Today, some of America’s top historians, the likes of Doris Kearns Goodwin and John Meacham, are expressing grave concerns about the future of our nation. Their research has identified strong parallels between the U.S. today and conditions in the 1850s, just before the Civil War, including significant levels of distrust in elections, massive disinformation campaigns, and a rising secessionist movement. Relatedly, in How Civil Wars Start, political scientist Barbara F. Walter offers hard evidence that conditions in America today are ripe for civil war—and suggests that if it comes it will look different from what transpired here in 1861. She writes, “If a second civil war breaks out in the U.S., it will be a guerrilla war fought by multiple small militias spread around the country.” One startling indicator of this is the acute spike in incidence of sabotage on our critical infrastructure across the U.S., including several attacks on power substations across five states last Christmas day.
The truth is, for decades now, America has shown rampant spikes in political obstructionism, incivility, tribalism, distrust in one another and our institutions, and support for political violence. This pernicious, runaway form of polarization has Red and Blue Americans physically moving away from members of the other party and into their political tribes, a condition found elsewhere to be a primary driver of political violence and civil war.
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But most of us (upwards of 67%) are actually tired of division. We want peace in our families, calm in our communities, and unity in America. If you’re one of them, you are part of a vast majority of your fellow Americans. The good news is that there is hope, and you have a powerful role to play.
Given that our politicians seem to be severely handcuffed currently when it comes to uniting the country (and are often some of the main instigators of the toxicity), as researchers and organizers of civil discourse, we felt an urgent need to provide everyday Americans a simple first step out of the toxic vortex—a step from pain and fear toward hope and strength. In fact, the process often starts with you and something we like to call the “Political Courage Challenge.”
The Political Courage Challenge is not a workshop, a TED talk, or a lecture on civility. In other words, it is not business as usual. Rather, it is a free, online resource that offers a menu of micro-exercises each day (that take from five minutes on up) for 4 weeks, to help us start to break free from our culture of contempt. It first focuses on our own habits, then on reintroducing honesty in our political ingroups, next on addressing politically-estranged relationships, and finally on tackling shared community concerns.
We tried out the Challenge last summer. While at times challenging, it was also engaging, surprisingly satisfying, and we all left wanting more. Here is a taste of our experiences of the Challenge over the first week.
Mapping out your toxicity.
We began the Challenge by taking the Toxicity Inventory, which prompted us to consider specific places in our lives that are currently being affected by toxic polarization. We found that beginning with this exercise helped to motivate us to put time into the Challenge (misery can motivate) and guided our choice of exercises to those aspects of our lives where we most needed it.
Peter: I found myself to be quite obsessed with following political news throughout the day—so constantly ingesting outrage. I also felt stressed by having to navigate the increasing constraints on free speech at Columbia University where I work, resulting in feeling a need for constant self-censorship while teaching, in meetings and when speaking publicly. It seemed like at any minute I could misspeak and be called out publicly or worse, as I’d witnessed happened to other colleagues. I’d also completely stopped talking with some of my long-time neighbors in my building in New York because of the extreme political views they voiced. So, my media habits, workplace culture, and neighborhood were good places to start.
Pearce: I was stuck by how quick I am to assume and judge someone’s political identity based on one offhand comment during my Bible study group last week. Ironic right? When toxic polarization has warped our thinking in spaces all about grace and loving our neighbor, we have a problem. This was a wakeup call for me to resist this poison making me someone I don’t want to be.
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Is change even possible?
Another exercise we tried invited us to complete the Implicit Change Theory Inventory, which asked questions about how feasible we saw partisan change being in the U.S. today. In other words, will those people or our politics ever really change?
Studies conducted in deeply-divided societies—like Israel and Palestine—have found that disputants’ basic assumptions about whether change is possible in their situation has significant effects on if and how they address them. If they view change as impossible, their choices are only to disengage or fight. But, even just hearing a member of the opposition discussing how they had changed over time from more militant to peaceful, often opened the listener up to feeling like they could engage with their side more constructively.
Pearce: I am a perennial optimist, so I found that I am inclined to see change as possible. But the exercise got me thinking about individuality, the fact that our opposing groups are made up of unique and complex individuals, each of whom has the capacity to choose their own path. The toxicity comes in when we fear “them” all as a threat. I reflected on why I feel threatened by people unlike me, and if I might be the one who needs to change.
How far gone am I?
These assessments on partisanship told us a lot about ourselves. They are adapted from the Pew Research Center, and include both measures of affective polarization, or how warm-to-cold you feel toward members of our political parties, and a measure of ideological consistency, which is the degree to which your positions on different political issues cluster together into tribal mindsets.
Peter: I found that my sentiments for both political parties were fairly cold—I felt fed up with both—although with a little less chill toward Democrats. However, the strength of my attitudes on the 10 policy issues listed in the assessment were much more extreme than I had assumed—and my partisan consistency across the issues was, let’s say, unfortunate. So, yes, I’m pretty far gone.
Pearce: I shared Peter’s coolness towards members of both parties, including my own. But as I answered the questions, I realized I wasn’t picturing an average Republican or Democrat but rather, some of the more extreme and offensive elements. So perhaps I wasn’t grading fairly. I was surprised that I no longer feel as strongly about many of the issues listed and that my opinions zig zagged between the columns. Maybe all these years trying to listen first to challenging perspectives has complicated the narrative and made things less black and white for me?
How to put forward our best selves
Research has found that our social models (people we look up to and emulate) often have a quiet but profound influence on our life. So, this week we asked ourselves, “Who is the best person I know who shows tolerance and compassion when in a difficult conflict? What is it about this person that allows them to do so?”
Peter: I had two people come to mind immediately—my oldest brother, Bob, a one-time Catholic seminarian and local rock star, who somehow often managed to be a wise listener and friend rather than a fighter when in conflict, and my colleague Andrea, who works in situations of deadly international conflict, and who often incredibly finds ways to contact, connect with, listen to and hear members of some of the most vilified militant groups in the world—at times to surprisingly fruitful effect. I had witnessed both individuals showing up in tense conflicts with a fierce but warm intelligence, equanimity, and a strong sense of optimism.
Pearce: I thought about my fiancé Lauren who refuses to allow social or political categories to influence how she interacts with a massive spectrum of individuals in her role with Durham Magazine. I preach about recognizing dignity in our fellow Americans and extending grace. Lauren shows me what that looks like day in and day out.
We both see the Challenge as one way to begin to shake off the culture of outrage we often feel trapped in, and to learn more about the people and groups in our world working to keep the peace. Take the two of us for example. We are both professional “conflict resolvers” and depolarization “bridge-builders.” However, by taking this Challenge, we learned some hard but helpful truths about ourselves in the current climate—and a bit about what we need to stop and start doing to be part of the solution.
Nonprofits Starts With Us, the Listen First Coalition, and the Bridging Movement Alignment Council are employing the Political Courage Challenge in the run-up to The National Week of Conversation. Follow this link to learn more.
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