Palma Strand: A Path Out of Polarization: The Strengthening Democracy Challenge and the Civity Storytelling Intervention

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Newsletter 123 — June 12, 2023


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by Palma Joy Strand

June 8, 2023

Political polarization seems to be everywhere - in Washington DC, at statehouses around the nation, and in school board and other local government meetings.  It has come to appear so entrenched as to be a permanent part of the national landscape, inevitable and immutable.  Polarization is the watchword of the moment.

The intractability of political polarization, however, may be vastly overstated.  A recent study based at Stanford University offers a message of hope that people are not as “stuck” as we might think.  This is the story of one of the interventions highlighted by that study as offering a way out: Civity Storytelling.

The message of Civity Storytelling is simple yet powerful: “Most people feel that strengthening our democracy is beyond them, but civity – building relationships across difference – offers a way to reach across partisan lines that isn’t about giving up who you are or what you believe in.”

The Strengthening Democracy Challenge

After the 2020 election, Robb Willer, a sociologist at Stanford, became increasingly concerned about political polarization.  He started reaching out to colleagues in his department and at other universities. What could they do?  How could they be part of figuring out how to not just live with but potentially reduce polarization?  How could they help illuminate a path for moving forward?

Together, these social scientists brainstormed and then brought to life an ambitious study, the largest of its kind.  This mega-study would test not just one possible way to shift the political polarization dynamic, but multiple ways.  The idea was to electronically put a lot of heads together by crowdsourcing – and then testing the effectiveness of – a range of strategies for reducing partisan animosity, reducing support for undemocratic practices, and reducing support for partisan violence.

Robb and his colleagues named it the “Strengthening Democracy Challenge” (SDC), and they put out a call for interventions to achieve these ends.  Oh, and these interventions could be no more than eight minutes long.  And had to be virtual. 

These social scientists weren’t sure what kind of response they were going to get, so they were both surprised and delighted when 252 interventions were submitted – an avalanche of interventions!  Lots of other people, it turned out, were concerned about political polarization and looking for ways to temper it.

The Civity Storytelling intervention was one of the 252.


Civity grew out of conversations between Co-Founders Malka Kopell and Palma Strand comparing our experiences with communities that were able to successfully tackle tough issues such as ratcheting up public school quality and achievement, balancing local government budgets, and preserving breathable air.  These communities, we saw, had a “secret sauce” that made it possible for distinct and different parts of the community to pull together.  That secret sauce was relationship.  We called that culture of connecting across difference with respect and empathy “civity,” and we created an organization – Civity – to support people in creating that culture.

Relationships that connect disparate groups don’t need to be deep and intimate.  These relationships aren’t, as we say in our workshops, necessarily about being “BFF’s.”  Instead, these are “even though you are different from me, I see you as a person and a member of my community” relationships.  These respect-and-empathy relationships weave a loose but robust social fabric.  They build the social muscle that communities need to thrive.

At Civity, we zeroed in on the “secret relationship sauce.”  We developed practices and eventually trainings to support people in intentionally building the relational infrastructure for their own communities.  The core of this civity work was and is one-on-one, story-sharing conversations between people who are and acknowledge that they are different.  Sharing stories gets them below the surface, where they can glimpse the complexity and humanity of other people. 

After a decade of seeing connection emerge from intentional conversation, we knew that being part of these conversations gives people a frame and a boost for connecting across social differences.  When we heard the SDC call, we wondered, “Is it possible to provide an experience similar to that real-time, person-to-person conversation in a virtual, one-way format???” 

We decided to try.

The Civity Storytelling Intervention

In addition to the one-way format, there was another significant aspect of the SDC that gave us pause: The Challenge focused on the political divide. Its design was to test the effect of each intervention on three indicators specifically related to partisan politics: Partisan animosity, support for undemocratic practices, and support for partisan violence.

Civity, in contrast, works with many differences that can splinter communities – differences such as race and ethnicity, economics, immigration status, religion, geography… as well as politics. In fact, we see political divides as an amalgam of many differences.  Also, politics tends to include a lot of “head,” while these other, identity-based differences almost always touch people’s “hearts.”  And “heart” is where relationship lives.

The intervention we developed, Civity Storytelling: Expanding the Pool of People Who Matter, features short, 45-second videos with five different people.  The intervention describes them as “a white woman from rural Nebraska; a Latina immigrant living in Pittsburgh; an older Southern white man; a young Black woman from Los Angeles; and a lifelong Silicon Valley Republican.”

Before the five videos, some text and an introductory animated video set the scene.  The text prepares the viewer to go below the surface: “But these labels are not all they are. Let them surprise you.”  And the animated video highlights the relational power people have in their everyday lives – the power to build a civity culture through their actions and interactions.

After the five videos, additional text and another animated video highlight how a partisan label can’t capture the complexity of people. This final part of the intervention also makes explicit the connection between a “we all belong” frame and a well-functioning democracy. 

