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7 Min Read

Can Empathy Save the Day? How Fostering Familiarity Can Drive Policy and Wins

Key Takeaways: 

  1. The internet and social media has created a filter bubble that increasingly feeds people only content with which they already agree, and this spurs polarization.
  2. By changing our narratives to focus more on commonality and shared values, you can shift public support on these polarizing issues like immigration or LGBTQ rights.
  3. The Moveable Middle is not a myth, nor is it a monolith. The extreme ends of the political spectrum are the noisiest and therefore drive much of the political narrative, but it’s not an accurate reflection of the views most people hold. That said, the “moveable middle” is a complex and diverse set of people who cannot be reached and engaged with a “one size fits all” approach. Deep research is necessary to understand the truly moveable audience of any given issue, and then to target them with communications that will actually reach and move them.

Slide Deck:

Session Summary: 

Polarization in America has drastically increased over the last 15 years as the number of Americans who hold a mix of Democratic and Republican views has diminished. This polarization is aggravated in part by the way people today see their affiliation with either party as not merely political, but also as a part of their identity. Resulting disagreements are becoming increasingly more personal. 

There are at least 4 factors that have contributed to this increased polarization: economic inequality, the internet, a fracturing national media landscape, and a decline in local news. All of these have worked to create a society where people only have to associate and interact with others, news sites, etc, that share their same views and opinions. Where in the 1970s only one half of all newlyweds shared the same political views, today that number has increased to three-quarters. 

While studies and polls will claim that Americans are split 50-50 on our most divisive issues, the reality is far more complex. The far left or far right are in staunch agreement with their side’s view. However, the middle majority tends to actually have a 50-50 split on these issues. We have to find narratives about the big issues like immigration or LGBTQ rights that do not polarize people. Turn “them” into “us” through communication and contact that builds bridges and highlights our common values and identities. Some key strategies for doing that include:

  1. Activating shared values, like family, community, and social good, and shared identities, like parents, sports fans, foodies, etc.
  2. Putting people first in communications, not policy, by again emphasizing shared values and aspirations rather than policy objectives. This will make people more willing to share their stories with their social networks.
  3. Targeting communications at the local level, where a shared sense of community allows for greater trust among participants and a sense of interdependence.

Although national division exists, local communities are far more likely to find common ground. Even non-political engagement can work to decrease isolation and increase social trust, laying the groundwork for potential political action. For example, In areas with neighborhood amenities – coffee shops, libraries, etc – there is decreased isolation and increased social trust. As such, it is important to focus on the local communities and get people talking to each other. The best way to promote change is by motivating and changing communities and groups that already exist. People have to connect and engage in each other’s stories, if they are going to be motivated to care for each other. 

Additional Notes, Quotes, and Interesting Points: 

  •  “People aren’t that far apart on the issues, but they think they are.” – Heidi Overbeck
  • “Trump didn’t win where factories were closing, he won where churches were closing,” Timothy Carney (Alienated America)
  • “Narrative work, the shifting of consciousness and values, is not just a long game, it is the long game. It is not just about finding the right words to spread particular messages, but the ability to activate the underlying values and beliefs behind those messages. It’s about normalizing justice, inclusivity and equity,” Towards New Gravity, The Narrative Initiative. 

Exercises or Questions Asked of the Audience: 

At the beginning the panel posted a live poll asking the audience two questions: 

Q: What are the primary issues people here are working on?

A: Housing, Higher Education, Environment, Health Care, Diversity, Youth Homelessness, Education, Immigration, Health, Conservation (*bold* denotes ones that came up most often)

Q: Is polarization affecting your work?

A: Mostly yes, some other comments as well: “Our events are protested,” “attacks on scientific integrity,” “people refuse to believe it’s a thing,” “It has made policy change slow and blocked equitable solutions,” and from at least one attendee, “Not really.” 

Examples Provided: 

  •  With Regards to Immigration: 
    • Don’t: Talk about how smart, talented, or skilled they are (that commodifies them)
    • Don’t: over talk their struggle story (that alienates them and takes away their agency) 
    • Do: Focus on shared values (i.e. family, community, social good – American’s are not concerned about cultural differences so much as value differences). 
    • Do: focus on shared identities – parents, sports fans, foodies, Game of Thrones fans.
  • Lessons from the LGBTQ fight for Marriage Equality:
    • Don’t: focus too much on the policy changes or legal benefits (doesn’t move people; isn’t a compelling subject for the LGBTQ community to talk about)
    • Do: Focus on universal values, like love and commitment in the fight for marriage equality (helps people find commonality, empowers the base (LGBTQ community) to talk about their experience with family, friends, and strangers). 

Next Steps: 

  • Invest in deep research in order to find strategies that decrease, not increase polarization.
  • Look to build academic partnerships with Universities with social psychology labs that can do these kinds of research projects.

Questions from the Audience:   

Q: When you share resources, how deliberately do you work to make sure your allies are not working against you? 

A: The challenge is to at least at minimum make sure everyone is aware. Research is expensive, so if you can, share your findings. People are often not persuaded, so you have to show them why this is going to work. 

Q: How does one ensure that in using data in your messaging one doesn’t contribute to systemic inequities or polarization? 

A: There’s long term thinking and short term. For example, how one talks about immigration now in 2020 is going to have to satisfy where people are basically at on the issue now, and that looks very, very different from what one wants to do, which is to build a 20 year narrative change. 


These notes were captured by Catherine DeLaura and have been reviewed by the presenters Wendy Feliz, Mohammed Naeem, Heidi Overbeck, and Dan Cox.


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