How, short of civil war, does a nation typically work through periods of intense social polarization? In the United States we face persistent racial and ethnic divisions as well as stark income and asset inequalities. We’re currently experiencing these differences in the context of some very uncivil election year rhetoric and the emergence of a new kind of American class consciousness characterized by the Occupy Movement.
Given these polarizing forces, what is the glue that keeps contemporary American society from spinning apart? Is it simple inertia, a kind of consumerist satiety? Do we ever in fact learn to resolve our differences, or do they come into greater or lesser focus depending on the whims of our commentariat? If we manage somehow to work through our divisions, where does this bridging work happen?
It’s not the first time in recent history that we’ve come to a perceived boiling point. In a 1995 book titled Beyond Individualism, Michael Piore wrote about a “social deficit” created in the 1980s and early 90s that eventually led to increased political mobilization and social instability. A pivotal event of that era, according to Piore, was President Reagan’s crushing of the federal air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981, an action that “galvanized anti-union managerial factions in a whole variety of industries and occupations where union organization had previously been unassailable.” It was open season on organized labor. The wealthiest Americans saw a marked increase in their standard of living while the incomes of blue collar workers declined. The savings and loan crisis and its attendant bailout presaged our contemporary financial market meltdown and moved some commentators to dub the period between 1985 and 1995 the “Looting Decade.”
Political life also took a nasty turn. The Bush campaign’s Willie Horton ads in 1988 alienated black Americans, while the family values rhetoric of the 1992 campaign targeted single mothers, feminists, and gays and lesbians. Against this backdrop of political turmoil, identity groups grew in visibility and pressed their claims on American society. According to Piore, we could not, during this fiscally lean era, opt to settle these claims through massive social spending. All of this created an atmosphere of tension and instability, perhaps not substantially different in feeling and tone from the one we’re currently experiencing.
To address this increased polarization, Piore suggested that politicians and policymakers champion the borderlands, institutions in which “social claimants” could cross group boundaries and communicate their needs and concerns to society at large. Through dynamic give-and-take “political conversations” in these borderland institutions, marginalized identity groups could become agents in the creation of a new national culture. Participants in these discussions would interpret their actions to themselves and others in ways that acknowledge the effects of one community of meaning upon another. Perhaps on occasion these discussants would even celebrate their inevitable clashes of interpretation.
There’s so much that’s compelling about Piore’s vision of the borderlands, rooted, as it appears to be, in Aristotle’s view of Man as the “political animal.” Somewhere between Wall Street and the Occupy Movement’s encampments in Zucotti Park there would be a space where both bankers and activists could plead their cases. Ideally the 1% would get a clearer sense of the effect of their actions on people with modest means, while the 99% would better understand the economic system that for better or for worse implicates us all.
Unfortunately, in twenty years or so of nonprofit work, I’ve known only a handful of organizations* that fit the description of a borderland institution. First, most civil society organizations are segregated by race, ethnicity, class, and the other divisions that borderland institutions are expected to bridge. Even when these organizations are not segregated, they seldom make it their mission to champion give-and-take conversations across group boundaries. From my own experience of participation in diversity trainings, poverty summits, and other intergroup meetings, these bridging conversations are fiendishly difficult to pull off.
Of course the mixing of people from different backgrounds happens outside the context of civil society organizations, in such venues as grocery stores, sports stadiums, parade routes, and popular music concerts. But these are not typically places consecrated to boundary-crossing deliberation and the forging of a new civic culture. The fact that Piore dubs his institutions “borderlands” suggests how marginal this kind of discussion has become. Perhaps in some real or imagined past we talked through our differences in the town square or the agora. In these nefarious times, however, we’ve pushed these conversations to the edges of civic life, we’ve made them exceptional rather than central to the political and other processes that shape our national character.
Many of us who initially saw great promise in the ability of the Internet to provide virtual “bridging” spaces have been disappointed. Blogs, message boards, and other social media sites have self-segregated in predictable ways, and there are many characteristics of the Internet and its use that have gotten in the way of transforming loosely associated individuals into a community of people with shared understandings about the world. Consider, for example, an environmental activist—call him Joe—who wants to use the Internet to discuss the upcoming presidential election with people both inside and outside his ideological frame. He longs to engage others in an extended discussion of the candidates and their views; tactics for engaging the media; and other election season issues. If his experience is anything like mine, he’ll face the following kinds of challenges when he goes online to his favorite social media sites:
- Light’s on but nobody’s home Joe submits a question to a message board here, a social media site there, but can’t depend on getting a timely answer, or any answer at all. Sometimes it takes days to get a response. In any event, he wants something that feels more like a real-time conversation.
- The wrong people at the right time Joe has to contend with the usual trolls, flamers, and hyper-partisans who throw discussions off-topic. He visits his favorite sites, but, as is often the case, few people are present and contributing, and the best minds and moderators are absent.
- Drive-by comments He finds a few warm bodies willing to engage in a discussion of the upcoming election, but they keep straying off-topic. Because nobody really “owns” the discussion, it gets sidetracked easily.
- A million vases for a thousand flowers Nancy, a thoughtful conservative, likes to hang out on Facebook, but Mary, a dyed-in-the wool liberal, would never darken Facebook’s cyber-door. She much prefers Change.org. And so it goes. Joe needs to visit twenty sites to have a prayer of finding what he’s looking for.
I’m not here saying that there are no spaces on the Internet where meaningful bridging conversations can happen. There clearly are. I’m only claiming that the Internet cannot be expected save us from ourselves—our partisanship, our limited attention spans, our attenuated critical thinking and reading skills, our general lack of media literacy. We carry all of this baggage with us on our travels through Cyberspace. There’s a ghost in the machine, and that ghost is us, recreating in our virtual spaces the same barriers that keep us apart in the world where flesh encounters flesh.
Apart from the few civil society organizations specifically dedicated to abetting inter-group conversations, there is one American institution which, I would argue, has the potential to bring the borderlands to scale. Even now its proper functioning depends critically on “translating” the language of one class, one racial group, one gender to the other. That institution is the community foundation.
Here’s a gross simplification of how these translations typically work. Members of a marginalized community either plead their case directly to a community foundation program officer or, more commonly, through some proxy—the director of a nonprofit organization, for example—who submits a grant proposal on behalf of the community in question. The program officer, who has absorbed the middle class norms of his institution, translates this request and its rationale into a form and language that will be acceptable to his largely upper-middle class or wealthy trustees.
The conversation doesn’t just go in one direction—or at least ideally it shouldn’t. There’s a healthy back and forth as one class or group interprets its lived experience, its values, and its aspirations to the other. The conversation is also wide-ranging, including matters of education, the arts, health, economic development, the environment and more. In community foundation board meetings, in particular, we’ll often see a reflection of how inter-class dynamics play themselves out in the broader society; or, if we’re lucky, we’ll begin to see the kind of bridging that can happen in a properly constituted borderland institution.
* E.g., the Public Conversations Project based in Watertown, Massachusetts, which was launched in 1994 when a televised debate on abortion moved one of its founders to explore “how family therapy practices could improve polarized conversations about abortion and other public issues.”