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Join the Democracy Reform Movement to Unite Against Division and Incivility

By September 6, 2021September 17th, 2021No Comments

By Arjun Moorthy – Founder, The Factual and Joe Schuman – Founder, Divided We Fall 

When Demosthenes was asked what to do about the decline of ancient Athens, he is said to have replied: “do not do what you are doing now.” So, although there isn’t much we can agree on in 21st-century America—given historic polarization, gridlock, partisanship, and, at times, incivility—perhaps we can agree with Demosthenes. Our country is hurting. And while there isn’t an easy answer regarding what to do about any of these issues, we have to try something different. 

In some ways, our problem today is a problem of faith. Do we, the citizens, still believe in the ideals that defined America—liberty, equality, justice, and unity? And while we have always been an imperfect nation, are we willing to fight to make our country a little bit more perfect? Or would we rather succumb to the hysteria of the moment and watch or, worse, participate in the decline of our nation and its ideals? 

We are here today to tell you that some of us believe the nation is worth fighting for. We believe the nation can be saved and will be by small and heroic acts of normal people—things like talking civilly with someone you disagree with, trying to understand someone else’s views, reading and learning about different perspectives, and voting for, donating to, and volunteering for elected officials that will do the same. If you don’t believe us, look no further than the thousands of organizations that make up the bridge building ecosystem–a network of Americans trying to cross the divide and move the country forward. While they may not always agree, they are dedicated to solving what is wrong with America based on what is right with America.

The Bridge Building Ecosystem

Just as Alexis de Tocqueville was impressed by the “spirit of association” in 19th-century America, the strength of the bridge building ecosystem is in its numbers. A few organizations have started to put together lists of the organizations in this space, the most comprehensive of which is Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative, which lists over 3,000 organizations focused on building community at the local, regional, and national levels. Others include the #ListenFirst Coalition by the Listen First Project or the Bridge Alliance. Whatever way you slice it, all across the country organizations are standing up to unite the red and blue states of America.

For those who are new to the bridge building ecosystem, it might be hard to decipher what different organizations do and why they do it. There appear to be many organizations with similar goals yet minimal cooperation amongst the ecosystem. For these reasons, we have put together a first of its kind bridge building ecosystem framework. As with any framework, it is imperfect. We accept all faults and welcome your feedback in the comments below. 

Below are five categories that encompass the broad range of activities such organizations undertake. The categories are not mutually exclusive nor do all organizations fit into each category neatly. However, we believe this framework can be a first step toward growing participation and collaboration across this ecosystem. 

Dialogue and Engagement

Organizations in this category focus on bringing different types of people together. Sometimes it is over dinner (Make American Dinner Again and Resetting the Table) or in a living room (Living Room Conversations) or cafe (Conversation Cafe). Sometimes it is for online conversation, and other times it is facilitated in person (Braver Angels) or through public events (Common Ground Committee). These interventions are based on Intergroup Contact Theory, that it is harder to demonize the other when we know them—when we have (sometimes literally) broken bread with them. They attempt to break people out of echo chambers—social, geographic, or cyber—and expose them to people unlike themselves. 

Youth and University

Organizations in this category look to the next generation to create the change that we wish to see. They believe, as Henry Adams put it, that a teacher affects eternity. They are at high schools (Youthquake and American Exchange Project), colleges and universities (BridgeUSA and Youthivism), and in religious communities (Interfaith Youth Corps). Some even target faculty (Heterdox Academic). They aim to build a skillset of civility, bipartisanship, and service (Service Year Alliance), against the tide of countervailing forces and winds. They believe that generational change is our last best hope for achieving change. Promising initiatives include The Millennial Action Project and Generation Nation.

Advocacy and Research

Organizations in this category engage in research to help diagnose the problems we face and advocacy to try to support policies to remedy them. They believe facts and evidence are necessary to know what the problem is and what the problem is not. They believe that the political class—politicians, activists, donors, and media—are both the problem and the solution. They include think tanks (Bipartisan Policy Center) and nonprofits (Civil Politics) and are often affiliated with universities, such as Stanford’s Center for Deliberative Democracy and Arizona State University’s National Institute for Civil Discourse. They produce reports, like More in Common’s Hidden Tribes report, which inform and improve the debate about how to take action. And sometimes they even get elected officials involved, like No Labels, which inspire efforts like the Problem Solver’s Caucus. These efforts go to the heart of the matter, armed with fact-based research, to address the problem at its core.

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