We submitted our story-based, heart-based, multiple-difference-based intervention to the SDC.

Over time, we learned that 252 interventions had been submitted. And then we got the news: The Challenge’s panel of experts had selected the 25 most promising interventions to test in the study, and the Civity Storytelling intervention was one of the 25.


The Mega-Study

Robb Willer and his team of social scientists got to work.  Adhering to standard academic protocols, they tested each of the 25 interventions selected.  They also tested a control group that was not exposed to any of the interventions.  In all, over 32,000 people participated in the study.

The team looked at the effects of each intervention on the three articulated qualities that they had identified as related to political polarization: partisan animosity, support for undemocratic practices, and support for partisan violence.  The team also looked at a number of other characteristics that they thought might be related to polarization, including:

  • Social distrust
  • Social distance (how different social groups relate to each other)
  • Biased evaluation of politicized facts
  • Opposition to bipartisan cooperation
  • Support for undemocratic candidates

The team assessed the durability of observed effects by circling back and testing again beginning two weeks later.  And then they ran the numbers.  (The Supplementary Materials to the paper that was submitted to Science earlier this year exceeded 300 pages.)

As the story that the data were telling came into focus, several important findings emerged. Three are spotlighted here:

First, 22 of the 25 interventions tested measurably reduced partisan animosity (p. 28).  That’s almost all of them.  This means that reducing partisan animosity isn’t pie-in-the-sky.  Instead, it’s possible, even with the light touch of an eight-minutes-or-less virtual intervention.  This is the headline of the Challenge’s results: There is A Path Out of Polarization.

Second, the interventions that reduced partisan animosity took various approaches.  Some interventions highlighted the experience of connecting relationally across difference.  Others revealed that “out-partisans” were more sympathetic and less scary than people might have thought.  Still others offered a sobering window into what can happen when democratic norms fray.  This is the Challenge’s subheading: There are Many Paths Out of Polarization.

Third, constellations of effects became apparent, with some effects being closely related to other effects and others somewhat surprisingly unrelated.  For example, partisan animosity appears closely related to social distrust and somewhat more loosely related to support for undemocratic candidates or practices.  Support for partisan violence, in contrast, appears to be only weakly related to partisan animosity, suggesting that support for partisan violence may arise from other sources. (p. 30)

As with any complex phenomenon, then, there are multiple dimensions to polarization: 

  • Partisan animosity, the diffuse attitudinal aspect of polarization, is closely associated with a range of other diffuse attitudinal social indicators such as social trust and social distance that measure a general sense of social solidarity.  
  • Support for undemocratic practices, a more focused attitudinal aspect, is connected to the diffuse indicators but less closely, suggesting that social solidarity or lack thereof does correlate to some degree with policy views. 
  • And support for partisan violence, a heightened level of hostility, has other causes and may not be the inevitable or even a likely outgrowth of partisan animosity.

Civity Storytelling, Social Trust, and Democracy

The Civity team was thrilled when the study’s results came out.  Civity Storytelling was among the most effective (#4) in reducing partisan animosity, and it was also flagged as having that effect and reducing support for undemocratic practices as well. (Note: In the paper, Civity Storytelling was assigned the new name Sympathetic Personal Narratives.)

We were most excited by the study’s finding that Civity Storytelling was #1 of all the interventions tested in increasing social trust.  (pp. 113-114). The study found that social trust correlates strongly not only with reduced partisan animosity but also with decreased feelings of social distance and less bias vis-à-vis politicized facts.  (p. 30) Social trust, that is, enables people in different social groups to see commonality and to hear what people who are unlike them have to say.  In civity terms, social trust aligns with respect (seeing others as part of “us”) and empathy (acknowledging others’ stories). 

Social trust, which has been declining in the U.S., is a measure of the overall health of the relational infrastructure that serves as the foundation for a functioning democracy.  People’s general trust in each other and belief that others can be trusted is a primary ingredient for the give-and-take of democratic governance and decision-making that community members accept and abide by.  Social trust spans all social differences, not just partisan affiliation. 

Social trust makes it possible for us to be different without being divided. As the Civity Storytelling intervention states: “Democracy offers a vision for getting along and working together, even when we don’t know each other, disagree, or have different views or values.”  When differences are not divides, they make our communities and our nation more resilient because they mean that we have a broader range of ideas and a rich set of ways to address the collective problems we face.

Civity relationships recognize that we are all different and we are “all in this together.”  The Civity Storytelling intervention and the Strengthening Democracy Challenge show that civity relationships are possible.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Creating a civity culture is something that any of us, all of us do.  Watch – and share – the Civity Storytelling intervention.  Convene a group of people for a Civity workshop. Or schedule a conversation with one of the organizations that focuses on bridging. Or organize a gathering to build social solidarity across any social divide.

Or simply make the intention and take the time to see someone who is different from you as a member of your community – to acknowledge them and share stories. 

There is a path out of polarization. 


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