Many potential mass messages should be able to reduce polarization. My last article discussed the broad solution categories that can be used for depolarizing messaging. These include showing commonality of groups, uniqueness and elevation of the other side, and togetherness. They can be summarized with a mnemonic that they can help America be more harmonious and “on CUE Together.”
This article explores each of these solution categories in more depth. It is premised on simple questions: What commonalities do groups have? How are we unique as individuals? How can another side be seen as “elevated” or “better”? In what ways can groups be together?
The answers are relatively straightforward, but they are not obvious without thought and careful categorization.
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To some extent for my own benefit, I summarize each of the sub-divisions of the categories with their own mnemonics. For instance, there are three sub-divisions within the category of togetherness: friendship, accomplishment, and relationships. These create the mnemonic FAR (friendship, accomplishment, and relationships), as in we can go “far” together across political divides. The mnemonics can be ignored or embraced; they simply try to make many disparate ideas simpler and more memorable.
These sub-divisions get closer to the actual messages that can reach audiences and reduce their affective polarization. Even after the step in this articles, there is still a tremendous amount of work necessary for crafting specific messages, figuring out how to package messages, testing which messages work for different audiences, finding messengers for the messages, encouraging these messengers to deliver the right messages…and so on.
The depolarization field can start hypothesizing what can work best, generating content, and testing it.
Commonality of Groups: One Way to Bring DEM and REP Together
The first solution category is commonality of groups, cross-cutting elements that Democrats and Republicans can share. The sub-divisions answer the following question: What commonalities do groups
There are six sub-divisions, which create the mnemonic DEM REP (dignity, experiences, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, recategorizing, emotions, and perspectives). Each of these is explored more below.
- Dignity: Many philosophical and religious sources argue that every human has basic dignity. Definitions differ, but there is usually agreement that there is a minimum level of respect and decency deserved for every human being. It can be used as a counter to dehumanization or infra-humanization, as no person can be “sub-human”; they are fully human, with dignity.
- Experiences: Each person lives a life full of experiences. Some of these are shared human experiences. Some of the most emotionally moving and detached from most judgment or politics can involve remembering certain shared experiences from our childhoods – playing, crying, asking questions, daydreaming, etc. Many people experience major lifecycle events, such as marriage, birth of a child, graduation, etc. Some experiences are widely shared and unarguable but fairly banal; for instance, there are shared human experiences that essentially relate to “activities of daily living” and can be as simple as cooking dinner or brushing one’s teeth. These may help to show the other side as normal and relatable.
- Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: In 1943, Abraham Maslow developed a five-stage model for human needs. Starting from the bottom and working up, they are the following: physiological needs, safety needs, belongingness and love needs, esteem needs, and self-actualization. The needs themselves show similarity across divides. They also have effectiveness at showing common underlying goals in terms of public policy. For instance, many policies have a goal of ensuring safety, but those in different parties can disagree on the best way to achieve the common desired goal of safety.
- Recategorizing: Instead of seeing the other side as different, it is possible to recategorize them into shared identities. Cross-cutting identities (sometimes known as cross-cutting cleavages) are overlaps between group identities, and recognizing them tends to reduce tensions between groups. Additionally, researchers in social psychology note that it can sometimes be helpful to encourage people to see these shared identities, a process known as recategorization. There are many potential overlapping identities, as shown in the next section of this article.
- Emotions: All human have emotions. In order to distinguish humans from animals that also feel emotions, it can be helpful to highlight more complex emotions, including those considered “secondary emotions.” Additionally, there are shared “moral emotions,” according to social psychologists such as Jonathan Haidt. Moral emotions contribute to Moral Foundations Theory proposed by Haidt and his colleagues, and the foundations clearly shared by both liberals and conservatives are care and fairness (with the opposites being harm and cheating, respectively).
- Perspectives: Finally, those across political divides can simply have similar beliefs, which can be highlighted. These are sometimes called “common ground.” Reports from More In Common including Hidden Tribes and The Perception Gap show many instances of similar belief. The latter report also indicates that people assume the other side is more different than it actually is. Correcting these misperceptions should be a worthwhile approach. These incorrect “meta-perceptions” also occur in terms of beliefs about emotions held by the other side. American Democrats think Republicans have more animosity toward Democrats than they actually do. The same pattern holds true for Republicans misperceiving Democrats. These misperceptions are shown to predict hostility, and overcoming these misperceptions can be easier than changing underlying ideological beliefs.
Uniqueness of Individuals: There is No PIR Exactly Like Us
The next category is uniqueness of individuals. This includes individual personality and the unique combinations of our group memberships. Each of these one-of-a-kind combinations of traits and identities makes us a unique person. Research shows seeing that the other side has multiple group identities can reduce animosity—even when all the identities are different from one’s own group memberships. Thus, simply seeing the other side as more complex individuals can help, even if there are no or few cross-cutting identities. When actually messaging, it is not necessary to point out every single identity, but it can be helpful to know where to look to find identities.
In other words, there is no peer exactly like us. For this mnemonic, the peer becomes PIR to remember all the subdivisions of the uniqueness of identities. More accurately, the mnemonic is PPPPPIRR: it starts with personality, and the rest are various types of identities: physical, place-based, political, positional, interest-based, relational, and religious. They are explored more below:
- Personality: Each person has a unique personality. One way to frame this is that we each have different combinations of the “Big 5” personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism.
