Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

On Trust, Conversation, & Relationships from the Institute for American Values’ David Blankenhorn

CivilPolitics’ mission is to educate the public on evidence-based methods for improving inter-group dialogue, with evidence defined broadly to include academic studiesempirical studies of community interventions, and also the practical wisdom learned by organizations that are bringing people together in the community.  As part of this last area of evidence, we are asking our partners in the community to answer a set of semi-standardized questions designed to help us learn the common themes that run through successful community work.  If you would like to have your organizations’ work profiled, please do contact us and/or fill out this form.  This is the sixth post in the series that details the experiences of David Blankenhorn, who is President of the Institute for American Values, which recently launched its Better Angels initiative, and which has been bringing people together across partisan divides for decades.

What is your group’s history in terms of getting involved with improving community relationships?

Almost all think tanks focus either on the activity of government or the needs of individuals. IAV is distinctive in that we focus on civil society – those relationships and associations that exist in between the government and the individual. While often overlooked by both think tanks and policy makers, civil society is a big thing. From families to Little League to church socials to community service projects, the relationships and institutions of civil society take up most of our time and fill up most of our lives. This sphere of society is a primary incubator of our cultural values. In the 1980s and 1990s, we brought together liberals and conservatives to help reframe the conventional wisdom about the two-parent home, the importance of fathers, and the role of marriage. In the 2000s, we brought together American scholars and scholars from the Arab and Muslim world for sustained engagements on international civil society. We worked to give voice to those who had previously been voiceless, such as children of divorce and donor-conceived persons. And we brought together diverse scholars for a fresh investigation of thrift, which is the ethic of wise use. And in the 2010s, we are equipping up to eight millions Americans to become depolarizers in their communities and networks and make an enduring impact on American government and society in favor of nonpolar principles and practices.

What specific programs/events/curriculum do you run? Briefly describe what it is you do.

Better Angels is not one organization, but rather a diverse group of leaders and co-sponsoring organizations working together to create a social movement. The three components of Better Angels are (1) scholarly research, (2) public argument, and (3) community organizing.

What We’ll Do: Years 1-3

In the area of public argument: annual reports to the nation, community presentations, articles and op-eds, media interviews, and a podcast series and other website-based and social media communications.

In the area of scholarly research: establishing the nation’s Leading Depolarization Indicators, contributing to the initiative’s educational and training curricula, convening interdisciplinary scholarly consultations on depolarization, publishing timely scholarly articles and reports, and evaluating the Better Angels initiative.

In the area of community organizing: recruiting and involving Better Angels affiliates, holding annual national conferences, creating, testing, and launching a national training program on nonpolar principles and practices, and helping to start new local initiatives for depolarization.

What has worked well in your programs/events? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what specific advice would you give them as far as things to do to replicate your successes?

We seek to be the change we want to make in the world, and our public conversation series models this.  Also, by partnering with grassroots organizations we are able to greatly increase the impact of our work.

What have you tried in your progams/events that has NOT worked well? If someone else wanted to replicate your programs, what advice would you give them as far as things to AVOID doing?

Stay true to mission and avoid mission creep.

Among the ideas listed on CivilPolitics’ website, based on psychological research, that have been suggested as ways to reduce intergroup divisions. Which of these ideas are reflected in the work you do?  

Providing Information on Common Goals/Threats, Reducing the Perception of “Zero-Sum” competition, (any win for one side = a loss for the other side), Showing Examples of Positive Relationships , Reducing the Perceived Differences Between Groups, Showing Examples of Cross-Group, Unexpected Agreement or Disagreement

Just as our topic is distinctive, so too is the way we approach our topic. Put simply, we aim to end the culture wars. Ending the culture wars does not mean putting an end to disagreements. Nor does it, or should it, mean splitting every issue down the middle. But it does mean putting an end to the paradigm of polarization that today so completely dominates, and so harmfully distorts, our entire public conversation.

That’s why we never call ourselves “liberal” or “conservative.” Why we focus so relentlessly on scholarly excellence aimed at reframing core issues. Why we insist on being interdisciplinary, bringing together scholars from across the human and natural sciences. Why we so often form diverse groups of scholars who work together over time, aiming for a fresh approach. Why we give such high priority to conversation and engagement. And why our signature product is the jointly authored public appeal or report.

What might you add to these ideas?

Patience and active listening to the other; the building of trust in relationships — when we wrote a public letter in 2001 to our counterparts in the Muslim and Arabic world (entitled, “What We Are Fighting For: A Letter from America”), they wrote us back in a public letter, surprised at having been addressed in a conversation. These letters were highly publicized in the Arabic world and in the Middle East and this led to the creation of our Shared Values project. The first year of the project was spent convincing the other side that we were trustworthy. It was only through patience and active listening of the other that we were able to accomplish this.

Where can others learn more about what you do?

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Living Room Conversations Builds Trust Across Differences Concerning CA Prison Policy

At CivilPolitics, one of our service offerings is to help groups that are doing work connecting individuals who may disagree about political and moral issues.  These disagreements do not necessarily have to be about partisanship.  One organization that we work with is Living Room Conversations, a California based non-profit that holds small gatherings co-hosted by individuals who may disagree about a particular issue, in order to conciously foster non-judgmental sharing about potentially contentious issues.    Below is a description from their website, in addition to a short video.

