Concern about polarization in America is growing among younger people at least as much as among our elders. Gen Z, my generation, desperately craves an alternative to our current divisive politics. We have grown up in a democracy that appears to be struggling at best and rapidly declining at worst.
Conservative or liberal, my generation’s lived experience has been characterized by extreme polarization, economic pain and division. Take me for example. Now 23, I was born two years before 9/11, went to middle school during the Great Recession, graduated high school during the 2016 election and left college during the COVID pandemic. To top it off, 2021 began with one of the darkest days in the history of our democracy, the January 6th Capitol Riots. To put it charitably: My generation’s lived experience does not reflect a thriving democracy we can trust.
At its core, democracy depends on our willingness to trust each other enough to constructively disagree and find consensus despite our differences. We will not have a democracy if we cannot talk to each other — it is that simple. Around the world, toxic polarization and tribalism are threatening institutions and leaving people vulnerable to fear and division. Here in the U.S., Americans feel increasingly hostile towards their political opposites.
According to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, 64 percent of global respondents say that people in their country lack the ability to have constructive and civil debates about issues they disagree on. This has serious implications for any institution that depends on people collaborating. From the workplace to our schools, any setting that requires people to get along for a larger purpose is increasingly at risk.
My generation’s growing resentment toward our divisive politics came home to me with life-changing clarity in February 2017. As I walked back from my freshman seminar, hundreds of people were peacefully and violently protesting about a speech at UC Berkeley by Milo Yiannopolous, a notorious right-wing provocateur. I remember being deeply struck by the pessimism, anger and apathy that gripped my fellow UC Berkeley students all along the political spectrum.
So with a few friends, I organized a discussion event to help students grapple with and talk to each other about what had happened on campus. This discussion space was open to all students, and it featured structured moderated student-led dialogues. We realized how strong the demand was to have a student-led moderated space for bridging differences and navigating disagreements, prompting us to launch BridgeBerkeley to hold weekly discussions open to all students.
I had assumed that this demand for bridge building was just a UC Berkeley fad. Yet, in the next three years BridgeBerkeley transformed into BridgeUSA, with chapters on 50 college campuses and in 20 high schools. It is now the largest and fastest growing student movement, changing how we talk politics and improving the state of discourse in our country. On average, we engage approximately 450 students every two weeks in BridgeUSA programming, all recruited through word of mouth as students concerned about polarization reach out to us for help building a new civic space on campus.
Strikingly, the young people who attend our discussions are not only who want compromise. Our community consists of strong ideologues, indifferent independents and folks still trying to understand their own politics. The unifying force within BridgeUSA is that our community believes in cultivating a certain temperament that exists above ideology: a temperament that values open-mindedness over closed-mindedness; empathy over exclusion; building spaces that bring people in as opposed to building spaces that keep people out.
At BridgeUSA, our student moderators are trained to construct an environment where participants can safely and constructively exchange ideas, share lived experiences and disagree passionately. Each discussion begins with outlining our four norms: 1) listen to listen, rather than to respond; 2) try not to interrupt or have side conversations; 3) address the statement, not the person; 4) participants represent only themselves and are not representative of social groups. Time and again, we have found that these clearly communicated norms enforced through a peer moderator transforms how people engage.
Through BridgeUSA, I have had the opportunity to travel to college campuses, meet with thousands of students and listen to the concerns of business and political leaders from across the political spectrum. The one throughline that has animated almost every one of my interactions is that people want to see bridge building in their communities and most are fearful of being able to have conversations across political differences. My anecdotal experience not only confirms but demonstrates the urgency with which we need to prioritize building bridges and facilitating constructive dialogue in our own institutions. We must create an environment that is inclusive, deliberative and open-minded.
Gen Z wants problem-solvers, not flamethrowers to lead our politics. We want a democracy where we can disagree passionately, yet also come together to address the many problems that our generation will inherit. Democracy is only as strong as what we put into it, and young people need to be offered accessible and nonpartisan avenues that help us be the best citizens we can be.
It is not just campuses. Institutions throughout society are increasingly in need of similar spaces to help overcome polarization. In local government, for example, officials are experiencing a rapid breakdown in communication and consensus building. That is why in 2020, our BridgeBerkeley chapter, as one of the few remaining civic spaces where leaders could have dialogue across differences, was asked to host the Berkeley Mayoral debate in a nonpartisan fashion for the public. Companies, too, are increasingly feeling the negative impacts of polarization and division. Harvard professors Julia Minson and Francesca Gino recently described in the Harvard Business Review how workforces are starting to polarize and companies urgently need to develop the capacity to manage political differences. Politics and business are no longer separate spheres: The workplace will be the next frontier in the fight against tribalism in our democracy.
BridgeUSA’s goal is to scale to 250 college and high school chapters by June 2024. And we will also begin helping companies navigate politics in the workplace, while (unlike in much of American society) it is still the norm for people of different backgrounds to come together to solve collective problems.
As our ability to communicate across differences rapidly erodes, not only will companies directly experience the cost of polarization, they will also be in a unique position to invest in bridge building as a core priority. Indeed, it will be key to their ability to recruit and retain Gen Z talent, who will increasingly demand work environments that reward problem-solving, empathy and constructive disagreement. Get this right, and business may help foster a revival of listening and collaborative skills across society; fail, and business may well be a victim of the same destructive polarization that has brought our democracy to the brink.