At the height of the horrific violence that broke out on the steps the U.S. Capitol’s steps on January 6, an amazing moment took placeTh, 2021. Washington D.C. veteran and police officer Michael Fanone was pulled from behind a barricade by a crowd of angry, pro-Trump protesters. He was then brutally beat, tased, doused in chemical irritants and threatened with being murdered using his own gun. His screams of anguish and desperation had little affect on the horde, until finally he pleaded, “I have kids.” Somehow, this seemed to matter. One second later, Fanone was escorted by a few mob members who protected him from violence and led him back to safety with his officers.
These events at Capitol steps are both a sign of violent unrest that is coming in this country, and they also offer a glimpse into how we can avoid such turmoil and return to functioning democracy.
It is crucial to realize that the events that occurred in our Capitol on that particular day were not an isolated incident. This was a long-planned orchestrated effort that capitalised on deep existential grievances. It intensified partisanship and political manipulation. The media ecosystem preys upon outrage.
This power grab occurs in the context a decade-long trend towards toxic political Polarization. The trend is addictive, resistant to change and makes us sick. According to a recent survey, half the Americans believe their family is more divided now than it was five years ago. 68% of Republicans, which is 97% for those who trust far-right information, believe that Donald Trump stole the 2020 elections. Today, 85% of Democrats believe the Republican party has been taken over by “racists,” while 84% of Republicans believe the Democratic party is controlled by “socialists.”
HistoriansJon Meacham, for example, sees parallels with America in 1850s just before our Civil War. According to another poll, 84% and 80% respectively of Trump and Biden voters viewed elected representatives of the other party to be a danger to American Democracy. 52% and 41% of Trump voters favored their states to secede from the Union in order to create their own nation. The most alarming finding is that 30% of Republicans (40% trust far right news) and 11% percent of Democrats said they were ready to resort violence in order to save America. That’s 40 million Americans who say they are ready to fight in a country with 400+ million guns. In reality, violence against political opponents is increasing, while armed protests are on the rise and nearly half of Americans believe that civil war may be imminent.
What can be done to stop the nation’s partisanship and prevent it from getting worse?
We have the ability to take action. We got a glimpse of how for just a moment when the cruelty of Officer Fanone’s assailants on the Capitol steps got interrupted by a wave of momentary compassion. When the phrase “I have kids” pierced their riotous fever and awakened them to the dad and neighbor kneeling before them. A flash of common decency allowed some people to stand up against their mob, swim upstream against its torrent and carry them to safety.
We have hope in this. When those who surround potentially violent individuals—their friends, family members, coworkers, even fellow protestors—awaken to draw a line against moral disengagement, violence and cruelty. These are the people we need to engage and mobilise. Harvard Law Professor Bill Ury calls this the Third Side. It is those who are able to intervene and prevent future disasters.
The last 25 years have been spent studying how people in deep-divided societies, like ours, can escape from toxic divisions and chart their own course. This is a common result of complex interactions between forces and people that are unpredictable and inflexible. These divisions can be perpetuated by the feedback loops that exist between our psychological, economic, relational and informational structures. These divisions are difficult to change. However, they are possible to change.
Our nation’s future is bright. Research has shown that societies divided by three factors are more likely to change for the positive when they are satisfied.
A critical mass of citizens from both sides are enough unhappy with the status-quo to cause a divide. Research shows that around 86% of Americans are moderaters, which the authors label our exhausted middle majorityToday, they are done with political dysfunction and acrimony. Many of these are the family, friends, and neighbors of those inclined toward violence—the Third Side.
Second, citizens who live in countries that are experiencing major changes to their status quo (e.g. assassinations, coups, etc.There are also natural disasters and health crises that can impact leadership. People can be compelled to make changes and question basic assumptions by experiencing significant shocks. In the current COVID-19 epidemic, there is a lot of Americans questioning their life, careers and lives. This could be a time for many Third Siders to ask, “How am I cont
For lasting change in conflict-ridden societies, the third requirement is to have a sense of hope and a plan for how it will end. This means that citizens should see a possible alternative to the blame-laden battle. One they feel comfortable taking.
These are some steps that middle-class people can use to stop violent civil conflicts and start looking for a better way to move forward. They were derived from empirical research about how to escape toxic conflict.
1. See – The Change. Studies have shown that one powerful motivator for changing course in a protracted conflict is when we see others—particularly those on the other side of the divide—finding and choosing more constructive ways to engage. It can be a positive thing for an Israeli to hear a Palestinian tell their story about moving from advocating violence towards working in peace. This could open them up to considering compromises.
