dialogue and de-radicalization

Some people argue that the deep problem with US democracy is polarization. I have some doubts about that thesis.* However, let’s assume it contains at least some truth. One possible remedy is direct: recruit people from opposite sides of our political divide to engage in dialogue so that they develop empathy and perhaps discover some common ground.

This remedy implies a moral equivalence between the ends of the spectrum, which I cannot endorse at a time when one end is flirting with fascism. It may imply a bias toward the political center. And it asks people who are targeted by hate to participate in encounters that may be difficult or even dangerous for them. I appreciated Stanford Prof. Hakeem Jefferson’s response to an experiment that brought representative Americans together across ideological divides:

Fair enough, but then how should we go about de-radicalizing people? In a report for the Democracy Fund, Andrew Blum assembles evidence from international sources that support eight types of intervention:

  1. Assistance to individuals who want to exit from violent-extremist groups
  2. Targeted outreach to individuals who are at risk of extremism
  3. Voluntary codes of conduct for political and community leaders and media figures
  4. Intergroup engagement
  5. Setting norms against violence in existing groups
  6. Peace education
  7. Documenting and tracking acts of political violence
  8. Improving police-community relations

Number 4 on this list encompasses dialogues between people who hold strongly opposing views. Thus dialogue is one of several strategies for de-radicalization that have empirical support. Blum argues that many of these approaches should be combined in a coordinated way, and he offers examples of communities, like Medellin and Oakland, that have done so.

Similarly, john a. powell argues that dialogue (or more precisely, “bridging”) is a remedy for toxic polarization, but only if the process attends to deep inequalities. People should not be asked to talk under conditions of oppression.

We should address all forms of violent political extremism. In the USA today, I think a large majority of the people who would meet a neutral definition of violent extremists would be right-wingers, but if there are left-wing extremists (or centrist ones), they need attention, too.

I encountered both sources cited above at an excellent meeting of the Kettering Foundation. See Andrew Blum (2021) The Costs of Political Violence in the United States: The Benefits of Investing in Communities, Democracy Fund; and john a. powell, Overcoming Toxic Polarization: Lessons in Effective Bridging, 40(2) Law & Ineq. 247 (2022), DOI: https://doi.org/10.24926/25730037.645.

*class inversion as an alternative to the polarization thesis; affective polarization is symmetrical; the “America in One Room” experiment etc.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.