‘It warps everything’
A Q&A on challenging political polarization with Seattle journalist, author and Braver Angels director Mónica Guzmán
Quebec MP Joël Lightbound perfectly captured the mood in the country when he said at his Tuesday press conference that “we’ve never been so divided.” The Liberal backbencher’s speech breaking ranks with his party was courageous, principled, and sane — and his calls for reason, humanism, and hope went a long way to breaking the spell of political polarization that’s gripped Canada during the trucker protests.
I have heard from many people this past week who hold views on both sides of the conflict, and who are, by turns, enraged and in despair. They find the acute polarization disturbing and disorienting. And they find some of the news coverage hyperbolic, confusing, and counterproductive. It’s extremely difficult, they tell me, to get a read on what’s actually going on.
This is how I feel, too. I spent much of Saturday walking around the Toronto protests, and I don’t have confident conclusions about this complex and conflicted moment in our country’s history. (And am digesting this thoughtful reporting from Ottawa’s Rupa Subramanya, out this morning.)
What I do know is that this level of political polarization is dangerous and destructive by any standard, and that we must find a way to challenge it.
So, I decided to reach out to someone who has a lot of experience navigating extreme polarization, both personally and professionally. Mónica Guzmán is a Seattle-based journalist, a former Nieman fellow at Harvard, and a director at Braver Angels, a prominent American nonprofit that works on political polarization at the grassroots level. Mónica has a book coming out next month, I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, which I have been reading and loving.
Here, Mónica talks about how political polarization can tear society apart — and how we might begin to stitch it back together again, one conversation at a time.
I want to start by talking about you. Your parents are Mexican immigrants who voted for Trump — twice. You are a liberal journalist in left-leaning Seattle circles. What’s that experience been like?
I discovered that my parents held very different politics from me in grade school. I started talking with them, and getting into fights, in junior high, high school. But I started sensing the temperature turn up in a huge way in the 2015 presidential campaign in the United States. And wow, did we have it out on a lot of topics. It’s been this place where I’m challenged by how much I love them, and value the relationship — and then also how intensely I can disagree with their political opinions. So, I have just done it all. I have yelled, I have screamed. They have done the same. And then we’ve found our way to a kind of conversation that can be really productive and really interesting, and that moves us not to agree with each other but to understand. And say, “I see where you are coming from. I get it, I get why you’re there.” The other thing to say on that is, after the 2016 election, in very liberal Seattle, I started to hear — and, frankly, feel myself — that sense that anyone who voted for Trump must be a monster. I knew that wasn’t true of my parents. So it started to feel personally implicating. Like, “Wait, hang on, I know why we’re mad. I know things are crazy. But I also know it’s not true that you could boil it all down to people being awful. So, let’s make this more complicated, and dig in.”
You’ve spoken about people you’ve heard from whose lives have been torn apart by political polarization.
I just heard this week again from someone who reached out for the first time maybe a year, a year and a half ago, who lives in Oregon and is very liberal. His son had told him, “You cannot come to my son’s basketball games anymore, I don’t want my kids at your house anymore. You’re corrupting them. It’s over.” All around politics. So this person reached out to me, having never met me, honestly not having any idea where to turn. I talked to him on Zoom, and we realized together that he was the only liberal in his son’s life, and that the outrage that he was aiming at him was the outrage that he was aiming at this whole group. That was fascinating. That’s just one example.
You’ve written about “affective political polarization.” Can you define that for readers?
Affective political polarization contrasts with ideological polarization, which is when we’re polarized because we disagree. Affective polarization is we are polarized because we do not like each other. Braver Angels — where I work currently, a nonprofit that works on depolarization — is very focused on the problem of affective polarization. It’s driven by how we feel, and all the dynamics around that that make us want to put a lot of distance between ourselves and the other side. That makes us miss what’s really there — the little bit of common ground — and creates misperceptions. But it may not be what we think it is. It’s our suspicion and distrust that create the climate that we’re currently trying to navigate.
