PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Experts know political polarization in the United States is a problem. What they don’t know, according to Rob Blair, is what to do about it.
Thanks to countless recent surveys and studies, it is now a widely accepted fact that the ideological chasm between Republicans and Democrats today has grown larger than at any other time in American history, save for the post-Civil War Reconstruction era. Many believe the two parties are so bitterly divided that there’s little chance for reconciliation. But two years ago, Blair, an assistant professor of political science and international and public affairs at Brown University, attended a workshop that gave him hope.
The so-called Red/Blue Workshop was hosted by Braver Angels, a non-governmental organization launched in 2016 to help Americans see each other beyond stereotypes and form community alliances. Blair said he was intrigued by the way the workshop’s facilitators guided Democrats and Republicans through exercises that encouraged introspection rather than debate, a tactic borrowed from couples therapists. Observing the exercises changed Blair’s perspective, and he wanted to know if it worked as effectively for the participants themselves.
In 2020, Blair and several other scholarly colleagues partnered with Braver Angels to organize de-polarization workshops on four college campuses, including Brown, and to administer one pre-workshop survey and two follow-up surveys to each workshop participant. They found that, one week later, the students who participated in the workshop expressed 22% less direct hostility toward people in the other party, were more willing to donate money to de-polarization programs, and scored lower on a partisan implicit bias test, in which they were shown sequences of politically-related images in quick succession and asked to pair them with randomly generated words like “Republican” and “good.” Six months later, some of the workshop’s effects had worn off, but participants still showed less implicit bias and were more willing to donate money to de-polarization initiatives than their peers in a control group that had not taken part in the workshops. Blair said that if effects of this size were extrapolated to the entire U.S. adult population, they would be large enough to reverse roughly one third of the increase in polarization over the past three decades.
Following the release of a working paper and a policy brief detailing the findings, Blair answered questions about how the study was conceived, what the results mean, and how average Americans can ease polarization in their own communities.
Q: What prompted your collaboration with Braver Angels?
I coordinate a multi-university consortium focused on the topic of democratic erosion. We use a combination of teaching, research, civic engagement and policy activism to understand threats to democracy in the United States and abroad. One issue that kept coming up in our work was polarization in the U.S. — whether it’s a threat to democracy, and whether it’s a uniquely existential problem right now. At the time, my colleague Jessica Gottlieb, who works at Texas A&M University, was working with a couple of student organizations who mentioned they had been in touch with Braver Angels. We looked into their work and thought, this model is really unusual and impactful.
Q: You characterize Braver Angels’ work as ‘couples therapy’ for groups of people with polarized political views. What elements of couples therapy does the organization use in their de-polarization workshops?
I think one of the most important principles Braver Angels teaches is mutual vulnerability. In these workshops, there are two teams: the “reds,” or the people who identify as conservative, and the “blues,” or the people who identify as liberal. In the first exercise, the “reds” go into a room together and make a list of stereotypes they think the “blues” have about them. They list a few reasons why the stereotype is false...but they also identify the kernel of truth in the stereotype. For example, they might come up with the stereotype that lots of “blues” believe “reds” are a bunch of racists. The “reds” list several reasons why they think that’s false, but then they also discuss some ways in which they might have projected racial insensitivity and given people the impression that they’re racist. Then, the “blues” do the same exercise. They might say, okay, the “reds” think we all hate America. Here are three or four examples that show that’s not true, but here’s the kernel of truth: Sometimes we can be overly critical.
That experience of having to share the kernel of truth — having to admit the “other side” is on to something — it really creates a sense of vulnerability. To watch the other side do the same has the same effect. That opportunity to watch others be self-critical and put themselves in a vulnerable position is key. There isn’t a lot of back-and-forth conversation between the two groups. This isn’t a debate: The goal isn’t for each group to convince the other they’re right, but instead just to give each group an opportunity to show their true colors and hope their perspective is understood a bit better.