My previous article investigated the methods used by most groups focused on reducing political polarization. I argued they can be effective, but they usually ask for too much time and effort from the American public.
Most Americans do not have the time or interest to engage deeply with depolarization. There must be depolarization strategies for the rest of us.
This article advocates focusing on “Lower-Intensity Depolarization” (LID) strategies.
Exact examples of LID strategies will be investigated in the next article, but they typically involve messaging or other approaches that require modest or even no effort on the part of the target audience.
Those focused on depolarization should put a “lid” on demands of most of the American public. Most Americans are busy with many competing demands on their time. Depolarization will often be a low priority.
Instead, there should be increasing focus on LID strategies that can reach and depolarize millions of Americans.
Defining Depolarization, and “Depolarization Intensity”
Before exploring too deeply, it is important to define the terms depolarization and “depolarization intensity.”
The default is often to think of depolarization as reducing the ideological divide, but many researchers focus on other types. One type is affective depolarization, which in the American context would essentially mean improved emotions and attitudes toward those in the other political party. Another is aligning Americans’ views of those on the other political side with reality, since Americans currently suffer from overly monolithic and extreme misperceptions of the other side.
This article will focus mostly on affective depolarization and counteracting misperceptions.
If unaddressed, affective polarization and misperceptions have the potential to spiral downward toward catastrophic outcomes. Behavioral responses are tied to assumptions about he other side, and increasing affective polarization can lead to increasing worse problems. Collectively, Americans can start viewing the other side tribally and as "the enemy", and increasing numbers can become willing to do nearly anything to defeat them — even if that damages the democratic republic or leads to physical violence.
Meanwhile, depolarization intensity can be thought of as a generalized concept equal to the amount of time, effort, energy, focus, intention, etc. that the target of a depolarization intervention undertakes to depolarize themselves and/or others. In the future, it may be
helpful to subdivide or quantify this “intensity” metric, but that is likely unnecessary for now.
Depolarization intensity lies on a continuum. At the low end, there is essentially no effort needed on the part of the target audience. Depolarization interventions can increase in intensity from there. At the extreme high end of depolarization intensity, there are people devoting much of their lives to depolarization as volunteers or full-time employees.
Defining Lower-Intensity Depolarization (LID) Strategies
Lower-intensity depolarization (LID) is defined as successful depolarization interventions that require relatively low levels of time, effort, energy, focus, intention, etc. from the target audience.
Because there is a continuum of depolarization intensity, there is no clear dividing line between what is and what is not a LID approach. However, there are some hallmarks of LID strategies. These will be explored further in the next article.
LID strategies generally require less intentional effort. For instance, the target audience may unintentionally listen to messages tailored to improve their emotions or attitudes toward the other side. These could come from sources such as ads, TV shows, sermons at their houses of worship, the next video on autoplay on YouTube, and other sources. The lowest-intensity interventions would not require that the target audience actively do or think about anything. Simply the content itself can passively depolarize.
If there is effort required in a LID strategy, it should be relatively minor. For instance, some people will need to actively search for and click on depolarizing content. There may be some very simple mantras to remember that require minimal if any follow-up (e.g., “Republicans and Democrats care about their communities and children”).
Only specific kinds of behavioral change should be considered LID strategies. Ideally, behavioral messaging should be limited to cases when they are absolutely needed. LID strategies that include behavioral changes should emphasize aspects that are easy to remember and relatively straightforward to implement (e.g., “when having a conversation with someone from the other side, focus on what’s in common”).
In general, LID strategies allow the target audience to go on with their lives, rather than having to carve out time specifically to achieve depolarization.
Will Lower-Intensity Depolarization (LID) Strategies Work? Evidence Suggests They Should
Higher-intensity strategies may not reach enough people, but will LID strategies work? Many theories and experiments seem promising, especially those from social psychology. They will still benefit from more empirical testing. However, many theories have extensive research support, and they deserve to be attempted when polarization is so pressing, and alternatives are so unlikely to reach enough Americans.
Studies and theories seem promising for lower-intensity messaging:
A study found that Americans have a more positive impression of the other party closer to July 4, presumably because the overarching identity of “American” is more salient.
Instead of directly using Contact Theory, there are variations that can work through messaging and programming, including parasocial contact (seeing positive portrayals of the other side, such as on TV shows) and vicarious contact (seeing others in their group having positive interactions with the other side).
There are many theories that have been tested at least in laboratory settings that should be able to be packaged in messaging, including Similarity / Attraction Theory (similarity of attitudes induces liking), shared human experiences, decategorization (seeing the other side more as individuals than as a monolith), and inducement of a “moral emotion” of elevation in when people are moved by hearing stories of excellent human abilities or actions. Fixing political misperceptions can lead partisans to see the other side as less extreme and less socially distant.
Finally, for any behavioral messaging, there is decades of experience with public health messaging that can inform strategies.
Conclusion: Let’s Put a Lid on Demands of the American Public, and use LID Strategies Instead
Most Americans are busy. They have other priorities besides depolarization. That is not a problem. Lower-intensity depolarization (LID) strategies can reach them.
It is unnecessary to demand that all Americans engage deeply. People can live their lives and still depolarize.
The movement can put a lid on its demands for much of the American public. LID strategies can reach many more people effectively.
My next article about LID will explore these strategies in more depth.
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 news and human-interest stories designed to unite, and he volunteers for Braver Angels in various capacities. Professionally, he’s a strategy consultant for the energy industry. He has a Center bias.
This piece was reviewed by AllSides.com Director of Marketing Julie Mastrine (Lean Right bias).