The Antidote to Polarization

My wife Kathleen and I recently hosted a salon dinner for a small but diverse group of Summit community members at our home in San Francisco for a conversation with Robb Willer, Stanford PACS Faculty Co-Director and Director of the Polarization and Social Change Lab. Robb’s recent groundbreaking work on strengthening democracy in the U.S. was the springboard for the conversation and the discussion that ensued was an inspiring reminder of what makes this community so special—and so important.

Much of Robb’s work since the start of the pandemic has been centered around understanding polarization, its consequences, and its remedies. He and his collaborators began to significantly shift the conversation on polarization when they released the results of their 2022 megastudy on Strengthening Democracy, which explored the effectiveness of 25 concrete intervention strategies for reducing partisan animosity and anti-democratic attitudes in the U.S.

While I assume most of us would agree that the current divided state of partisan politics is generally destructive, Robb encourages us to treat the current state of affairs with even more gravity. 

He argues that for democracy, and for society writ large, to thrive we must be able to imagine the world from others’ perspectives. Even if we disagree with their worldview we must find a way to accommodate them in our own understanding of the world. Something as simple as sharing an everyday experience with people who openly espouse different political perspectives could be a meaningful step in this direction, this Fast Company article about Robb’s research offers one such example.

For me, the opportunity to engage deeply with scholars like Robb about their work is always illuminating, intriguing, and provocative. It is what makes my involvement with PACS so worthwhile and what inspired me to want members of the Summit community to engage with this work in a similar way, beyond the biennial conference. We had intentionally assembled a group with diverse opinions and backgrounds and over the course of the evening, it became clear to me that our salon modeled what might be possible in our country and gave me a glimmer of hope about our future. 

It was also a striking reminder of this community’s unique commitment to address big challenges and have hard conversations in the service of good. We are all fortunate to have open access to the kind of timely, relevant, and cutting-edge knowledge that Stanford PACS produces to equip those of us who are ready for action.