Overcoming Polarization—Some Thoughts for the Political Season

As the major political conventions wind down and the campaigns hurtle toward the finish line, a big watchword of the moment is polarization.

Even if you don’t follow politics closely, you can tell we’ve grown more hardened in extreme positions just from hearing the strident rhetoric from groups such as the Tea Partiers and supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement. In fact, recent research by the Pew Research Study has documented polarization over the past twenty five years, noting a widening gap between how Republicans and Democrats have responded to survey questions about personal values. The partisan divide has intensified even as people in different social, ethnic, racial, religious, and education gender groups have come closer in their answering of these questions. Simply put, a political gulf divides people’s sentiment in ways that other kinds of differences don’t.

The political divide is so deep that it apparently influences how people make consumer choices. When it comes to fast food, Democrats opt for Wendy’s, while Republicans seem to value the freedom of choice (or is it the freshness?) of Subway. The NFL, animal planet, Sony, Starbucks: These are Democratic choices, apparently, while the History Channel, Major League Baseball, Sharp, and Dunkin’ Donuts are red state picks.

Long regarded as a disturbing trend by political observers, polarization has gotten the attention of business leaders in recent years. Morgan Stanley’s chief U.S. economist has estimated that political gridlock will cost the US economy a half point in GDP during this year’s second half. Over a third of companies queried by Morgan Stanley cited paralysis around the Federal budget as a major reason they’re currently restraining their own budget spending. As the President of one industry group was quoted as saying, “It’s totally irresponsible and absolutely insane. “The two parties are really dug in. Companies see the writing on the wall and business decisions are now being made on this.”

Public relations professionals are concerned about polarization and see a need for more consensus building. 

Johanna Schneider, Managing Director at Burson-Marsteller, notes that both business and the American electorate are diverse, so we can’t always expect consensus. Still, as member of a “civil society,” we must “find ways to bridge ideological gaps.” Ken Eudy, co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Capstrat, reminds us, in effect, of the consensus that exists about polarization: “Talk to any economic forecaster and he or she will tell you that the biggest drag on the American economy, along with unemployment, is the inability of the parties to forge a consensus on dealing with the federal deficit and the debt.”

So what should we do about the problem? Eudy argues that “consensus begins one-on-one – two people working together on a project or an assignment. It’s easy to demonize groups. It’s much harder for one individual to demonize another human being of a different persuasion if they’re working together on a project with a purpose.” He notes that, “Consensus can’t be for show, which is what members of Congress did in one of the recent State of the Union speeches, where they made a big public show of Democrats and Republicans sitting together. That was a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Schneider offers some specific ideas on what people of different beliefs can discuss in coming together. “The best way to build toward agreements is to identify goals and communicate to determine roadblocks. This process elicits a “walk a mile in my shoes” effect, which can be beneficial even in the absence of true final consensus. The message is always, “we want to be part of the solution, not the problem.”

We would be remiss in failing to mention media fragmentation, which seems to sequester people in their own bubbles of belief. Harvard professor Cass Sunnstein conducted experiments suggesting that liberals and conservatives hardened in their beliefs after talking only to one another. His advice: Bust out of “information cocoons” and talk to people you don’t necessarily agree with.

There is reason for hope. Both Schneider and Eudy note many recent political and corporate examples of consensus building, including Bill Clinton and his Global Initiative, IBM, John McCain (before running for President), and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Eudy notes that, “Business leaders do achieve consensus through compromise. They’re less dogmatic and more pragmatic as a rule. Unlike politicians running for election, business leaders are not rewarded for being polarizing figures. Just the opposite.”

Do you think we have hope of seeing more consensus building across the political divide in the years to come? Any respite from media fragmentation? How do you build consensus in your organization? And how do you advise that clients handle polarization among their own customers and other stakeholders?

Please let us know in the comments section.

2 Responses to “Overcoming Polarization—Some Thoughts for the Political Season”

  1. Dick Martin said on September 8, 2012 at 9:33 am

    Kathy – This is a terrific post and very timely. One small correction: the Pew Research you cite doesn’t support this assertion: “The partisan divide has intensified even as people in different social, ethnic, racial, religious, and education gender groups have come closer in their answering of these questions.” There is not question that the values gap by political party has increased significantly — – from a 10 point difference in 1987 to 18 in 2012. But the values gap by other demographics has not closed. Those gaps are still significant (a 10 to 12 point difference on income, education, and race for example) though they have been relatively stable since 1987. You might be interested in my book, OtherWise, which explores these issues in greater depth and suggests how we can bridge differences, along the lines of your excellent recommendations. Dick

  2. Kathy Cripps said on September 12, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Dick – Thanks very much for taking time to comment and for providing an additional resource.

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