Open Question

How Might We Bridge America’s Political Divides?

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The Strengthening Democracy Challenge identifies hopeful strategies

Illustration of blue and red faces forming two fists in opposition

As talk of the 2024 presidential election heats up, we find ourselves recalling the 2022 midterms, when many pundits and political journalists predicted a wash of red across the country, forecasting that Republicans would flip several U.S. House and Senate seats and wrest statehouse domination for themselves. 

And yet that didn’t happen. Instead, elections failed to move the needle on the Senate, leaving it with a slim Democratic majority and yielding yet another Georgia runoff along with tight races in Nevada and Arizona. One cohort of candidates fared particularly poorly: those running on claims that the 2020 election was “stolen.” For democracy watchers and fans of the republic, this general rejection of an extremist political stance offered reassurance and seemed to indicate that respect for the U.S. democratic process would be favored over misinformation. 

But what of the fact that election denial featured so heavily on the ballot to begin with (and remains a noisy voice)? And what of the unsettling normalcy that no conversation about politics in the U.S. can proceed without constantly encountering that other p-word we now all know so well: polarization?

In January, a freshly divided legislature took up its task in Washington. Just how stymied their progress will be as a governing body remains to be seen. What is clear is that the almost dead-even halving of Congress continues to reflect similar splits across the country and depicts a nation that remains polarized, despite recently rallying against misinformation-driven threats to democracy.

Ask any political scientist where the future of American democracy is headed and most will acknowledge that it depends on how capable and invested we are — leaders and voters alike — at turning up the volume on civic engagement and turning down the volume on culture wars that threaten to erode democratic process.

A rising tide of voices across government, academia, and the social sector echo the need for a reinvigorated commitment to democracy. What will inspire such progress? There is no shortage of initiatives and explorations underway aiming to answer that question. The Polarization and Social Change Lab (PASCL) at Stanford is one such effort. The lab’s work is focused on developing practical scientific knowledge in three main areas: paths to political consensus, reducing harms of polarization, and effective strategies of social activism. 

Last year, the lab released results of its Strengthening Democracy Challenge, a mega experiment conducted by scholars from PASCL and partners across five universities to test a selection of crowdsourced strategies for reducing support for undemocratic practices, partisan violence, and partisan animosity.

To conduct the challenge, the team put out a call for researchers, practitioners, and members of the general public from across the country to suggest short interventions requiring no more than eight minutes that would rally political partisans around the basic tenets of our shared democracy. Of 252 submissions, the team selected 25 that seemed most promising, based on scholar and practitioner expert review. They then tested these interventions (some took the form of surveys or videos) on a sample of over 32,000 people, broadly representative of American partisans. Of the 25 tested interventions, an impressive 23 proved to significantly reduce partisan animosity. A substantial number (five to six) of interventions reduced support for undemocratic practices and support for partisan violence. 

A recent news feature in Nature highlighting the findings of the challenge noted the efficacy of one intervention for reducing partisan animosity that featured, of all things, an ad for Heineken beer. “In the four-minute video, pairs of people with opposing viewpoints work together to achieve a goal (assembling a bar and a set of stools) then sit down to have a drink together while they discuss their views. Watching the ad produced a reduction in partisan animosity of about 10 points on a scale from 0 to 100.”

Not surprisingly, the findings — like the problems that inspired the research — are complex. “What works and what doesn’t is not obvious,” explains Robb Willer, Stanford professor of sociology and faculty lead. The interventions that successfully chipped away at hostility toward political opposites did little to reduce more hardened attitudes favoring partisan violence or antidemocratic orientations. Yet certain interventions were able to reduce support for undemocratic practices. The research team also found some effects overlapped. Easing partisan animosity also eased social distrust, standoffishness with political opposites, and bias in evaluating political facts. 

Willer, a co-author of the paper describing these findings, told The Atlantic that people tend to misperceive those on the opposite side of the political aisle. No matter what their affiliation, people tend to view political opposites as being far more undemocratic than surveys show. The short and accessible interventions might offer ways to shift the focus to the misapprehensions and correct them — perhaps catalyzing something of a perspective shift at scale. 

The team writes that this package of evidence-based strategies could serve as a toolkit for bridge-building and shoring up the infrastructure of democracy in the U.S. Their next step is to fund a set of field experiments that will test the most promising strategies from the study in different real-world settings. More than 35 teams of practitioners and scholars have submitted proposals for the Bridging Divides & Strengthening Democracy Field Test Grants. Those selected will receive up to $50,000 to work in partnership to implement or augment interventions and test their efficacy. 

This mega-study-to-field-study research design based on crowdsourced interventions offers a model of how scholars can relatively efficiently glean the insights of practitioners and researchers to address social problems. In academia, bodies of scholarship tend to build at a more incremental pace, where ideas get hashed out over years, if not decades, and often necessarily so. This approach moves at a time scale that may prove able to keep better pace with societal problems without losing the rigor. The lab’s hope is that pitting different theories and empirical studies in direct competition will serve to strengthen the academic scholarship while simultaneously getting practical about applying what works.



Emily Willingham is a journalist and science writer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Scientific American, Aeon, Undark, San Francisco Chronicle, and many other outlets.

Open Question is a forum for commentary about social problems and methods of tackling them in the drive for progress.