It warps everything. It’s like funhouse mirrors, everywhere you look. We are walking through a funhouse. And we are looking at those funhouse mirrors, saying, “This is the world.” But it’s not.
I reached out to you because in Canada we are in a moment of extreme political polarization. As a journalist, I’ve never had this much trouble figuring out what the actual facts of a story are. And as a citizen, I have never seen my country so divided. Are there moments like this that stand out for you in your own country?
In my lifetime, I have not experienced anything like the polarization created in the United States from the election in 2016. There were so many issues that came up — it’s almost too many to count — where people felt so divided. There’s been years of it. We are more divided now than we were during Trump’s administration. It’s not about who is in the White House; it’s about people. And on the ground, it’s still getting worse and worse. Everything from what happened after the death of George Floyd, obviously to January 6, to the vaccine. All of that happening at once is enormously challenging, would be challenging to any society. But one like the United States right now? Wow. It was already experiencing so much political turmoil; the path had already been paved for so much division. It feels like it’s this tangled knot and it keeps getting more and more tangled.
Talk to me a little bit about the approach of Braver Angels.
Braver Angels is the largest grassroots, cross-partisan nonprofit dedicated to bringing red and blue America together, to strengthen our Democratic republic. So, that’s a tall order. [Laughs]
Our approach is to work primarily on civic trust, on the ground level. The people I was talking about before, who reach their breaking point with their family, their relatives, know that something’s broken and want to fix it. Thousands upon thousands of them have found their way to us. What we offer is a process. It begins with looking inside and noticing where each of us is polarized. Where we are surrounded, most of us, by people who agree with us — and what that means about how we look at the world and the issues. Then you move to learning skills for bridging the divide. Because they do exist, and they have to do with turning the volume down, listening to people’s concerns, restraining judgement so that you can really hear someone else’s perspective. It’s challenging, but it isn’t as challenging as people think.
We also have Braver Angels debates. They are all happening virtually right now. Hundreds and hundreds of people come together to engage in a collective search for truth. It is not about one side or another of an issue winning. We have debates on gender, policing, race — we go right for the heat. We’ve had debates about the election. We’ve had debates about vaccine mandates. But again, there’s no winner declared.
The point is to hear people who, in good faith, hold their perspectives, speaking fully and freely about what those perspectives are. And then having the chance to question them about that perspective. You finish that process with a lot being cracked open that in our mainstream conversations doesn’t get nuanced, doesn’t get complicated.
What can we do to get to a point where we can hear each other, and hold America together? Because, just like Canada, it certainly looks like pieces are flying apart.
People in Canada are in pain. What have you learned at Braver Angels that could be useful to Canadians right now?
I think it really does begin with stepping away from certainty. At a time of high anxiety, in any country, in any society, it’s really nice to be sure. It’s really nice to be sure that you know everything you need to know and that your opinion on this issue is airtight. But when you’re too certain, you can’t be curious. And when you can’t be curious, you can’t listen. And when you can’t listen, you can’t put your ideas into constructive conversation with other ideas. So it’s really difficult at a scary time to hold a little bit of uncertainty — enough to be humble. But that’s a really good first step.
A question I like asking myself when I feel really sure about something: What’s the strongest argument for the other side? If I ask that about an issue that has millions of people on the other side, then I’ll always have an answer to that question. And if I struggle to find that, what I do, if I can, is I talk to someone who holds that perspective. I ask them: What are your concerns? When they express their concerns, their pain, what’s led to their path, I can find a way to share my concerns, my pain, what’s led to my path. You almost always realize that actually this isn’t as hard as we think.
Depolarization work often gets the rap that this is about being nice. “I’m supposed to leave my convictions, which are solid, right there, and just pretend I don’t have them? Let someone else talk at me? No thanks.” This is not about dropping your convictions. No. You can hold your convictions firmly, but still put yourself in a position where you can listen to others. If we can increase the understanding, that’s going to turn the volume down, which is going to get us away from violence and recklessness — and stuff that we are going to look back on years from now, going, “What came over us?” We have to get ahead of that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.