The Time Has Come To Take Toxic Partisanship Head On

Photo by Jules D. on Unsplash


Things are f — ed up

  1. Toxic partisans have contempt for those in the other party, insult them, won’t listen to ideas outside their party, refuse to compromise and put their own interests over the country.
  2. We estimate three-quarters of elected officials are toxic partisans while research shows only one-third of regular people display toxic partisan characteristics.
  3. Toxic partisanship leads to zero-sum thinking, revenge politics and gridlock.
  4. If we don’t reverse toxic partisanship things will only get worse.

But…we’ve got a plan

  1. Educate: We’re gonna teach people about toxic partisanship by translating dense research into easy to understand content.
  2. Identify: We’re going to make it easy to identify toxic partisans by scoring elected officials on a toxic partisan scale using public data.
  3. Empower: Our app will make it easy to root out toxic partisanship by enabling people to micro fund those running against toxic partisans and to micro fund post partisans (the opposite of toxic partisans).
  4. Connect: We’ll also make it simple to connect with leaders and people who share values to power up the movement.
  5. Enjoy: We’re designing the app as a game to make engaging a delightful experience.

Tell me more about this toxic partisanship thing

You’ve seen it, and you’ve felt it. You can detect a toxic partisan by the way they speak and act.

Toxic partisans not only look down on those in other political parties, they have contempt for them. Toxic partisans love to trigger political debates (in person or on social media) so they can prove how “right” they are. They genuinely believe they know what’s best for the country and if everybody would shut up and just follow their advice all of our problems would be solved already. Toxic partisans don’t need to hear out the other side because they’ve already thought about their arguments and can explain to you why they are all flawed. Some toxic partisans are more polite, but you can smell their political righteousness anyway.

Toxic partisanship is a contagious disease infecting Americans from every walk of life and political ideology. We especially see it running rampant among those in positions of power and in the media. The more people are exposed to toxic partisanship, the more it spreads within them. It leads to zero-sum thinking, revenge politics and gridlock. To put it bluntly, toxic partisanship is ripping our country apart.

At ChangeRoots, we are attempting to bring intellectual rigor to how we define and evaluate toxic partisanship. We’ve been analyzing a spectrum of research across a variety of disciplines on the subject. While it’s still a work in progress, our current model identifies seven core characteristics of toxic partisanship:

  1. Ideological orthodoxy — refusal to entertain views or solutions outside a predetermined set of ideals or compromise.
  2. Contempt for the other side — a mixture of hate and disgust for those in the other party characterized by insulting them or using dehumanizing language.
  3. Focus on differences — maximizing attention on that which divides us from those in other political parties.
  4. Self-interest — prioritizing votes, statements and actions to win re-election over what is in the best long-term interest of constituents.
  5. Zero-sum mindset (win-lose) — the belief anything the other party considers a “win” is necessarily a loss for your side. And vice versa.
  6. Assuming negative intent — assuming the worst possible interpretation of any action or statement by someone in the other party.
  7. Self-righteousness — the belief there is one right and moral way to act or think, your way.

Take a moment and think of someone you know personally or an elected official who exhibits these qualities. We all know far too many. To be clear, toxic partisanship has nothing to do with which party you identify with. There are equal amounts of toxic partisan Democrats as there are toxic partisan Republicans.

So how big is the problem?

A landmark study conducted on polarization by Common Cause identified seven distinct groups of Americans they call our “Hidden Tribes of America: distinguished not by who they are or what they look like, but what they believe.”

The study broke down the country into the Wings (the most right-wing and left-wing groups) and the Exhausted Majority (everybody else).

“[For those in the Wings] tribalism runs deep in their thinking. Their distrust and fear of the opposing side drives many of the people in these groups, and they have especially negative opinions of each other. When people today speak about how Americans seem to hate each other, they’re usually talking about the opinions and behaviors of the Wings…
In contrast, the remaining two-thirds of Americans at the center show more diversity in their political views, express less certainty about them, and are more open to compromise and change — even on issues that we all tend to consider highly polarizing.” — Hidden Tribes Study

At ChangeRoots, we consider the 15% most left-wing and 15% most right-wing part of the population to be toxic partisans. While toxic partisans represent only 30% of the population, they, unfortunately, dominate the national conversation and represent a much larger portion of the media and elected officials. We estimate as much as 75% of elected officials and political journalists are toxic partisans, according to our definition.

How do we fight toxic partisanship?

Now that we’ve been able to obtain some clarity of the characteristics of toxic partisanship and the severity of danger it poses to the country, the time has come to develop an antidote. We can’t wait until we perfectly understand all of the different ways toxic partisanship manifests. We have to begin reversing the spread of toxic partisanship immediately if we want a chance to revitalize our republic.

Post partisanship is our proposed antidote to toxic partisanship. Post partisanship is a set of values and characteristics that represent what our best leaders should embody. Think of it as the opposite of toxic partisanship. To give you an example, our girl Ariel exemplified what it means to be a post partisan while Ursula embodied toxic partisanship.

What actually is post partisanship?

We want leaders that focus on common ground, look for win-win solutions, make decisions based on evidence and show civility towards all people, including those in the other party. To put it simply, our leaders should be the people we want our children to grow up to be.

