Now is our best chance to scale up the efforts of organizations working to bridge divides because so many people are feeling the pain of bad outcomes.
The insurrection on Capitol Hill has been a tremendous wake-up call.
Anybody who has paid attention to politics in recent years has worried about the straining of "our bonds of affection" in our United States. While billions of dollars go toward partisan warfare and division each year — both electoral and advocacy — little funding is invested in civic peace initiatives.
I'm part of a group of efforts called the "bridging community," working to restore our bonds of affection. I recently heard from a colleague that key funders, even before the events in D.C., announced a major increase in support of organizations in the bridging space.
That is wonderful news, as this year is likely our best chance to shift the ever more polarized trajectory that makes it impossible for us to intelligently address so many critical issues.
Then I learned that this planned investment in the bridging movement could be expected in the second half of 2021. Given the eruption of violence, this fails to recognize the urgency of strengthening and protecting our democracy.
In addition to being a co-founder of LivingRoomConversations.org, I am a co-founder of MoveOn.org. The impact of MoveOn has been enormous because we got our timing right on multiple occasions. Timing is the difference between massive impact and barely being noticed.
We experienced three viral periods in the course of the 10 years in which I was part of leadership. The first was in 1998 during the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal. The second was in 2002 during the "Let the Inspections Work" anti-war effort. The third was in 2008 during the Obama presidential race. In each case, things changed substantially when the right action met the moment of public demand.
Americans are yearning for change
Punctuated equilibrium is one way to describe moments of meaningful transition — in nature, technology and politics there tend to be times of significant change and times of relative stability.
There is a massive yearning for positive change in this country. The ugliness, anger, distrust, division and now violence that seem to characterize our political life is almost universally unpopular. Yet we appear to be trapped in a cycle of devolution. Is it possible to snap out of this trance?
A new president has been sworn in. He has spoken about the need for us to be one nation. The bad habits, the negative expectations and the loss of trust that characterize recent political experience might be changeable at this time. Let’s be clear: presidents can talk about what they are going to do, but unless they have a strong foundation their talk does not translate into effective action. Grassroots support is necessary for effective action.
Now is the time to show up with love, hope, curiosity and a refusal to continue as usual. There is a diverse, wonderful bridging movement of organizations offering all kinds of opportunities to recognize each other's human dignity, understand our differences, celebrate our shared values, fix systems that we agree are broken, work on complex challenges together, and restore our capacity to respect and care for people with whom we disagree.
These organizations are committed to creating human connections across differences because when we see each other’s humanity and care about each other, we can imagine win/win solutions. We need to create structural adjustments that reward collaboration and diminish the incentives for polarization.
Small number can make big difference
We can collectively create a tipping point. Compelling research by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, shows that just 3.5% of the population actively and peacefully participating for change would be sufficient to create the culture change we are seeking. Living in a culture with norms of respect and trust are worthy of our wholehearted efforts.
It is a dangerous time. But now is our best chance to scale up the efforts of organizations working to bridge divides because so many people are feeling the pain of alienation and bad outcomes due to an inability to do the work that needs to be done, even when we agree.
We are as far from the next presidential election as we can be. This is no time to dither and attempt to come up with some grand unified plan of bridging. Most grand unified plans don’t actually work anyway.
Numerous vibrant efforts each finding their niche, collaborating or not, is more robust and realistic. We do not know what tomorrow brings. We do know that incredibly talented leaders and organizations need more support immediately to maximize the opportunities that next year offers.
This movement needs the funding resources now to ramp up efforts to create meaningful change.
In other words, stepping boldly into this moment is likely the difference between success and failure. If we do not create a strong movement to shift our political, media and personal culture in the first part of this year, we will have let the best opportunity for transformation slip through our fingers.
By the second half of the year, people will have become accustomed to the new normal, and without another calamitous event, dramatic change is unlikely to happen. I do not want to wake up in 2024 to another election as toxic as this one.
And for funders who haven't invested in the bridging space and domestic peace building: What are you waiting for?
Joan Blades is a co-founder of Living Room Conversations, an open-source effort to rebuild respectful discourse across ideological, cultural and party lines while embracing our shared values. She also is a co-founder of MomsRising.org and MoveOn.org.