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After the Election, What Now?

For a polarized nation, where media streams reinforce the divide, a prescription for bridge-building

November 7, 2016
illustration of two groups of paper figures reaching out to each other over a divide

Of the many sensations surrounding this presidential election, one of the most consistent has been sheer disbelief. Americans were blindsided by the popularity of Bernie Sanders, the continual rise of Donald Trump, and the utter disavowal of social and political norms by candidates and citizens alike.

With an end to the campaigning imminent, the time for reflection begins. How did this particular election season unfold the way it did? And how can we rebuild trust and compassion?

Danielle Allen, a professor of education and government at Harvard University and the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, writes about democracy, citizenship, and what it means to sustain an egalitarian society. We asked her to share insight into the divisiveness of the 2016 election — and guidance on how to move forward.

This election has surfaced a lot of angry, hateful rhetoric, which came as a surprise to many. Why was there such a disconnect in American public thought?

We have to start by recognizing that there have always been divides in American public thought. One axis of controversy has been between those who prioritize the value of liberty and those who prioritize the value of equality. The conservative side tends to formulate arguments around the liberty concept, and the liberal side around the equality concept. As it happens, the professional sectors in the last 20 years have been more tied to the equality side of the argument.

It’s fine if there are two different streams of conversation, as long as they’re intermingling, constantly contesting each other. I think it becomes dangerous when they actually separate, so that neither side is moderated by the other side.

Then you have the accidental fact that the changes in our media landscape have led to separation of these two conversational patterns, which we didn’t sufficiently recognize. Text-based media have been more connected to the liberal-equality conversation; more of the TV world has been connected to the conservative-liberty side of the conversation.

It’s fine if there are these two different streams of conversation, as long as they’re intermingling, constantly contesting each other. I think it becomes dangerous when they actually separate, so that neither side is moderated by the other side.

It’s also important to say that this country has had a long history of struggling with the question of race and racism. As a society, we thought we had made a lot of progress against racism. But the rise of the internet has made it possible for very small minorities to find each other and to revive declining views. That took place outside the ambit of the traditional print media, so we didn’t see that part of the conversation developing as clearly as we might have. It caught us by surprise when its new growth suddenly emerged.

How has this election has emphasized the gap between those conversational themes?

Against the backdrop of our fragmented media landscape, Donald Trump is the first candidate not to come from the side of the traditional [text-based] media conversation, but from the media conversation that depends on television and the internet.

I think every major institution and sector whose purposes are intellectual and cultural needs to pursue a project of bridging.

He’s not only amplifying those views that weren’t being heard before. He has been a participant in this alternative conversational universe for the last two decades. He’s helped shape its agenda. His leadership on the birther question was agenda-setting. And he seized the opportunity of an election to amplify the conversation he had been having.

You’ve written and spoken about the idea of developing a more egalitarian society by maximizing “bridging ties” along with “bonding ties.” Can you define those?

These are terms that come from sociology. Bonding ties are ties to people with whom you have many overlapping connections — so ties to family, or people with whom we share a neighborhood, and a religion, so forth. A bridging tie is a tie to somebody with whom you don’t have many overlapping connections at all. You basically have this one thing that’s brought you into contact — perhaps you work in the same place, perhaps you ride the same bus, perhaps you’ve accidentally ended up on the same jury. Research suggests that the more bridging ties there are in a given city or other geographical unit, the more egalitarian the outcomes are, along dimensions like health, education, and job-seeking.

Looking past November 8, how could this idea of increasing our “bridging ties” be used to help rebuild a common trust — addressing grievances aired in this election while rejecting fear and hatred?

I think every major institution and sector whose purposes are intellectual and cultural needs to pursue a project of bridging. I think all media organizations and universities need to revisit the question of how they connect to rural areas specifically. I think that’s the most immediate practical thing we could do to increase the frequency of forming bridging ties.

Could you give an example of what that might look like at the university level?

Research suggests that the more bridging ties there are in a given city, the more egalitarian the outcomes are, along dimensions like health, education, and job-seeking.

In admissions policies, there’s a lot of effort to recruit students from lower-socioeconomic backgrounds. That work is easier to do in urban contexts than rural contexts. In urban contexts, you have concentrations of students in poverty, or near poverty, so you can send fewer admissions office representatives and hit more possible recruits. It’s harder to recruit in rural areas, and I think admissions offices need to scrutinize the question of how they recruit and seek socioeconomic diversity by drawing from those contexts.

Is there a way K-12 education could fit into this idea of bridging ties?

Well, it’s challenging because our K-12 education system is so demographically segmented at this point. As one thinks about cultivating students for college and career readiness, I think we should also cultivate them for civic readiness, which entails the competencies that support the development of bridging ties. I think we need to make that sort of self-consciousness part of our curriculum. Then the challenge is how to give young people the chance to practice those bridging ties, given the demographic segmentation of our schools. I think we need some creativity in addressing that question.

The problems we have with issues of civility and bullying on social media flow from the fact that we’re not doing enough to fuel healthy bridging interactions in person.

What about digital media? Can young people use technology to advance causes and create communities with people who are different from them?

Social media tools are important, but I don’t think we can rely on them in this space. I think actually the problems that we have with issues of civility and bullying on social media platforms flow from the fact that we’re doing insufficient in-person work on the standards for healthy bridging interactions. I think the current state of affairs in social media is a symptom of the fact that we’re not doing enough to help young people learn how to conduct bridging relationships in healthy ways. We need to start off with in-person interactions, and have them build those skills first. That should actually help improve the state of affairs in social media contexts, too.

Additional Resources

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Civics and History Diversity and Inclusion Education Policy