“By some measures, we’re as politically polarized as we were just after the U.S. Civil War,” social psychologist Peter Coleman told me in a recent conversation. Coming from Coleman, who has spent his career studying polarization and conflict resolution, this wasn’t exactly good news.
In fact, it’s horrible news. It’s more evidence that the world’s falling apart and that we’re too far gone and there’s no coming back. The other side is really ruining it for everyone else. Why can’t they just get with reality? Argh!
The stats and stories of our political divide with which we’re bombarded daily, hourly, by the minute, can easily send us down the “we’re all doomed” rabbit hole. It’s in these moments, when we want nothing more than to hide away, declare all is lost, that we can find a foothold by deepening what we know about the issue—going from black and white to shades of gray; from simplicity to complexity.
Fortunately, Coleman can help us do just that. In his new book, The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization, Coleman argues that our political differences which seem so intractable do not have to be. The reason for the divisive political polarization we’re experiencing in the United States, Coleman explains, can’t be traced back to one unreasonable person, unfortunate event, or societal defect. Political polarization is better characterized as a changing and dynamic system, with far too many factors interacting in unpredictable ways for us to measure, control, and understand each one of them separately.