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MD-ICCCR Director Peter .T Coleman's contribution:

A decline in polarization.
Peter T. Coleman is a professor of psychology at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict. His next book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, will be released in 2021.


The extraordinary shock(s) to our system that the coronavirus pandemic is bringing has the potential to break America out of the 50-plus year pattern of escalating political and cultural polarization we have been trapped in, and help us to change course toward greater national solidarity and functionality. It might sound idealistic, but there are two reasons to think it can happen.

The first is the “common enemy” scenario, in which people begin to look past their differences when faced with a shared external threat. COVID-19 is presenting us with a formidable enemy that will not distinguish between reds and blues, and might provide us with fusion-like energy and a singularity of purpose to help us reset and regroup. During the Blitz, the 56-day Nazi bombing campaign against the Britain, Winston Churchill’s cabinet was amazed and heartened to witness the ascendance of human goodness—altruism, compassion and generosity of spirit and action.

The second reason is the “political shock wave” scenario. Studies have shown that strong, enduring relational patterns often become more susceptible to change after some type of major shock destabilizes them. This doesn’t necessarily happen right away, but a study of 850 enduring inter-state conflicts that occurred between 1816 to 1992 found that more than 75 percent of them ended within 10 years of a major destabilizing shock. Societal shocks can break different ways, making things better or worse. But given our current levels of tension, this scenario suggests that now is the time to begin to promote more constructive patterns in our cultural and political discourse. The time for change is clearly ripening.

 

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