Return To Episode Page Return to Peace Talks Radio Home Page

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Rob Karwath, spokesperson for Speak Your Peace: The Civility Project, in Duluth, Minnesota

ROB KARWATH: Well, I think what we see in our country and maybe even around the world these days is we are becoming polarized, at least in some high profile segments and ways.

Tom Friedman from The New York Times wrote a wonderful column a few weeks ago that said, “The pace of change is being driven by technology and technology is driving change so quickly that we’re struggling to keep up.” It’s that change that is causing people to feel uncomfortable. You see it in immigration. You see it in refugees coming from Syria. You see it in a political system; the old solutions aren’t working like they used to and we’re becoming polarized because we’re frustrated. We’re saying, “You’re the problem” or “Those other people are the problem” or “It’s not this community that’s the problem, it’s the place next door.” We tend to have a “go after the other guy” approach when we get frustrated or at least sometimes we do. I think you’re seeing it around the world.

Speak Your Peace; if we can do the exact opposite and come together, afford each other those basic human needs and treat each other right, we can work together to find solutions and we can keep up better with this escalating pace of change that’s been so destabilizing for all of us.

SUZANNE KRYDER: Rob Karwath, what is Speak Your Peace?

Speak Your Peace is a program that was developed in Duluth, Minnesota and Superior, Wisconsin 13 years ago. It is a program to build community and civic engagement. We created it 13 years ago in our mid-sized community in the Northern part of the United States because we realized we had a problem with community and civic engagement.

We had some anecdotal evidence as well as hard factual data that showed people were disengaging in our community and we knew that that was not a strength. We were not going to solve the problems that were in front of us immediately at that point or the issues of the future or seize the opportunities of the future if we had people dropping out.

Wisely, the Duluth/Superior area community foundation engaged a group of people and they came up with a nine step program that works to build civility as a critical tool to getting people engaged.

KRYDER: Tell us Rob about a few of those Speak Your Peace civility tools.

Well, the centerpiece of the program is nine tenants. I often like to say that they are things that we learned in kindergarten or first grade, or we should have. I think most of us did, things like; listen, apologize, pay attention. If you’re going to criticize, make the criticism constructive and really nine tenants that say, “I will …” That’s an important part of it; “I will …” not “I’m going to make you do these things,” but “I will …” apologize when needed. I will pay attention. I will do what it takes to engage in healthy conversation with other people in community and I expect that those will be granted to me too.

Sometimes when I present or show people Speak Your Peace or talk about it, they say, “Gosh, is this all there is? Where are the trained facilitators?” I tell them that the program was deliberately made simple so that any community could use these tools. Truly these are the simple basic human needs that all of us want and truly need and when we get them, we’re willing to engage and we’ll come back again even if we don’t win the day, but when we aren’t treated with those measures of civility, we’re not as likely to come back and we may end up saying, “I’ve had enough of the circus.”

KRYDER: Okay, so we can work together, but how would that actually work? How would Speak Your Peace work at a family dinner or a neighborhood?

Let me give you an example of how it worked in Duluth and Superior. Thirteen years ago, the biggest issue that was driving us apart and causing us to set upon each other if you will, was employee healthcare costs that were bankrupting our cities.

We showed up on the front page of The New York Times. Our mayor was there on the Sunday front page one day. We were one of many communities nationwide that were dealing with this problem because of growing healthcare costs and contracts that had been afforded to city workers and retirees. It was simply driving us to the verge of bankruptcy. Here in Northern Minnesota, that’s not a good thing. It’s not a good thing anywhere, but we were very frustrated and upset by that and it was causing problems. People weren’t willing to invest in a city that was technically or close to technically bankrupt and so we started accusing each other; “You’re the problem.”

We had a new mayor that was elected and he and the city council began to bring these warring factions together by saying, “Look, let’s reset. Let’s realize that, truth be told, these are deeper problems than either your creation or my creation. We all know not too far deep down that it’s not just as simple as that.”

Grudgingly at first, but increasingly, together we sat down and had conversations and difficult conversations like contracts that had no raises and closing community centers. It wasn’t as if Speak Your Peace meant that we could just walk away and not make any difficult decisions, but we were able to make difficult decisions together.

When we had to close some community centers, the YMCA stepped in and said, “We’ll run some of those for you. We can pick up a few of those.” We found solutions together.

Within the space of about two years, we had largely fixed our employee healthcare cost that were almost bankrupting our city. It’s not that we don’t have problems here today in scenic Duluth, Minnesota, but we have gotten so much at sitting down and working together to resolve them that we have seen people investing in our city. We have seen an influx in residents, especially young people. It’s the exact opposite of where we were 13 years ago when people were disengaging and, in some cases, moving away because it wasn’t working for them.

