The U.S. is in shock. The extraordinary confluence of a terribly managed pandemic, severe economic paralysis, egregious incidents of racial injustice, and runaway political polarization that culminated in a lethal attack on our nation’s capital has profoundly destabilized the nation.
But this is actually good news.
By many metrics, America is on a pathological course of decline. According to a recent report in the Lancet, the past several decades have shown a convergence of alarming trends, including the collapse of entire sectors of our economy, spikes in economic and mortality inequality, failing health care and education systems and concomitant declines in life expectancy. Partially as a result, we are witnessing dramatic increases in anxiety, depression, suicide mortality and opioid-related deaths. The multiplicity of stressful trends has also triggered great resentment and rage from traditionally dominant groups over deteriorating life prospects.
These emotions are often weaponized by political actors and lead to spikes in racial animus, xenophobia and extremist acts from white supremacists. This has resulted in a spiral of political sectarianism that is toxic and treacherous, and is trashing our capacities to function as a nation. All of these effects recently led the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index to downgrade the U.S. from a “full democracy” to a “flawed democracy.”
As bad as they are, our current crises may offer us a way out. Studies have shown that chronic, divisive patterns like ours often become more susceptible to change after major disruptions to the status quo, similar to what we are experiencing today. For instance, in a study of 850 enduring interstate conflicts that occurred between 1816 and 1992, 75–90 percent of them were found to have ended within a 10-year period following at least one major destabilizing shock. These were 40-plus yearlong patterns of hostilities between nations, many involving repeated incidents of violence or warfare, that changed course dramatically—towards peace—in the aftermath of a major traumatic event.
Take Costa Rica. Over 70 years ago, this Central American nation emerged from a bloody civil war to become one of the only nations in the world to intentionally decide to disband its military and redirect resources towards education, health and the environment. Today, it is ranked highly on all the major peace indices, and has been described as “a model in terms of the development of a culture of peace.”
We have even seen this kind of post-shock reconciliation happen in the U.S. For example, consider what the trends in legislative voting patterns reveal in the U.S. Congress over the last 136 years. For decades after the end of the U.S. Civil War there were very high levels of polarization. But around 1924, a precipitous decline in division became evident. Members of both parties began voting together more often on legislation. This turn toward bipartisanship followed the shock of World War I, which ended in 1918, as well as the flu pandemic that began in that year and killed 50 million people across the globe. This combination of destabilizing events created the conditions for a slightly delayed but dramatic change in ethos in Congress, and a depolarization trend that went on to last for decades.
This is exactly what research on these types of shocks tell us: their effects often take several years to coalesce and crystalize, because change of this nature requires a disassembly and reorientation of what is known as their deep structure. Essentially, these are the assumptions, values and incentives that determine our most basic decision-making processes. In the U.S. today, for instance, partisans on issues such as health care, immigration and gun control are inclined to base their attitudes and actions on what they are told to believe by their party leaders, instead of their own understanding of the facts on each issue. Perhaps our current levels of political dysfunction and instability will loosen this tribal grip and open us up to push for reasonable compromise.
However, it is critical to understand that shocks to societies can break in different directions. They can reunite warring groups and bring renewed solidarity, have no visible impact or trigger new divisions that endure for decades. The factor that makes the difference between further intransigence and positive change during these periods of instability is that policy makers and citizens alike seize the opportunity for a basic reset of the deep structures driving division. This is the story told repeatedly in the history of some of the most peaceful societies on the globe such as Mauritius, Norway and New Zealand, as well as Costa Rica, which all rose up after dark and violent times and pivoted to peace.
Changes to the deep structure of U.S. politics will be hard won and take concerted efforts from the top down and bottom up. The Biden administration would be well served to act with haste to implement some of the major public policy reforms on depolarization advocated by groups such as the Alliance for Peacebuilding and The Lancet Commission. This could begin with the launch of a radical listening tour into parts of America feeling largely neglected, invisible and left behind for decades, which has fueled populist fervor on the right and the left. Research has shown that when members of such disenfranchised groups begin to feel listened to and understood by those in power, it can open them up to constructive shifts in their attitudes and actions.
In communities, our first order of business should be to locate what is already working within these local areas and build on it. This is based on research which finds that change-resistant problems are often most responsive to positive deviance, existing remedies that have arisen and proven useful and sustainable within the context of the problem. For example, groups like Hope in the Cities, which sprang up in 1993 in Richmond, Va.—the former seat of the Confederacy—to take on racial divisions there, have stimulated similar bottom-up change processes within polarized communities across the U.S. and abroad.
Fortunately, today there are thousands of bridge-building groups across our country that fit this bill and offer a sense of a way forward. Many are focused on promoting and facilitating community dialogues across the red-blue divide. Others work in different sectors, like journalism, education, technology and health care, to bring interested parties together across ideological divides in service of promoting progress through negotiation and compromise. These groups represent the immune system of our communities actively fighting against the pathologies of hate and vilification and working tirelessly to grow and mobilize the moderate middle. We should each find one and join with them in common cause.
As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us over 50 years ago, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time.”
If America is to recover from this descent into toxic division, we must act now.
This is an opinion and analysis article.