Today sees the inauguration of Joe Biden as president of the United States, and seems an appropriate time to pass on in its entirety the following open source letter from Coleman to the editor of Science Magazine:
In their Policy Forum “Political sectarianism in America” (30 October 2020, p. 533), E. J. Finkel et al. summarize research on the multiple sources of the decades-long U.S. march to toxic polarization. However, the mitigation tactics they offer seem piecemeal and insufficient. To reverse a 50-year trajectory of runaway division (1), we need an evidence-based strategy tailored to structural change.
Research on how deeply divided societies change course (2) suggests that how leaders approach entrenched problems, especially early on in their tenure (3), can make the difference. Transformations are most likely to occur when leaders take office after a major political shock—like the COVID-19 pandemic or the 6 January storming of the Capitol by political extremists—has destabilized the status quo (4) and lead in a way that differs dramatically from the leadership that instigated the divisions (5). Moreover, in societies where distrust and suspicion reign (6), changes in political strategies are often best introduced with a public declaration of intention.
The Biden-Harris administration could apply such research by announcing a two-pronged strategy to defeat toxic division in America. First, given that many Americans feel left behind, the new leaders should begin by launching a listening tour during which they partner with local, trusted community groups to elicit grievances and proposed remedies (4). Research has shown that when members of disenfranchised groups feel heard by those in power, it can lead to constructive shifts in attitudes (7). Large-scale initiatives like these, when transparent and brought to completion, can begin healing (8).
Second, the new administration should seek to strengthen our national immune system. Research on international peace-building finds that many of the more sustainable initiatives helping communities transition out of intergroup strife come from within (9). These local initiatives (8) emerge in response to community challenges and manage to thrive under difficult circumstances. Today, there are thousands of bridge-building groups (10) across the United States that fit this bill, whose impact could be scaled up through federal funding, recognition, and coordination. They fight against the pathologies of hate and can help citizens build bipartisan alliances that take on the structural incentives that divide us. This is critical. We will never talk our way out of this division (11); we must aim for structural change (12).