members have learned to recognize as her way of saying “I’m looking for you!” (I will never forget when my now-fiancé asked, “Is your mother barking?”) On a more serious note, I deeply admire her profound moral commitment to the economic underdogs (pun intended) of our society, which is utterly unshakeable. I don’t always agree, but I love her for that devotion, and am inspired by it.
The list goes on. If you have children, especially if the apple fell a little way from the tree, then you’ve learned to love someone for gifts—and I bet you don’t always call them that!—that you definitely don’t have. One family I know had a son who was a musician from a very young age, intransigently so. His parents were frustrated to the point of exhaustion with his refusal to consider something practical. But they also came to deeply love his commitment to the way his soul insisted on speaking.
If you are a Blue, you may be thinking, “but wait—we want to celebrate differences! We love diversity, that’s what we’re all about.” And I commend your intention. But what I’ve found, over and over again, is that Blue organizations say they love diversity, but not when it comes to viewpoint diversity. Oh sure, they can handle your standard libertarian who works in IT, but when it comes to real difference—like being a Trump supporter because you genuinely love Trump and think he’s one of the great Americans of our generation—somehow the celebratory fanfare dims.
The reasoning Blues will offer is typically that they want to celebrate difference as long as everyone is tolerant. The problem is that many powerful forms of religious, political, and philosophical belief make claims that are in direct conflict with the idea that all ways of being are equally valid. Blue insistence on “tolerance” functions as a fence to keep those beliefs and their adherents out. In simpler terms, when Blues say they want to “celebrate difference,” Reds often hear the caveat: that some are “approved differences” and others, like their political persuasion, are not.
I admire the intent here, but it doesn’t truly address the depth of our differences. To my mind, this is one of the most profound causes of our present polarization: the ethic of tolerance, which goes in the guise of a neutral standard, denudes public argument of its profound spiritual dimensions and thereby guts the richness of pluralism. The result is a vacuum, and sure enough, new pseudo-religious orthodoxies have reared their heads to fill it. Our differences are our glory, and we need to examine what it would look like to really celebrate them—to face them boldly, and respond with the trusting inquiry that leads to love.
Dignity Is Mischievous
The form of bridging I designed and specialize in, Braver Angels Debate, helps people build relationship through structured conflict driven by deep differences, and to love people for their alternate moral bases, not in spite of them. This is important because “in spite of them” is the presumed paradigm most of the time, whether or not it is made explicit.
The notion that we will love each other because of our deep sameness, gently smoothing over difference, would be an innocent mistake—or narrowness of approach—except that it is often off-putting to Reds. It is also subtly condescending: I have heard people on both sides say, “[People on the other side] are just so emotional” instead of engaging with their actual arguments or respecting genuine differences of deep belief. It is much more respectful to take the other side’s worldview head on and listen for what you might have to learn.
Generally speaking, Blues prefer an emotion-forward, therapeutic framing, and Reds prefer an intellect-forward, argument-based framing. This is on the one hand a cultural and dispositional tendency, and on the other is driven by Reds’ fear that Blues will condescend to them by “empathizing with their feelings” while refusing to engage their substantive points—as though there is no chance a rational person could be persuaded by them. Particularly in an era of (what is often experienced as) soft thought policing via social censorship, Reds seem very hesitant to engage in things that seem too Blue—too empathy-focused, too sameness-encouraging. They suspect that Blues want unity within certain parameters, and Reds fear being condemned if their moral intuitions fall outside them.
I have heard many a good-hearted, intelligent Blue say, “I think all this division is the Reds’ fault. I am interested in having a conversation to learn about each other’s differences, and so are all my Blue friends, but the Reds never show up.” They don’t realize that the language they are using suggests a paradigm that is alienating to Reds.
From the way it’s framed, “learn about each other’s differences,” Reds intuit several things. They intuit, first, that if they choose to attend this event, there will be a social climate that demands a certain posture; second, that the hosts want to hear about certain kinds of differences but not others; and third, that the event is likely to be populated primarily by people who are not remotely interested in their political insights.
And to be honest, these assumptions are often correct. “Learning about each other’s differences” suggests a framework in which certain differences are approved—racial, gender, sexual orientation—and everyone must want to learn about those openly, without using terms that would make anyone uncomfortable, much less expressing views (for example, that gender is binary) that would be contrary to the framework of acceptable differences. Reds often feel like they are walking into a trap: they are expected to participate in “empathy building” by sharing sensitive parts of themselves, but people won’t approve of who they really are and what they really believe.
It’s not that Reds don’t believe in shared humanity—of course they do, though they’re more likely to use a phrase like “we’re all children of God”—but there’s a universalizing thrust in Blue sensibilities that Reds (including me if I’m honest) tend to resist, favouring individualism, particularism, and/or subsidiarity instead. This is one of the primary philosophical dividing lines between Red and Blue culture, and between those who support Trump and those who do not.