- Physical: When “identity” is used in politics today, it often refers to physical traits or fixed basic demographic characteristics such as age. Physical identities include race, height, sexual orientation, gender, hair or eye color, and weight.
- Place-based: These are identities based on a place. These start from the small (e.g., resident on a street) up through neighborhood, town, city, state, region, and country. It can include urban, suburban, rural, and other density-based descriptions. Some supra-national identities such as North American or global citizen are also possible.
- Political: There are many potential political identities by party, ideology, supporter or opponent of candidates, supporter or opponent of various policy topics or movements, etc.
- Positional: There are identities that relate to our position in society. They can concern educational attainment, employment status and type, income, wealth, home ownership, and other factors that may correspond to status in society.
- Interest-based: These are hobbies or interests that people have, including dog owner, sports fan, or music lover. There can also be identities relating to institutions that correspond to interests, such as being a member of a fishing club or group that plays cards together. There can be identities based on dislikes of these hobbies and interests as well.
- Relational: These involve connections to other people. Many correspond to families and being a parent, child, sibling, aunt / uncle, etc. There are connections to people in one’s community, such as being a neighbor, friend, student, etc. Some organizations straddle the boundary between relational and interest-based identities, including being part of organizations such as a fraternity / sorority or some other social clubs.
- Religious: People can have many different religious identities. These include being members of specific denominations. It can be an attitude toward religion, such as being spiritual or being atheist. It can involve an identity associated with being a follower of a religious leader or teaching.
There are so many types of identities that no two individuals can have the same combinations. We are all unique people. When Americans see stories of out-group individuals with specific combinations of identities, we are reminded that those in the other party are unique individuals.
Elevation of the Other Side: Some May Get TIP-C When They See How Good the Other Side Can Be
Elevation of the other side generally involves showing good character and characteristics of those on the other side. These can be summarized with the (admittedly light-hearted) mnemonic TIP-C, as in people may get tipsy and lose their bearings when they see just how good the other side can be. The components of this mnemonic are as follows: trustworthy, intelligent, persevering, and caring. The topics themselves may be relatively straightforward, so the descriptions below better explain how they can be captured in messages that can be effective.
- Trustworthy: In order to show that someone from the other side is trustworthy, it is usually necessary to have validation from an in-group member. For instance, if a Democrat and Republican are friends, the Democrat can tell fellow Democrats of the trustworthiness of the Republican. The same approach would work for a Republican talking to fellow Republicans about a trustworthy Democrat.
- Intelligent: Intelligence is a difficult aspect to measure. However, it may be particularly helpful to show examples of highly accomplished Republicans and/or supporters of former President Trump to Democrats. These will be people who often have the credentials and accomplishments to be impressive to those on the other side. It is less clear if this messaging would be as valuable for Republicans, given how Americans with high educational attainment are increasingly Democrats, although there may be useful examples of Democrats with “street smarts” or facility with more manual tasks.
- Persevering: These are stories of people overcoming challenges, showing grit, fortitude, or even bravery that can engender respect or even admiration from the other side.
- Caring: These are stories of people caring for others, potentially those in their communities. While not all examples of caring can work well – for instance, a shared identity such as “parent” can be challenging since ideal parenting styles can differ by party – most other examples of caring can be effective, especially when showing examples of potentially counter-stereotypical caring Republicans to Democrats. Stories of those helping others during the COVID-19 crisis may be particularly helpful for this topic.
Togetherness: We Can Go FAR Together
The last category of messages is also relatively straightforward. These involve positive interactions between those on different political sides. These create the mnemonic FAR (friendship, accomplishment, and relationships), as in we can go “far” together across political divides.
- Friendship: These are stories of friends across political divides who are not related to each other.
- Accomplishment: These are stories of successful collaboration across political divides, including stories of “finding common ground.”
- Relationships: These are stories of healthy and strong relationships across political divides. It can involve stories of family members across political divides who have strong bonds, preferably with warmth between them. It can also include stories of those in romantic relationships such as married couples. However, some people may find such stories of romantic relationships to be too close for comfort, and these stories may not lead to depolarization among some audiences.
This article is the third of a three-part series.
First, I developed an analogy of a hill and valley, explaining how Americans increasingly see those in the other party as distant, stereotyped, lesser, and to be avoided.
In the second article, I defined solution categories that could address each of these problems, tied together with the mnemonic “on CUE Together”: commonalities, uniqueness, elevation, and togetherness.
Finally, this article subdivides each of the solution categories, providing a kind of menu of depolarization intervention approaches.
There is still a large amount of work left creating individual messages that optimizing targeting the right audiences via the right mediums and messengers.
Yet hopefully this process can focus attention on what is theoretically most likely to reduce polarization, helping Americans have better emotions and attitudes toward the other political side.
James D. Coan is a depolarization strategist who develops approaches to reduce U.S. political polarization at scale. His interests include social psychology and mass communications. He coordinates an initiative on AllSides that features content designed to politically unite, and he co-directs the Braver Angels Ambassadors program. Professionally, he’s a strategy consultant for the energy industry. James has a Center bias and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
 One obvious shared identity is American, a topic I explored in a previous article. However, some common ingroups may not be effective if the other group is seen as less associated with a prototypical or ideal member of a collective group; for instance, German attitudes toward Polish people did not improve when the common connection of “Europe” was invoked, arguably because Germans see themselves as more prototypically European.