‘Couples Therapy,’ but for Politics

Growing political polarization is a problem that keeps me up at night. Not because I think it’s bad to have strong opinions, but because of what social scientists call affective polarization: polarization beyond political disagreement, when “ordinary Americans increasingly dislike and distrust those from the other party.” At its worst, affective polarization can lead to hate and dehumanization.

When my colleague Thomas Edsall wrote about affective polarization earlier this year, he quoted Sean Westwood, an associate professor of government at Dartmouth, who said that part of what’s behind today’s intense partisan divide is that “Politicians, instead of focusing on the large list of issues where there is broad agreement in the American public, endlessly re-litigate social divides like gay rights and abortion to mobilize a base they fear will stay home if they focus on the mundane details of pragmatic governance.”

I see this play out when I hear activists suggest that you can’t talk to them about climate change if you don’t agree with their stance on the Israel-Hamas war, or when I see politicians tying approval of military appointments to abortion access. The attitude seems to be: You have to agree with me about everything or you’re my enemy and we can’t work together on anything. It leads to a whole lot of nothing.

Because I cover family policy, the lack of movement on areas of “pragmatic governance” where there is “broad agreement” drives me bonkers. A prime example is federal paid leave, which is popular among voters across the spectrum, yet remains in legislative purgatory, and has for decades. Though there’s a bipartisan working group in Congress on the issue, we’re still a long way from any change, leaving us out of step with most wealthy nations and creating a lot of stress and economic hardship for people just trying to make ends meet while also caring for children or sick family members.

But there’s a group of people of all ideological backgrounds — social conservatives, progressive activists, budget wonks and lots of people in between — that’s been convening over the past year, and that gives me a bit of hope for family policy’s future. It also offers a road map for people who disagree vehemently on issues to have productive conversations and find points of connection. If nothing else, the group’s participants agree that too many American families are struggling, that families should be more of a political priority and that something needs to be done to help them.

The convocation has the somewhat jargony name Convergence Collaborative on Supports for Working Families, and its members let me sit in on one of their guided discussions with the understanding that I would follow the Chatham House Rule — I can report on what was said during the session but not reveal “the identity nor the affiliation” of any speaker.

The group consists of around 30 people and it has met monthly since April. It is directed by Abby McCloskey, who runs a research and consulting firm and was a policy adviser for Jeb Bush’s and Rick Perry’s 2016 presidential campaigns and Howard Schultz’s exploratory 2020 presidential run. The collaborative is funded by the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. With permission, after the meeting I reached out to some of the individuals involved to see if they’d be comfortable talking in general terms about their experiences in the group.

During the initial meetings, the members came up with set of family policy principles they could mostly agree on. The discussion I observed involved them delivering feedback on a draft of a report outlining those principles. At first, I feared this was going to be an absolutely mind-numbing way to spend three hours of my life and that I would have to gently pinch myself to stay awake while listening to a discussion of the budgetary implications of the earned-income tax credit.

Instead, the conversation was spicy while still being respectful, and full of fundamental disagreements that did not seem completely papered over simply for the sake of congeniality. McCloskey described it to me more than once as feeling like “couples therapy,” and it did.

For example, a few people objected to wording in the report about center-based child care that they felt put a thumb on the scale against stay-at-home parents. Others disagreed with that objection, and there was an impassioned back-and-forth about it. Ultimately, the moderator stepped in, restated everyone’s point of view in a neutral way and advised that everyone needn’t agree on every detail to move forward.

I give a lot of credit to that moderator, the aptly named David Fairman, who is a senior mediator at the Consensus Building Institute, for the structure and tone of the discussion. When we spoke on the phone afterward, he explained that C.B.I. is one of “roughly a dozen” similar organizations that help conduct mediation on public issues. His job is to help find common ground among people with different backgrounds and belief systems.

There are three main things Fairman does to facilitate these discussions. The first is to build relationships among participants, so that “they discover that there’s more to them than the battle of tweets that they’ve had or the countering publications or testimony and the identities that they carry with their businesses, with their advocacy groups or whoever.” That kind of humanizing is done partly through guided conversations in breakout groups, and some of it is done more organically through events like in-person cocktail hours.

The second is by getting people to “listen openly” during discussions, which means calming down their “rebuttal minds, the hamster wheel that is almost always turning as we listen to someone with whom we disagree, coming up with the counterarguments,” Fairman explained. Instead, he urges people to ask “clarifying questions, not rhetorical questions, not debating questions.” And he gave this example: “What do you mean by saying that ‘you really feel strongly that the child tax credit should remain universal’? Is it that the most important thing about it is that it’s for everyone? Or is it that you are worried that the political support for it will not be there if it is not universal, or is it something else? I just want to know.”

The third, and I would argue the most difficult component, is trying to get beyond people’s stated positions to their underlying interests, values and principles, to create space “to explore new ways of thinking about the options,” Fairman said. He referred to a disagreement over how generous a child care tax credit or other allowance could be. The group was at an impasse. While they couldn’t agree on the appropriate size of the credit, a new idea emerged: that more flexibility for parents to choose how to spend the credit “over the life cycle of their child would be a win, even if it doesn’t address the question of the absolute amount of funding.”

I also interviewed several members of the group about their experiences. My takeaway was that overall, people were happy to be in conversation with one another, to meet basically agreeable people with totally different ways of framing the problems at hand and to think hard about their own biases. “I think the level of candor was surprising,” said Patrick Brown, a fellow at the right-leaning Ethics and Public Policy Center. “I think everybody committed to coming in with a willingness to critique their own side where necessary and to say frankly where their red lines were.”

But the process was certainly not a cure-all. Many said that they wished they had even more time to work through the document they were creating. Some felt that some fundamental concerns — particularly with regard to race and immigration — weren’t aired thoroughly enough before moving on to the particulars of policymaking. More than one person expressed frustration that systemic racism was not more explicitly addressed and that barriers to accessing currently available benefits weren’t fully interrogated.

While all the participants thought they would have a document at the end of the process that they would be willing to put their names to, some wondered if it would wind up being so watered down that it wouldn’t have “truly moved the needle,” as Lina Guzman, the chief strategy officer at Child Trends, put it, to get more people fired up about these issues.

Even if they come up with something that isn’t earth-shattering, every person I spoke to felt that the process was worthwhile because of the relationships they built. “I think that having created the space to do this is valuable in and of itself, even if what we come out with falls short of what some people might have hoped,” said Katharine Stevens, the founder and chief executive of the Center on Child and Family Policy.

We don’t know what unexpected alliances and priorities might arise in national politics in the coming years. But because these professionals have spent a lot of hours together talking about their deepest values, giving and getting clarity about their beliefs, they may find unexpected sources of support for specific ideas that aren’t yet mainstream.

I came out of observing the discussion mostly wishing that we could all have mediators like Fairman at our holiday tables. We can’t simply wish away the profound disagreements many of us have. But I’ll certainly be trying to ask more clarifying questions of people I don’t agree with. Quieting my rebuttal mind, as a professional opinion haver, will be a rough one, but I’m going to do my best, and I’m going to try to maintain as much good faith as I can muster. We’ll need it in 2024.

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