While our research continues, we’ve stood on the shoulders of many great thinkers to develop an initial set of characteristics that represent post partisanship:

  1. Evidence-based decision making — using the best available research evidence — in addition to citizen preferences and personal values — to develop, explain and vote on policy. Regardless of party platform.
  2. Adventurous civility — Respecting the dignity and ideas of those with whom you profoundly disagree, while acting upon your own beliefs.
  3. Common ground focus — maximizing attention on that which we share with those in other political parties.
  4. Public service — Doing what you believe is in the best interest of the public even if it hurts your chances of re-election (e.g. pissing off big donors to do what you believe is right)
  5. Non-zero sum mindset (win-win) — The belief there is always an outcome where all stakeholders benefit and a commitment to put in whatever effort it takes to discover that outcome.
  6. Assuming positive intent — Assuming the best possible interpretation of any action or statement by someone, until proven otherwise.
  7. Humbleness — The belief there is not one right way to do things and the openness to being persuaded to adopt a different approach.

Now take a moment to consider someone in your life or someone you admire that exhibits these qualities. How do they treat people? How do they lead? We each know someone who embodies post partisanship. Imagine if all of our elected officials acted like that person you are thinking of. What could our country accomplish then?

As with toxic partisanship, post partisanship exists in both parties. There are equal amounts of post partisan Democrats as there are post partisan Republicans. You don’t need to give up your party in order to act in a post partisan manner. Post partisanship is a set of values unattached to any party’s platform. It is a code of behavior that exemplifies our very best leaders.

Okay, but how do we actually inject post partisanship into the country?

ChangeRoots’ mission is to reverse the toxic partisanship infecting our country. We believe the most effective way to do so is by getting millions of people to give small donations to politicians that lead with post-partisan integrity while also giving small donations to the electoral opponents of those who act like toxic partisans.

I know at first glance that the idea of adding more money to politics as a way to help cure toxic partisanship seems not only counterintuitive, but actually offensive. We felt the same way, but as we thought deeply about what truly motivates politicians it became clearer to us this could actually help.

Right now, most politicians are primarily motivated by getting re-elected. This is the problem. They care about their seat in Congress more than doing what is right for the country. It hit us, why not use that fact to our advantage? So we asked ourselves three crucial questions:

  1. What if we created a way where it was in the self-interest of politicians to act post-partisan?
  2. What if, by leading with integrity, treating people with respect, being evidence-based and working across the aisle, a politician could actually raise more money, from more people, than they any other way?
  3. What if, when they acted like a toxic partisan, they raised huge amounts of money that went to their next opponent, instead of to their campaign?

All of a sudden it would become an incredibly simple calculation for a politician:

Act post partisan, get elected
Act like a toxic partisan, get fired.

Where are we at?

So far we’ve built part one of two. We’ve developed an app that enables users to send micro-donations to politicians based on their individual statements and actions.

Say a politician makes a statement, “I hate puppies.” You open ChangeRoots and tap the “Do Better” button (that appears underneath the “I hate puppies” statement) a few times to send a couple bucks to fund that goes to whoever will run against the puppy-hater next election. We then send a report to the puppy-hater’s campaign detailing all the money people gave to his opponent because of his statement. And we publish it on social media for some good old fashioned public accountability.

If a politician says, “I commit to work across the aisle to solve our biggest challenges” then you go on ChangeRoots and tap “Keep It Up” to send that politician a few bucks. It’s a simple concept, fund the good guys and fund the opponents of the bad guys.

I’m skeptical, why will this work?

Behavioral science research shows that potent feedback is immediate, specific and consequential. If feedback contains all three of those characteristics it greatly increases the chance of behavior change. Think about how you teach a dog or a child.

By sending micro-donations in reaction to daily actions, ChangeRoots provides the ability to give potent feedback to politicians. And if politicians don’t wise up, then the ChangeRoots community keeps funding their opponent to make it more likely they lose their next election. Again we want to keep things simple; good leaders should be amplified, bad leaders should be fired.

What’s next? First the score, then the game.

To fulfill on our vision of reversing toxic partisanship we are using our research and technical ability to develop a way to score politicians on a scale that ranges from “toxic partisan” to “post partisan”. The details are not finalized, but imagine a scenario where each time a politician issues a statement or tweets something — our system analyzes it to determine its level of toxic partisanship.

To use an easy example, if a politician calls an entire group of people “animals”, that statement would be scored as “highly toxic”. Dehumanizing language is a signal of contempt which research shows is severely damaging to both the person using it and the recipient. The use of dehumanizing language is a fundamental characteristic of toxic partisanship therefore would score as “highly toxic”.

In theory, we could analyze actions and statements to score politicians on most, if not all, of the core characteristics of toxic partisanship: contempt, ideological orthodoxy, self-interest, focus on differences, assuming negative intent and self-righteousness.

Once we develop the toxic partisan score, we will transform our app into a game. You win the game when you become a post partisan master. The path to mastery will require learning the characteristics of both toxic partisanship and post partisanship as well as completing quests that demonstrate your mastery. In our wildest dreams, rewarding post partisanship and fighting toxic partisanship become part of most people’s way to engage in the democratic process.

We’ve talked to hundreds of people about this concept and we are getting incredible encouragement for regular people thirsty for something to help reverse the toxic partisanship eroding our politics. On the flip side, politicians and political influencers are often skeptical, condescending or downright hostile, which, to us, is an even stronger indication we’re on the right path. You don’t fix a problem by listening to the ones who got you into the mess in the first place.

In the spirit of what civil rights leader John Lewis once said, we believe: “sometimes you have to get in good trouble to make a difference that matters.” This all may sound crazy, but we couldn’t be more excited to see where this journey takes us. We’re out here making some trouble — we hope you do the same.