My broadest exploration of polarization

A very broad exploration of polarization I wrote last year has been published by Integral Leadership Review. Given its length, I provide a link and summary review in this post. The article (and this post) follow polarization through its origins in dualistic thinking up through social history to our current cultural mashup and our tribal reactions to its challenges. I then explore a number of dynamics that drive us/them polarization in politics, from psychological and systemic factors to the partisan use of PR and electoral manipulation. Finally, I explore dozens of approaches to countering polarization (most of which happen to make a better world at the same time).

Last August-September I wrote “Polarization, Conversation, and Collective Intelligence” – my most thorough exploration of polarization – at the request of the Integral Leadership Review. It was not published on the date I expected and I finally moved on to other things. Only today did I discover that it has indeed been published.*  So now I can share it with you online here.

It is very long and in some early parts more abstract than my usual writing, so I’m not going to print it here. Instead, I’ll give you a summary review so you can taste its scope and decide how much of it you wish to dig into more deeply.

I start the article noting that polarization is a manifestation of dualistic thinking, something that’s been around for several thousand years. Dualism (over)simplifies the world: As much as it helps us face complexity, there are always more than two perspectives or factors at work in any given situation. Dualism also separates us from each other and the world – and even ourselves – head/heart, mind/matter, us/them, right/wrong.

But if we don’t get trapped in it, dualism – in forms ranging from Taoism’s yin-yang to Hegel’s dialectic – can help us understand the creative potency of diversity and conflict. Among the ways to avoid getting trapped are recognizing transcendent oneness and commonalities, on the one hand, and, on the other, grounding ourselves in the “co-incarnational” nature of reality and thus the creative potential of evolutionary interactions and conversation.

The article then outlines a history of us/them thinking evolving from the relative coherence of isolated tribal cultures to the reductionist mashup of cultures we find today, driven by increased mobility and communication technology pushing us into each other’s lives. In our efforts to escape the overwhelming complexity and fragmentation of modern life we have re-created a tribalism in new forms from networks and movements to hashtags and fandoms, increasingly enabled by communication technology. Furthermore, thanks to increasing mobility and information accessibility, many of us now find places to live with like-minded others. Both informationally and geographically, many of us get to go our separate ways.

Advertisers and demagogues recognize the manipulative power available in us/them thinking and the cult of individualism: divide and conquer. Scientific public relations and market research have increasingly exploited those natural social and psychological dynamics to serve centralized power, profit, and partisanship, such that it is now often hard to separate what is natural from what has been strategically engineered.


Which brings us to what most people think of when they think of “polarization” – left/right political polarization. Interestingly, America’s winner-take-all majoritarian political culture drives every electoral race and issue towards a bi-polar choice, because it is much harder to win more than 50% of the vote if people are given three or more options. Thus we get not only Republicans and Democrats squeezing out third parties, but also “pro-life” and “pro-choice” acting as if they adequately reflect the profound complexities of people’s feelings about abortion. Even the labels are thought-terminating cliches, a point I highlight with some life-affirming stances typically opposed by “pro-lifers” as well as some choices opposed by the average “pro-choicer”.

I then look at some other factors feeding into this dynamic, such as our culture of debate. Why do we believe that the greatest truth comes from opposing sides jousting rather than searching together for greater truth by including, encouraging, and creatively engaging a full range of diverse perspectives? Also our use of science, technology, and money to manipulate whole populations, from PR which undermines our ability to think clearly and gerrymandering districts to ensure re-election of the partisan incumbent to efforts to drum up or suppress voter turnout (which is unnecessary in countries like Australia where voting is mandatory).

I also explore “schismogenesis” – how divides between people get magnified by psychosocial feedback mechanisms. If I start suspecting you of evil, I’ll see your every act through that paranoid lens, further justifying my suspicions. And as you see me behaving differently towards you, you’ll start to wonder about my intentions and motivations. Unless we talk with each other to clear things up – which is hard to do when we think each other so bad or stupid – this can spin out of control. “Demonizing the Other” is a natural psychosocial phenomenon that makes us extremely vulnerable to manipulation by self-interested powers: We all too often willingly – even eagerly – participate in spreading negative views of our political opponents thus making sure the mutual demonization continues. In many cases if you “talk with the enemy” that is a sign to the rest of “us” that you are one of “them”. Stick with your own kind! To top off these schismogenic dynamics, we see politicians “firing up their base” – which usually means their most ideologically extreme members who are eager to donate money and time to a campaign – leaving the more moderate majority invisible to the other side, giving everyone an impression that what’s really going on is a fight between extremes.