This shows up in many places, such as the resistance to the “global citizen” idea and favouring states’ rights. But it also manifests in a very personal way. Here is one Red’s visceral response to the question of why they resist Blue-dominant framing: “I am unwilling to surrender my dignity. My right to be respected for the soul, mind, and heart that I am, even if it doesn’t fit your parameters. Like you, I can have wrong views without that meaning I am an irredeemable person. I hate your condescension. I deserve respect, not censure, for the insights of my conscience, and for seeing parts of the truth that you miss.”
All this to say, a paradigm that teaches us to love one another because we are fundamentally the same is not just intellectually insufficient, it seriously handicaps the depolarization field, because Reds sense its leaders’ and activities’ unspoken ideological presumptions and choose not to engage.
Bridging the political divide therefore requires a modality that feels fair to all and is genuinely safe for difference. It must surface difference directly and put it in a container that can help people engage it. Deep differences cause conflict—in a sense they are conflict. Rather than redirect away from conflict, we must seek to embrace it, and in fact to ennoble it.
People often look at me funny when I tell them that I build bridges through debate. “But debate destroys relationships,” they say, and then they recount a recent experience “debating” a family member or co-worker that ended with both people more exasperated than they were when they started. And yet the best debates build relationship at least as powerfully as other kinds of bridging.
It all comes down to the how. Braver Angels Debate is different from many kinds of debate. Let me tell you about three of our rules. First, you must say what you believe—we don’t have time for sophistry. That means people are expected to express the full extent of their passion, but also their doubts. When those who disagree hear the sincerity with which a speaker is struggling to find what’s right, they are disarmed.
The spirit of the debate is defined not as a contest in which one side will emerge the victor, but as a collective search for truth. The chair explains this at the beginning, and the first few speakers have been prepped to set the tone this way. That brings us to our second rule: Each person in a Braver Angels Debate is expected to engage the tough questions with his or her own conscience. Every single person in the room is invited to speak. They can be a janitor, the videographer, or the president of an institution; a polished orator or a shy wallflower; regardless, their voice is welcome. Each person is given the same amount of time to speak, and the room is expected to listen to each argument in turn. Speakers are almost never censored for arguments so long as they follow the rules.
The third key rule is that anyone speaking at any time during the debate must verbally address the chair. Anything spoken by any participant at any time must be directed at the chair. If Sally has just given a speech and Bob asks her a question, Bob must not say, “Sally, why do you believe xyz?” He must say “Madam Chair, I’d like to ask Sally why she believes xyz.” This is essential because it turns down the heat and changes Sally’s psychological experience of the question. Rather than having to deal with an aggressive challenge directed squarely at her, she answers a question that is asked in a formal frame to someone else.
Enforcing these three rules consistently gives people a sense of fairness and welcome. They see that if they follow them, their point of view will be heard and respected just like anyone else’s.
Crucially, the structure is designed as a conflict, but the design encourages each person to bring their best self to the conversation.
This form of debate has spread like wildfire, particularly on college campuses and online. We have served about fifteen thousand people since the pandemic began, across approximately two hundred Braver Angels Debates on campuses, in local communities, and in nationwide debates. It is particularly popular with Reds and with college students.
The fruit of this style of bridging-through-conflict comes in several forms.
Overall, the goal is to build people’s capacity to engage the other side, and to enable them to build relationships of love through difference rather than in spite of it. Therefore, the first step is simply getting the right people to the table. As stated earlier, this can be shockingly difficult. Any format that draws Reds and the social-justice-activist Left to the same platform is very valuable. At Braver Angels we have found that it’s consistently easier to recruit Reds to debates than to workshops (although Reds rate the workshops highly when they can be persuaded to attend). In some cases we’ve also found it easier to recruit strong progressives to debates, although results are mixed.
The second step is simply to establish that it is possible to have a conversation across these differences at all. To do so is always a success, and nearly always surprising to the people in the room. When we ask at the end, “What did you learn, and what did you enjoy?” the first comment is nearly always, “I learned that we can actually talk about this civilly.”
The third step is to create a space that feels safe enough for uncertain participants to engage. Surprisingly, a format explicitly built on conflict can feel safer than one that eschews it. For Trump-supporting Reds, this is often because they expect to be attacked, and enjoy a space where that doesn’t happen. After our first Braver Angels Debate over Trump versus Biden, which by some measures was pretty rough, a Southern woman who supports Trump said, “That was so much better than I expected.” For college students, it can feel like a breath of fresh air in a climate suffocated by speech policing. After nearly every college debate, liberal and conservative students alike tell us, “It was so nice to feel like I wasn’t going to get jumped on.”
Interestingly, the same sense of safety can lift up far Left voices that would otherwise not be heard. At UC Berkeley, a homeless and transgender individual known for disruptive protesting was persuaded to put down their protest sign (they were protesting the debate), and come in and participate. They gave the most eloquent and heartfelt speech of the night. Watching that speech come from that person—who we’d been warned away from by the administration—was one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever had as a chair.
When we can again see the dignity in those whose views we oppose, and love them for the strength of their convictions, not in spite of them, then negative and affective polarization don’t stand a chance.
