Addressing Toxic Polarization Requires Heart-level Spiritual Solutions
The results are in! Fetzer is excited to share news of 25 interventions that can help strengthen American democracy. This work, the Strengthening Democracy Challenge, took place over the past few years in a project we co-funded with our allies to support Stanford University’s Polarization and Social Change Lab. The challenge was designed to identify ways to
- reduce Americans’ anti-democratic attitudes,
- reduce Americans’ partisan animosity, and
- reduce Americans’ support for political violence.
“For Fetzer, toxic polarization and partisan animosity are heart-level spiritual challenges,” says Sharif Azami, senior program officer at the Fetzer Institute. “For our efforts to be effective in breaking through to the exhausted majority in the U.S., organizations in the bridging and healing divides ecosystem require rigorous research to understand the efficacy of our engagement methodologies and/or other interventions. Research such as Stanford’s Strengthening Democracy Challenge is critical in addressing this need.”
In the largest social science experiment of its kind, Stanford’s Polarization and Social Change Lab solicited interventions that would
- address toxic polarization
- be scalable (people could experience online), and
- brief (less than eight minutes).
Researchers, activists, and practitioners submitted 252 interventions. The Lab team and a multidisciplinary advisory board worked to identify 25 of the most promising to test against one another in a unique “experimental tournament” that involved more than 31,000 Americans, a sample representative of America’s partisan landscape.
Director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab Robb Willer notes, “We hope these results offer an evidence-based toolbox that can be used to begin to rebuild the national damage wrought by anti-democratic rhetoric and candidates, and to strengthen the public’s commitment to democratic practices.”
Here’s how the 25 winning interventions performed with the project’s main outcomes.
23 reduced Americans’ partisan animosity.
6 reduced support for undemocratic practices by politicians.
5 decreased support for partisan violence.
We encourage you to check out and share this sampling.
Democratic Misperceptions (significantly improved all three main outcomes): This intervention presented participants with data showing that rival partisans do not hold as strong of anti-democratic attitudes as participants likely assumed. For example, Republicans were shown data on Democrats’ low support for several anti-democratic practices. (Submitters: Alia Braley & Gabriel Lenz, UC-Berkeley, Dhaval Adjodah, Hossein Rahnama, & Alex Pentland, MIT.)
Elite Cues (significantly improved all three main outcomes): This intervention featured a short film in which Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson—the 2020 Utah Gubernatorial Democratic and Republican party candidates—discussed their common commitment to honor the results of the 2020 election. (Submitter: Ben Lyons, University of Utah.)
Misperception Film (significantly improved all three main outcomes): This intervention featured a short film in which several Democrats and Republicans discuss how they feel misperceived by rival partisans and react to data showing surprising overlap in the views of Democrats and Republicans. (Submitters: Samantha Moore-Berg, University of Pennsylvania & Beyond Conflict, Michael Pasek, The New School for Social Research & Beyond Conflict, Rebecca Littman, Illinois-Chicago, Roman Gallardo, University of Pennsylvania, Nour Kteily, Northwestern University.)
Fear of Democratic Collapse (significantly reduced support for undemocratic practices and partisan animosity) This intervention presented participants with a video about countries where democracy collapsed (e.g., Venezuela, Turkey). The video shows scenes of chaos, then asks whether democracy could collapse in the U.S., showing scenes from the January 6th Capitol attack. Interestingly, this intervention actually increased support for partisan violence among Republican participants. (Submitters: Katherine Clayton & Michael Tomz, Stanford University.)
Positive Contact (significantly reduced partisan animosity): This intervention primarily featured a short film—"Worlds Apart”—produced by Heineken in 2017 in which three pairs of British strangers respectfully discuss their political differences. (Submitters: Daniel Stone, David Francis, & Michael Franz, Bowdoin College, Julia Minson, Harvard University.)
The Fetzer Institute supported the Strengthening Democracy Challenge along with the Civic Health Project, the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the Institute for Policy Research, Northwestern University, the United States Department of the Navy Office of Naval Research, the TDF Foundation, and Ford Motor Company Center for Global Citizenship.
Learn more about Fetzer's democracy work.
The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) is a global interdisciplinary research center and publisher of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Stanford PACS develops and shares knowledge to improve philanthropy, strengthen civil society, and address societal challenges.