If there’s one thing that partisans on both sides of the political divide in the United States can agree on, it’s that they can’t seem to get along. Political polarization has become so severe that, at times, it appears to jeopardize the very future of our democracy.
What has gone wrong, and how can we fix it? In an article in the Connecticut Law Review, “The Power of the Civic Mindset: A Conceptual Framework for Overcoming Political Polarization,” Harvard International Negotiation Program founder and director, Daniel Shapiro, presents a framework that can help citizens of the United States and other politically divided countries understand what is driving us apart and how we can get along better—without sacrificing our most sacred values. The International Institute for Conflict Prevention & Resolution recently recognized the article with its 2021 Outstanding Short Article Award, and Shapiro is now expanding on these ideas in a forthcoming book.
The Partisan Mindset
Structural forces such as economic disparities, media bias, and gerrymandering all contribute to our self-sabotaging political divisions, but psychological and emotional factors may play an even deeper role, according to Shapiro. In particular, political mindsets color our view of the political landscape and other stakeholders. Becoming aware of our own mindset liberates us to decide whether to adopt a more constructive one.
A divisive outlook that Shapiro terms the partisan mindset leads us to distrust those from other political parties. This outlook seeks to protect those in “our group” from external threat but, in doing so, creates an oppositional dynamic. The partisan mindset has three key attributes, according to Shapiro:
1. It is adversarial. We view competing political parties through an adversarial lens that magnifies our differences and minimizes our similarities. Conflict escalates as a result.
2. It is self-righteous. For self-serving reasons, we believe that our political views are not only right but also morally superior. We refuse to consider that multiple perceptions of political truth can coexist.
3. It is insular. When we are in a partisan mindset, we seek out information that supports our views—including from social media, friends, and handpicked news sources—and shut ourselves off from people and information sources that might challenge those views. This cherry-picking increases our hostility toward those with differing perspectives.
As a result of these tendencies, the partisan mindset prompts blind loyalty to our political tribe over rational decision making. It also leads us to view cooperation with other political groups as taboo. “During times of polarization,” writes Shapiro, “the mere act of being seen talking with members of another political party, let alone negotiating in good faith, can fuel accusations of betrayal and result in political and social punishment.” In his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable, Shapiro elaborates on the emotional dynamics that draw us into the partisan mindset.
Toward a More Productive Mindset
While the partisan mindset pulls us apart, another political mindset has the power to pull us together: the civic mindset. Shapiro coined the term to describe a unifying outlook that enables citizens to work together to achieve their shared interests and resolve some of their opposing interests through collaborative negotiation and other processes.
When a society has a solid civic foundation, or overarching political identity, writes Shapiro, it can withstand fierce political debate and grow stronger through shared goals and joint problem solving. The civic mindset embraces both a strong national identity and strong tribal identities.
“Citizens can fight for their political beliefs and cooperate where their interests overlap with those of other political parties,” Shapiro explained to Negotiation Briefings. You may disagree with your neighbor about vaccine mandates, but you may agree that your local schools need more funding and support. “Is there something small you can do together to make a positive change, such as working for improvements to the local high school?” Shapiro asks.
Fostering a Civic Mindset
Shapiro challenges all of us to sit down with someone opposite us on the political spectrum “with the singular task of trying to understand their political perspective and its origins.” Explore what they believe in and why, aiming to comprehend rather than to change their mind.
“You almost certainly will still disagree, but you now understand their story,” Shapiro says. “This is the civic mindset at work: We may have serious political differences, but we’re all in this together.”
Fostering a civic mindset in ourselves and others across the political spectrum isn’t an act of self-sacrifice or a moral capitulation. Rather, it’s a move toward finding opportunities to collaborate on issues, which can mean taking a mutual gains approach to negotiation. “Political tribes may battle over laws on abortion,” Shapiro writes in the Connecticut Law Review, “but the entire society can work together on a public campaign to stop teen pregnancy.”
In your own life, what skills have you found to be useful in bridging partisan differences and fostering a civic mindset?