KRYDER: What do you want to repeat about reducing polarization through Speak Your Peace?

I think Speak Your Peace is needed now maybe more than it has ever been needed in the 13 years that it has been around. It has worked at every level of community, every size, every geography. We have not worked with a community that said, “This really didn’t take care of what our needs were. Thank you, but …” It has worked in all of the places where it has been and we don’t go into communities and say, “We’ve got your solution.” We don’t, in some cases, even know the issues. We certainly don’t know them as well as they know them. What we do bring of value is a set of tools, a toolkit if you will, that will help them build solutions themselves. It’s not about us coming in with a magic elixir. We come in with tools and say, “You can use these tools to fix your problems.” Communities themselves go about doing it. That’s probably one of the best parts of Speak Your Peace.

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Ravi Iyer, of Civil

RAVI IYER: You can think of political polarization as the ultimate team sport. You see people who are very similar to each other in the sporting context fighting over things that are really arbitrary; whether they like the Yankees or the Red Sox.
You see people who are not that different from each other fighting in the political realm as well. Human beings are wired to ban together in groups using these moral emotions to bind us together and then compete against other groups that are on the opposite team.

In some ways, political polarization isn’t that different than sports polarization. In psychology research, we bring people into the labs and arbitrarily assign them to teams and we see the same kinds of polarization. It’s pretty easy to get human beings to group together and fight against another team.

SUZANNE KRYDER: If it’s normal, it seems like it’s getting worse. Is it increasing?

Absolutely. I think one thing that’s happening is that the political parties and the candidates are somewhat hijacking. They understand how this works. They understand, whether it’s explicitly or implicitly that human beings are wired to compete. We’ve gotten into this cycle where everything is a competition, where we’re worried less about policy and creating the best economy and the best education and we’re more worried about who is going to win the election. We’re constantly worried about who is going to win the election. The election cycle appears to never end. When we’re in a state of constant competition, you naturally get increasing polarization.

KRYDER: Ravi, your website promotes two different research-based recommendations on reducing political polarization. What are those?

The two recommendations are one, focus on relationships and two, focus on cooperative situations and not competitive situations.

For the latter, you can think about how competition breeds animosity in many groups. It breeds animosity in groups in the labs when we bring people in the labs and we divide them into arbitrary groups, we can easily create animosity between them if we create a competition between them and we can easily create friendship between if we have them cooperate on common goals.
Our second recommendation is about relationships. I think the thing that people often believe to be the path towards getting together and cooperating in terms of policy is to make a rational argument. They believe that if they come up with the right set of facts, they can come up with some way that they make tradeoffs where people will come up with the right policy that group A and group B both win.

What we find is that it’s not about rationality, it’s not about figuring out some sort of win-win situation. It’s about finding a way that you can actually bridge the emotional divide between another person. Emotion is the thing that causes the animosity between groups and emotion is also the thing that can bring groups together.

Once you believe that the other person sitting across from you in a negotiation is a good person and you actually like that person, then the cooperation in terms of policy or in terms of coming up with some sort of compromise naturally follows. If you start from a place where you don’t like the other person or your emotions are working against you, then no matter what rational reason you have to cooperate, it often doesn’t work out.

KRYDER: What do you do in that situation?

I think you have to work on the relationship. If you understand that human beings are social creatures first and rational creatures second, then you work on the social part first. You work on the relationships. A lot of the groups that we work with; community groups, groups who bring together across specific political divisions, they work on the relationships first and then the compromise is easy. If you dislike the other person, compromise is really hard.

I guess I would ask you when was the last time you had a debate with someone and they were convinced by some amazingly smart, rational argument that you made. Human beings are really good at wiggling out of rational arguments. It’s hard to convince them with the sheer force of argument, but when they like you and they care about your side of the negotiation, then great things are possible.

KRYDER: When you say “work on relationships,” what are a couple of ways you can do that?

Just spending time with people is an easy way. Don’t focus on the thing that you disagree about, but focus on the things you do agree about, focusing on [things like]; “We all love our kids” or “We all love the local sports team.” Make small talk. Get to know people in a way that’s not about whatever it is you’re having a conflict about. There is a lot of research that says familiarity breeds liking. Just knowing someone makes you like them more and having exposure to them makes you like them more.

You can be more intentional about it if you want to. There are exercises that people do where, if knowing someone makes you like them more, then knowing them deeply makes you like them even more still. You can intentionally do things where you disclose more personal things to another person and that’s been found to increase relationship bonding as well.

