How the United States Can Step Back from the Brink

As the 2020 election draws near in the United States, recent events point to how our polarized political process now runs the risk of spiraling into violence. Within the past week, Homeland Security listed white supremacist groups as the “most persistent and lethal” threat to security, members of a domestic militia trained in combat weapons were arrested for a plan to kidnap a governor for what they deemed as crimes against the constitution, and ambiguous messages came from President Trump about assuring a smooth election transition and about renouncing white supremacist groups. Further, recent research has found that one in five partisans believe violence would be at least “a little” justified if the other party won the 2020 presidential election while one in ten says there would be “a lot” or “a great deal” of justification for violence.

These are deeply troubling trends.

For most Americans, it’s unconscionable that violence could be an acceptable byproduct of our increasingly polarized political system. While this trend may seem shocking in a U.S. context, countries where polarization has spiraled from dehumanization into armed conflict know this pattern all too well. When open violence begins to mix with politics, we must commit to stepping back from the brink and move into disciplined action. Valuable lessons have emerged from peacebuilders around the world who have de-escalated tensions, rehumanized adversaries, and forged the social healing necessary to reclaim a commitment to politics without violence. But this takes leadership from all levels.

It starts with understanding the impact of rampant polarization on our society. Our public discourse and political disagreement in the United States currently face a toxic mix of ever deepening social polarization, and increased levels of politically driven fear and hate messages. Since the declaration of the COVID-19 national emergency, the past seven months have seen gun sales hold at a nearly 70% increase over last year. These factors render our election and post-election environment vulnerable to identity-based violence.

We know that polarization begins with people separating into groups. In social life, group formation is both normal and enriching. Significant relationships develop around common interests that help forge a sense of connection, offer the ingredients of meaningful association, and foster belonging. But the challenge comes as polarization rigidifies into impermeable boundaries of “us” and “them” and begins to poison collective social health as significant but often unnoticed group dynamics intensify.

As conflict escalates, we move toward contact and conversations only with people who are like us and agree with us. We tend to talk a lot about but not with those who do not share our views. Most of our information about them relies on indirect communication. Our language becomes generalized, subtly shifting into stereotypes of  “they” and “those people.” Within our group of trust, we reduce the complexity of issues into a narrow and simplified explanation. Moderate voices disappear as more extreme leadership rises in prominence. People who hold relationships across identity divides feel ever increasing pressure to define themselves in favor of one side or the other. This weakens the connective tissue, the social capital so necessary for holding and healing our diverse human community. When our identity feels existentially challenged, our internal bubble of conversation has less and less space for disagreement. We begin to see most everything in “all or nothing” terms. Even on the smallest of concerns we fear losing everything. Inevitably, toxic polarization dehumanizes the other, an ingredient necessary for the rise of violence.

Does this sound familiar?

Dehumanizing language used by politicians, and echoed in social and broadcast media, has played a devastating role in the lead up to violence in other countries, and we now see frequent examples of dehumanization emerging in the political and media landscape of the United States. As identified by Homeland Security anti-Semitic, immigrant, and racialized violence driven by white supremacy has grown in the past three years, the pain amplified even more with the impact of COVID-19 on our communities of color. Four distinct phases can be identified as polarization escalates and adversaries’ goals shift.

First, dialogue between groups breaks down. Rather than discussions on core issues, factions issue demands the other side must accept, creating a win/lose scenario for all involved.

The second shift emerges when people focus less on realizing their demands than on blocking the other side from achieving any of their goals. It matters less what we get as long they get nothing.

The third shift comes when blocking the others’ goals devolves into actually wishing and doing them harm. We want them to hurt as much or more than we did. We want to extract pain.

Coupled with harm, the fourth shift emerges when the goal becomes the humiliation of the other side and their community. In its extreme forms, humiliation seeks to erase any remaining humanity and dignity, often descending into gender-based and identity-based violence in settings of armed conflict.

At some point, sporadic direct violence inevitably breaks out. Portraying this as singular events attributed to extreme actors does not fully account for the psychological, communicative, and systemic preparation and impact that dehumanization coupled with weapon accumulation has on increasing the potential for violence. We see variations of these dynamics in settings ranging from Northern Ireland to Kenya, Colombia to South Sudan. Differing in degree, the patterns of dehumanization and the escalation of violence hold true in every case.

But there is hope.

While these patterns of dehumanization and violence are familiar, these same settings offer practical examples of how violence can be prevented and mitigated. Peacebuilders around the world have taught us that it is possible to step back from the precipice of violence, and it often takes courageously lived hope in the face of profound difficulty. Perhaps the greatest lesson is found in the simple adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. We start with more visible leadership at every level of society.

Public messages make a difference. Both political party campaigns should immediately and unequivocally denounce the presence of armed groups in our political process, starting with those named by Homeland Security as posing the greatest threat. This message needs to come from the head of each Party. Our elections must be demilitarized. Violent hate, in the guise of protecting the constitution is unacceptable and condemned no matter the source.

Equally important is the need to protect the right to protest free from violence and intimidation. Research shows that committed nonviolence as part and parcel of public engagement is more effective in achieving lasting social change and offers a much greater potential for social healing across deep divides.

We must empower local agency to mitigate violence. Local voices have the most expertise about their communities. They can act quickly and can serve as interrupters with targeted responses that mitigate rumors and quell the sporadic incidents that can spark rounds of counterviolence.

We also must move to mitigate massive accumulation of weapons. Increased accumulation of rapid-fire, small arms weapons associates with increased potential for violent conflict. The United States has participated many times in targeted sanctions on the sale of weapons related to terrorism and settings of armed conflict abroad. The time has come to understand the need for this strategy related to domestically driven preparation for identity-based violence.

These are just some of the starting points where more visible leadership must act—and act quickly. But all of us have the ability and responsibility to drive down the toxicity with core social practices. These practices restore human dignity and collectively help bridge polarized divides.

Commit to seeing a person first, and their political or identity opinions second.  Full stop. Always respect the humanity of the other.

Listen to understand. Invite and explore people’s lived experience. Acknowledge their suffering.

Suspend the urge for immediate judgement of others, particularly if the only source of information depends on indirect communication.

Commit to a few highly improbable friendships across difference and division. Take time for coffee or a lunch. Talk about life—family and wide-ranging interests—not only the pressing issues. Befriending is an old English verb worthy of recuperation precisely because trustworthy and honest friendship is worth its weight in social healing, even when you disagree.

Prepare to notice and challenge your own community of closest allies with honesty when they dehumanize others. Commit to live by the phrase: We can do better.

The core task of peacebuilding will require the social courage to imagine and create alternatives that make violence unimaginable.

It is incumbent on all of us to move beyond the dehumanization in our politics and to make our voices heard that violence will not be tolerated.

Now is the time for us to embody the first three words of our constitution, we the people, allowing us to step back from the brink of violence and into the wholeness that lies at our nation’s deepest core values.