Today, I am feeling exactly the same way when I look at Derek Kilmer (Democratic Congressman) and William Timmons (Republican from South Carolina), who together co-chair The Select Committee on the Modernization Congress. Their tireless efforts to improve Congress’ civility, effectiveness, transparency, and accountability for everyone is inspiring me. Or when I hear regular Americans taking StoryCorp’s One Small Step to cross the red/blue divide in their communities and share their stories of pain, loss and possibility. I feel hopeful that there’s a better way.
2) Keep Stopping – Regroup and Begin Again with Intention. If we are willing to make a major reset, times such as ours will only destabilize our existing patterns. By taking a step back and being intentional about which path to take, This is the environment that addicts and ex-offenders can change their course when they hit bottom. These conditions allowed war-torn nations like Costa Rica to be liberated in 1948.
Research shows that there is no way to tell if the First stepsAfter major resets, the most important thing is how we engage in conflict. It is known as the “sensitivity to initial conditions”, which occurs when social systems are reorganized. When I think about it, these are the days that I feel like to React to someone who expresses political opinions opposite to mine, I try to stop and ask myself—what is my intention here? What is my goal? Do I want to go on the attack and escalate tensions to prove I’m right? Is this working? What about trying a new approach? Ask them questions about their childhood home politics. Give an example
If I take a moment to be in the present, it gives me control of things that can feel overwhelming. Talking about politics BeginWith confrontation and with debate they often escalate quickly and are difficult to reverse. They can be opened up to us all if we start with a question or tell a story about our past experiences or mishaps.
3) Spot – Positive deviance.Research shows that when you find yourself trapped within the dynamics of a highly polarized community, it is better to learn how to get out. What is working already? You need to be in a position where you can find a solution. Instead of trying to solve the problem by implementing a new program or idea, find the solution. Spots of light – the people or programs that are already working effectively to mend the divide.
There are many bridge-building groups in the United States that can help. Many of these groups are focused on encouraging dialogues between communities across the red-blue line. These are our community’s immune systems actively fighting the evils of hatred and vilification, and helping to build and mobilise the moderate middle. Check out, for example, the Bridging Divides Initiative. Their website offers an interactive map that shows you the locations of nearly 7000 people who are doing similar work in America.
4) Simplify – After You Complicate Your Life. Studies show that humans tend to simplify difficult conflicts too quickly. Our natural tendency is to simplify more complicated conflicts, leading to us-them thinking. Cynical politicians often use this against us to control and divide us in times of threat and uncertainty. You can take steps to avoid falling prey to oversimplification, dehumanization, and certainty. You have to intentionally make your life more complicated.
Being more deliberate about what I read, see, and hear, as well as joining teams and groups with other political people, can help you to increase your complexity of thought, feeling, living, and action. It is something I actively do. Think with other people. This is because I choose to hear intelligent, kind, and well-meaning individuals from both sides when important political events first appear in the media. No, I don’t tune into the nut jobs in the media who spout nonsense and conspiracy theories. Instead, I’ve identified some highly educated people with whom I disagree and tried to learn from them. Better decisions can be made by having more informed and nuanced points of view on complex issues. Solid research backs this up.
5) Synchronize – Move forward together. Last but not least, if you find yourself trapped by antagonizing and agonizing conflict that leaves you feeling trapped in an us/them world then it might be worth considering BewegungIt is a way to get rid of it. According to neuroscience research, our central thoughts and beliefs are often embodied within neural structures of our brains. However, it has also shown that exercise can be used to help break out of deeply ingrained patterns in thinking, feeling, and acting.
Movement has actually been shown to improve key components of effective conflict engagement such as creativity, flexibility, and positivity. Moving is a great way to get things done. together—side-by-side and ideally outside—has shown great promise for connecting disputants and helping to synchronize them in ways that promote more empathy, rapport, and flexibility. It is something I strive to achieve in every aspect of my life. Instead of trying to discuss hot topics with my coworkers or family, I encourage them to go for a stroll outside. It is a great way to get us all in the same boat and allow us to communicate even when we disagree.
Americans are now united on an unforgiving political precipice. American tribalism has reached a point of no return. The coup that is underway is being orchestrated by a number of nefarious actors who are trying to take power.
There are millions of people who can stop these forces. We, the moderate middle, have to make every effort to change our beliefs, to reset, to engage, to complicate and to get moving. This is what will ensure the survival and growth of our nation.