KRYDER: Can you tell another story about seeing all the research result work out in the real world? Is there something from your experience that has given you hope about reducing political polarization?

Yes, we work with a number of partner organizations and when we work with them, we don’t work on solving political polarization for everyone in the world, we work on solving political polarization for a specific group of people, groups like living room conversations and the village square.

With those groups, we’ve convened lots of small groups that disagree on issues and we will ask them questions about how they feel about the issues before and how they feel about the issues after and often times you don’t find that people end up agreeing more with the other side afterwards. We don’t actually see people’s attitudes change, but what we actually do see is that people’s opinions about the other side change. They’re much more willing to compromise with the other side. They don’t see them as bad people. They still believe what they believe, but they don’t think that the other side is out to get them. They understand them better. That’s at the local level.

Increasingly we’ve been working together with organizations that are leaders around specific issues. You can imagine religious leaders and people who believe deeply in gay rights.

These are all good people who, when they get to know each other, they recognize that on the other side, there are people of good faith who believe in their cause and have legitimate issues.

They tell stories about what it was like to shop for a wedding ring and to be denied service. Those stories affect people. I don’t think change and solving polarization happens at the societal level, but change can absolutely happen at the individual level where someone who once held an opinion that someone who sells rings should be free to sell to whoever they like, they may still believe that, but they at least see the other side of it when they hear the story of how it has affected somebody who was denied service.

KRYDER: So even if they’re not changing, but they’re listening, they’re being empathetic, you feel that’s reducing polarization?

Absolutely. A lot of what people talk about in politic science circles is affective polarizations.

Once upon a time, it was considered taboo to marry someone of the opposite race. Now that’s less so, but what’s actually less taboo is to be biased against people of the opposite ideology. You can say to someone; “I don’t want my daughter to marry a republican” or “I don’t want my daughter to marry a democrat,” and people won’t really look at you funny. That’s reasonable. That’s a bias that we think is okay.

It’s that kind of affective polarization that gets in the way of people understanding each other and compromising across the aisle. You may not change their opinion. People can still be democrats and republicans and believe in the policies that they believe, but when you bridge that affective divide, then compromise is possible.

KRYDER: And you’re hopeful it’s going to go deeper in the political parties and their polarization?

Yes, and you can look at history, look at the stories that are told about the relationships between Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill. Once upon a time, everyone in Washington used to live in Washington. They used to socialize together. Now, increasingly politicians go to Washington and then they go back to their districts. A lot of people pointed out that a lot more got done back in the day when everybody knew each other. There is research to back this up, but there is also a lot of history to back this up. When people know each other, when politicians know each other, they get more done.

KRYDER: So you’re not that freaked out by the polarization of political parties?

Oh, I’m absolutely freaked out about it. It is certainly a problem. I just believe that there is a solution that exists, but the forces that are pulling us to polarization are strong forces. It works when politicians try to divide us into teams and active that competitive spirit and fan that animosity. They’re tapping into primal emotions that human beings are going to respond to. Polarization works and if we don’t do things to fight against that polarization, then it’s likely to get worse. I’m absolutely freaked out about it. I think there are solutions that people can do to fight against it, but it’s certainly a problem.

Peace Talks Radio host Suzanne Kryder talks with Jessie Fields, director of Open Primaries

JESSIE FIELDS: Most primaries are closed. I live in New York State which is a closed primary state. All elections for state, for Congress, for President are closed. In New Mexico, all elections are closed. In Pennsylvania, all elections are closed. In Florida and many other states like New Jersey and others, this is a partisan closed primary.

It goes by party and it turns out that in these closed primary states, really a very small percentage of voters, even in the party, participate in the primary because the politicians learn to just reach out to the organized constituencies who are involved in supporting them and who they know. They reach out to them. They make sure they come out and vote. They win the primary and then it’s a foregone conclusion in many states in which one party is dominant.

Often, and it’s certainly the case in New York, the elected official doesn’t even have to campaign after the primary because they’re assured of winning the election because they’ve won the primary of the dominant party and that disenfranchises other voters, not only unaffiliated voters, but also members of other parties.

SUZANNE KRYDER :What percentage of states have open primaries?

: That’s a very good question. In terms of the non-partisan open primary, the top two non-partisan open primary, that form of open primaries is in California and Washington State for statewide elections and congressional elections. Those are the main states. Nebraska has a form of non-partisan top two open primaries for state elections, for state legislative elections and that is pretty much it.