Finally, I explore the roles of scarcity, injustice and inequality. Although scarcity can bring people together and inspire creativity (as happens in many natural disasters), in the presence of injustice and extreme inequality it can set the stage for extreme polarization. People become hungry for someone to blame or to shift blame from themselves and systems of privilege. Scapegoating – of Jews, Muslims, immigrants, terrorists, liberals, conservatives – comes naturally, and it is called forth and organized by dogmatic, demagogic leaders and media. Fostering equity and shared means for satisfying real needs – especially in less materialistic ways – will help us meet the challenges we’ve created for ourselves with climate disruption and resource depletion. But that requires stepping out of our polarized righteousness and seeing each other as human beings.

As bad as US polarization looks from the punditry and election results, I note that some studies have found that the US is not as polarized at the grassroots. Voting maps show different parts of the country color-coded red for Republican and blue for Democrat. If they code by states or congressional districts, and only by winner-take-all coloration – so the color reflects who got elected – it is clear that the country is deeply divided. But if the maps are coded by counties (which don’t get gerrymandered) and/or by using shades of purple to show the percentage of votes, we discover that America is overwhelmingly purple – i.e., that people are actually much more mixed than our electoral system allows us to realize. In addition, more than a third of registered voters are independents.

Yet we know from our personal experience that polarization is real. We face a major and increasingly dangerous collective situation if we don’t take action to counter it.


In the section with the above heading, I say “To move beyond polarization, we need leadership to help us transcend partisanship, to develop our social capital, to generate collective intelligence and wisdom, and to see life from more holistic perspectives. I explore each of these more in the sections that follow.” In each section I then provide resources – writings, groups, perspectives, processes – to aid further understanding and action.

Under “moving beyond polarization”, I talk about independent voters (noted above) and transpartisans (most of whom hold partisan views but actively seek creative engagement with “opposing” partisans), as well as what I call “deliberative post-partisans” (like myself) who believe we need to move beyond partisanship altogether and that citizen deliberations are a potent tool for doing that. Citizen deliberative councils (naturally) loom large in my recommendations here.

Under “developing social capital”, I note that social capital is about relationships – “the social fabric” – in its two manifestations: bonding capital (among like-minded folks) and bridging capital (among people from diverse groups and beliefs). In social capital terms, polarization strengthens bonding capital by demolishing bridging capital. (I just noticed that it’s like accumulating financial capital by destroying natural capital.) Bridging capital can be developed through social activities (where controversial topics may be tacitly set aside) and through bridging conversations that can range from “getting to know you better” to delving into controversial topics with mutual respect and real listening. It can also be developed by engaging in conflict resolution – or deeper conflict transformation – and by community organizing approaches that strategically nurture connectivity among diverse people (for which I give numerous intriguing examples).

Under “generating collective intelligence and wisdom” I explore conditions that support collective learning, especially at the level of communities and whole societies. I particularly note the major role of journalism, which too often serves polarization but could just as well bring drama and insight to the discoveries we all need to make together.

Under “developing more holistic perspectives”, I note that “Polarization is grounded in a worldview of separateness, disconnection, and conflict. It has a hard time flourishing in a consciousness or culture that recognizes something fundamentally whole about reality and life and that we are all part of, expressions of, and/or intimately connected to that wholeness and each other.” Systemic, sacred, integral, evolutionary worldviews, practices, and institutions are needed to help cultures become more wholesome and thus less polarized.

And, because I wrote the article for Integral Leadership Review, I concluded it with these two paragraphs:

“Integral leaders who wish to counter the incapacitating spread of polarization have [in this article] ample tools available to shift people’s awareness and behaviors, to shift our cultures’ assumptions and stories, and to transform the structures and processes that our social systems use to shape our lives.

“In particular we have powerful conversational technologies to help diverse and conflicted people use their differences creatively to realize more of what’s going on and come to useful conclusions and policies together that include and transcend their previously discordant views. Practicing and institutionalizing these conversational approaches greatly enhance our capacity to be not only collectively intelligent, but collectively wise.”

For some of you, I hope this summary has proven interesting all by itself. For a few I hope it inspires further exploration into the details of my longer article.


* My engagement with ILR regarding my article was a chaotic editing enterprise. I sent a draft and then some ideas for additions. An editor sent me a suggestion for reorganizing the text which I didn’t understand so I queried – but I never received a response. I stressed to them that it was just a draft and would at least need formatting (embedding links and replacing all-caps with bold and italics) and I was told that they’d do the formatting. Now, to my surprise, I find my draft uploaded into the journal as the final article – with one very bad newly added glitch in the middle where the phrase “People who identify as ‘transpartisans'” – which was supposed to begin a new bullet point – got collapsed with a link for which belonged in the previous section – totally derailing what basic formatting I’d done to keep the flow of meaning on target. Except for that one big glitch, the presentation is ok, if not smoothly professional. Enjoy it!

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