Living Room Conversations are designed to revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and remind us all of the power and beauty of civil discourse. Living Room Conversations enable people to come together through their social networks, as friends and friends of friends to engage in a self-guided conversation about any chosen issue. Typically conversations have self-identified co-hosts who hold differing views. They may be from different ethnic groups, socio-economic backgrounds or political parties. Each co-host invites two of their friends to join the conversation. Participants follow an easy to use format offering a structure and a set of questions for getting acquainted with each other and with each other’s viewpoints on the topic of the conversation.

Living Room Conversations is currently holding conversations around the issue of “realignment” in California, which is designed to alleviate prison overcrowding and where many would like to develop alternatives to jail for non-violent criminals.  Living Room Conversations wanted help understanding the effects of their program so we worked with them to develop a survey appropriate for their audience, asking people about their attitudes before and after conversations.  Informed by work in psychology, we looked at how reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy people perceived those on the opposite side of the issue to be, compared to how they perceived them before the meeting.  Results, based on a 7-point scale, are plotted below.


The fact that all scores are greater than zero means that people felt that individuals who disagreed with them on these issues were more reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy compared to how they felt before the conversation (though with a sample size of only 23 individuals so far, only the increase in trustworthiness is statistically significant).

There was still a stark difference between how people felt about those who disagreed on these issues compared to how they felt about people who they agreed with, as respondents both before and after the event felt that those they agreed with were more likely to be reasonable, intelligent, well-intentioned, and trustworthy.  As well, we asked people about their attitudes about realignment policy and people’s attitudes about the issue didn’t change.  However, civility, as we define it, is not the absence of disagreement, but rather being able to disagree in a civil way that respects the intentions of others.

Moreover, even if people’s minds hadn’t changed with respect to others, individuals felt strongly (8+ on a 10 point scale) that talking with others that hold different views is valuable.  Research on the effects of such positive contact would indicate that if these individuals do follow through on this course, they will likely end up building on these attitudinal gains toward those who disagree.  Given that, these conversations appear to be a step in the right direction.

– Ravi Iyer

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How to Make Congress Work: Workout!

Here's a feel good piece from BuzzFeed's Kate Nocera detailing the unlikely pairing of liberal Luis Gutierrez and conservative Paul Ryan–two men that "are about as far apart ideologically as two congressmen can be."  If lightning strikes and the House gets beyond gridlock on immigration reform no doubt this "Congressional odd couple" should be the ones uncorking the Champaign.

Nocera relates that the friendship formed thanks to frequent run-ins at the House gym "where early morning workouts inevitably turn into locker room conversations about policy." And we thought swinging rather than pumping iron was the way to forge links in D.C. 

But then on reflection one would be hard-pressed to imagine a more ideal place. There is an informality about working out that may not obtain on the golf course. Plus the convenience, the proximity, the frequency…

Best case scenario: Working out winds up working like this: 

When Ryan was on the vice presidential campaign trail last year, he returned to the House several times to cast votes, and Gutierrez pulled him aside one morning in the gym…“I said, ‘Well you know you might be vice president, not that I’m going to help you in anyway. But if you win can I get to call you about immigration? Are we still going to collaborate?’ And he said, ‘Absolutely, even more,”” Gutierrez recalled.

All this warm fuzzy frolicking towards bubbly must be qualified.  While both Congressmen are political opponents they actually began from common ground on immigration reform.  And then, voila, both men have common ground as in shared patch of earth: Gutierrez-Chicago, Ryan-Wisconsin. Add to this a shared Catholicism and the unlikely pairing seems likelier and likelier.

But the thing is that for so many of our polarized partisans there exists such wide swaths of commonality.  It just needs facilitating. A golf course here, a gym there. Before you know it you have a functioning government, etc.

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Samuelson: Government Surfeit = Trust deficit

Austerity advocate Robert Samuelson is a Paul Volcker fan. According to Samuelson, it was Volcker's unpopular austerity program under Reagan that squelched run-away inflation and ignited an economic boom. But now Samuelson questions the soundness of Paul Volcker’s new mission to restore public trust.  

He believes The Volcker Alliance  errs in attributing the trust deficit to the behavior of our politicians.  According to Samuelson we should blame the government itself:

Since World War II, American government has assumed more responsibilities than can reasonably be met. Some are unattainable; others are in conflict. Government is, among other things, supposed to: control the business cycle, combat poverty, cleanse the environment, provide health care, protect the elderly, subsidize college students, aid states and localities… As I’ve written before, government becomes almost “suicidal” by pervasively generating unrealistic expectations. The more people depend on it, the more they may be disappointed by it.

 Samuelson thinks the problem with Volcker’s new mission comes to this:

What he’s creating is an institute that will focus on the “nuts and bolts” of implementing policies effectively: for example, having better-trained bank examiners. Although this cannot hurt, it’s not the essence of our problem, which is being more rigorous about defining what government can and should do. Democracies must have the capacity to take actions that, though unpopular and painful in the present, are desirable for the society’s ultimate ­well-being. This defined the triumph of Volcker and Reagan in the 1980s. It’s conspicuously missing today.

Setting aside the apparent fact that government is only transformed by acting politicians who must be trusted, there's truth in Samuelson's criticism I do believe. But how de we get to the promised land from here? We're in a situation where we can't even produce a budget. Perhaps we must find a way to produce runaway inflation…

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Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.