Other states, the most common election that we see open primaries in, the party-oriented open primaries where someone can choose to vote in either the democratic or republican primaries without being a member of the party is in presidential elections.
There were about 23 states in 2016 and this changes from presidential election to presidential election. Every four years it somewhat changes. Some are more open than others. Some only allow unaffiliated voters to vote and some, like in New Hampshire, you have to come to the primary and actually join a party, pick a party to join and then you can vote in that party’s primary.

Then you have to go through some other process to actually become an unaffiliated voter. They only allow in New Hampshire and many other states, they only allow unaffiliated voters, not people who are registered in other parties to vote.

KRYDER: There are so many options. There is closed, there is open, there is mixed. How do closed primaries make it more difficult? I’m guessing it’s more difficult for the voters and also the officials to cross party lines and work things out.

In this kind of closed primary system, you don’t have an opportunity to bring different points of view together. You don’t have an opportunity to bring together people who are registered in different parties; independents, democrats, republicans, third party members, unaffiliated voters. There is no opportunity to do that, so you’re not able to really build broad-based coalitions that are organized around different kinds of issues and can bring people together across party lines.
The election officials are more beholden to the party boss. There is this term in politics called being “primaried” and people on the so-called right and people on the so-called left, elected officials are concerned that if they step too far out of their party partisan box, that they may be “primaried,” that somebody may run against them in their primary and if they lose their primary, then they’ve lost their public office, so they’ve lost the election. That is often something that elected officials worry about. If they don’t get the support of the party, of the party bosses, then they may not get a good committee assignment. They may be ostracized in the legislature. It’s a way of controlling the elected officials.

For me, I think the fundamental issue is that many, many voters are excluded by close primaries so in the presidential election, in the primaries, there were 26 million people around the country who were not able to participate, most of them unaffiliated voters. They had no say in determining who was the winner of those primaries.

KRYDER: Jessie Fields, talk about how open primaries would reduce polarization.

The great thing about open primaries, particularly the top two open primaries, but even in the party-oriented open primaries where parties allow others who are not registered in their party to vote, you have the opportunity to build coalitions for instance around something like increasing the minimum wage or addressing social problems of education which people across the board care about.

Also, you can move away from the demonization of people who are not members of your party. If you deal with elected officials or you go to party events, you find that the way that they speak about others, non-party members or people who are members of the opposite party is fairly negative and somewhat antagonistic and hostile as if we would never associate with those people, but open primaries gives you a structure foundation to begin to bring people together.

I don’t believe it’s a panacea and will solve all of our problems around polarization and government dysfunction and the problems in our political process, but I do believe very strongly that it gives us a structure that supports having a context to then bring people together in unusual ways.

KRYDER: How also would it affect the actual campaigning?

Well, that’s a great question Suzanne. It means that the candidates who are running for office have to reach beyond their party borders. Some examples; in California which, by initiative, passed the top two open primaries in 2010.

The first election in California that was an open primary, non-partisan election was in 2012 and in those elections, for the first time, incumbents lost. There were ten incumbents who lost an election for the first time in ten years in California under the previous system.

Democratic candidates had to reach out beyond the democratic party. The incumbent democrat in the state legislative race in 2012 in California actually ended up losing the election. He had been in office for 40 years and had never faced a competitive election. The issue was the he only reached out to members of the democratic party and he actually called his opponent who was running against him not a real democrat because that candidate was reaching out to republicans and independents as well as democrats. It was an open primary election and the candidate who reached out more broadly won the election and beat the 40-year incumbent. It does require campaigning in a broader fashion than the elected officials are used to. It makes the elections much more competitive.

KRYDER: Dr. Fields, a person might say open primaries are a great idea, but it will never happen. What would you say to that person?

Well, I’d say that I think it really takes a grassroots movement. It is absolutely an uphill battle to win open primaries. It’s not easy, but there are movements in different states for open primaries. It usually comes into law by virtue of citizen initiatives that are put on the ballot and ordinary voters pass it. That’s how it became the law in California and in Washington State. There are initiatives on the ballot in other states.

The other phenomenon that’s going on around the country that I think offers a hopeful sign is the fact that more and more Americans are leaving the Democratic and Republican Parties. Forty-three percent of the country is not independent. More and more voters are saying; “Don’t put me in a box. I don’t want to be forced for a party candidate. I want to vote for the best person, not for the party.” It’s independents who are very diverse. Independents are across the political spectrum and come together around support for revitalizing our democracy, for opening up the process for the people having more power than the parties. I think that’s a very hopeful sign. Independents are the most excluded by closed primaries and they are the ones that support opening up the process much more and they’re becoming a majority of Americans.