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To Bridge Divisions, We Need Civil Dialogues

One result of the elections stands out as clear as any such finding can be: the conventional wisdom — that Trump was appealing merely to his base, and that unless he learned to reach out to others, he is toast — was wrong. About half of all Americans voted for him. The nation is more or less evenly divided. The challenge of bridging the social divides, to heal the society, and the challenge to from a stable majority, to allow for effective government, is much greater than was assumed before the election.

What can be done to begin to bridge the divisions? President Biden can make some more conciliatory speeches. He can include members of the other party in his cabinet, as Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush did. And he can appoint a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Voluntary associations can set up a series of civil dialogues for people to speak with each other across the aisle so to speak. For these to work, participants would have to agree to abide by what might be called rules of engagement. Namely, they would commit to attack issues but not demonize each other, to advance their positions rather than denigrating those of the other side, and so on.

Above all, civil dialogues must meet two requirements. The first is that the participants must identify themselves with their real names, not using aliases. Many online platforms allow people to post anonymously. Anonymity is fine for expressing dissent, but it often has led to very vile expressions, rather than the civil give-and-take that is essential for community-building and democratic discourse. The second requirement is that the dialogues must take place over extended periods of time, instead of merely existing as a one-time town hall meeting or a Zoom fest. It takes time for people to get know each other, to understand why they differ, to find common ground, and to give and take in order to reach a consensus. Only extended dialogue can help build bridges.

Since 2016, I have been curating and moderating Civil Dialogues at Arena Stage in Washington, DC. So far, we have had 25 Civil Dialogue events. For some, we had supporters of Trump and those of Biden. For one, we had a professor who argued that the next election does not matter — that there is little difference between Trump and Biden, that we need a revolution — and the head of a liberal think tank who argued that nothing is more crucial than the outcome of the next election. In another one, we had two China hawks who argued that China is posing an existential threat to the US and the free world and two other experts who held that we could quite readily coexist with China. All discussions were civil. Nearly all of the dialogues are available on YouTube, where you can see them for yourself.

Each Arena Stage Civil Dialogue took place on only one evening, and the events were local (when they were still in-person events — the pandemic forced them to become virtual). Hence, with the help of a Silicon Valley tech company, we built an online platform, CivilDialogues.org, that is now available every day, all the time, for people who are willing to identify themselves and join in a civil discussion. To measure whether or not these dialogues lead to shared understanding, to consensus, the platform provides for regular voting, like a virtual town hall meeting. To determine if such a platform can help bridge the divides that tear America apart, we need people — like the ones who reads these lines — to join the dialogues.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and professor of international affairs at The George Washington University.

The new platform is CivilDialogues.org