You really know you’ve succeeded when trust is built among strange bedfellows. At Braver Angels’ final Trump-versus-Biden debate, racial-justice writer Julie Lythcott-Haims argued in her leading pro-Biden speech that the realities of white supremacy necessitated a vote for Biden. Many spoke after her, passionately advocating for President Trump in blunt and unqualified terms. Nonetheless, at the end, she said she felt like she trusted the other speakers there, even though she’d only met them that night. She and several others said they hoped to continue the conversation.
When this can be achieved, two powerful goods follow: First, vast swaths of common ground are revealed. On immigration, racial justice, and other highly controversial topics, people are astonished to discover that they mostly agree. They immediately ask for ways to follow up and act on this discovery. And when common ground isn’t established, the foundation is laid for genuine synthesis of the best in each side, which can generate not just awareness of shared humanity, but actual policy progress.
By the way, people also report that the debates deeply affect their views. One strong example was our early October 2020 debate on the election—at the end, almost half the attendees said it affected how they would vote. Even I was surprised by that one.
Second and most crucially, there is a restoration of awareness of who the other side is and what they believe. Sometimes this comes in the form of the complication of simple narratives: “I didn’t realize there really are black people who support President Trump.” It can come in the form of clarifying disagreement. Students on both sides of a gun debate conducted in Tennessee shortly after the Parkland shooting said, “I didn’t realize you were pro/anti-gun for that reason!”
Most important of all, there is a restoration of awareness of the deep dignity of the other side. A young woman said after her first Braver Angels Debate, “I now see that I can talk to my parents about these things. Thank you.” An older woman said after her first Braver Angels Debate, “This is what I’ve been waiting for. We can talk to each other. Thank you, thank you, thank you,” as tears rolled down her cheeks.
When you love someone because of their difference from you, you love how passionately they care about something you sometimes forget. For me, as a Burkean conservative, I love my libertarian friends because they are safeguarding the American tradition of civil liberties. There is a powerful moral good contained therein, and I am not its guardian—they are. I love how their hearts thrill to that form of righteousness. My liberal friends help me remember that if our social norms are too strong, they will be crushing to people who don’t fit in in a conformist culture. I love the way their hearts stand with the misfits, the brilliant fish who are nonetheless—and perhaps unjustly—stuck out of water.
When we can again see the dignity in those whose views we oppose, and love them for the strength of their convictions, not in spite of them, then negative and affective polarization don’t stand a chance. We can genuinely bring everyone to the table and emerge a stronger society because of the questions we’ve wrestled to the ground, and the refinement of ourselves and our policies that result.
The Call of Courage
Conflict always feels risky, because we have all experienced destructive conflict in our lives. But the only alternative to conflict is suppression—of difference, of others’ views, of others’ experiences, reactions, and feelings. Conflict is not optional. It’s just a matter of whether we suppress it or channel it into one of our most powerful tools for spiritual growth, not to mention organizational impact.
Handling conflict well comes down to two things: fairness and welcome, which we could also upgrade to love. Simple tools are often best, because it’s easy for bias and suppression to sneak into the rules unnoticed. For example, one must be very careful with terminology. If a facilitator corrects a participant’s word choice even once—say, asking a participant who uses the term “illegals” to instead say “undocumented immigrants”—the entire space can lose its neutrality and feel Blue to everyone there. Similarly, asking someone who says “rednecks” to say “people in rural communities” changes the feel of the space.
Some, myself included, have wrestled long and hard with the question of whether allowing certain terms perpetuates all our systemic sins—racism, sexism, and so on. As the person with power in the room, the facilitator either actively rejects or implicitly supports the worldview that terms like “illegals” or “rednecks” suggest. Ultimately, I have come to believe that while certain terms may perpetuate problematic worldviews, it is impossible to educate people in any direction and provide an effective container for transformational interaction at the same time. The container cannot be what pushes people to transform. It is a fairly weak instrument for doing so: outlawing the word “illegals” or “rednecks” does little to change hearts and minds.
What we must do is provide a container in which people can transcend their current level of consciousness through engagement with others. The experience, not the facilitator, is the teacher. And the experience is only transformative if people feel safe enough to enter with their hearts, believing they will be accepted as they are.
Perhaps hardest of all, a profound integrity is required for this kind of bridge-building. Most organizations of all varieties handle conflict poorly, from management on down. Integrity here means practicing internally what you teach externally. It takes the shape of concentric circles: using fairness and welcome to carry yourself through internal conflict, loving your team through interpersonal conflicts, and teaching others to love one another through conflict with those they barely know.
The good news is that conflict that is channelled in a healthy direction is one of the most powerful forces for good we have at our disposal. It puts us in touch with our deep moral roots, and brings out the differences between us that, when combined productively, can create genuine dynamism. It produces a powerful sense of freedom, acceptance, and the bracing pleasure that comes with growth. In a word, it is the progenitor of flourishing, for both the bridge-builders and the world they seek to mend.