I’ve been living political polarization for a long time, but have always managed to bridge between opposing sides. In the past decade, this has become increasingly more difficult. As I’ve wrestled with why this is happening, I’ve found it helpful to visualize the role of political communication in this process.
The first thing to keep in mind is that the structure of how we communicate has shifted considerably with the advent of digital transformation. It used to be that if you wanted to communicate something, you would find the right medium for the audience you were targeting, and that medium would do a good job of transferring your message.
What’s happened with digital transformation is that the structure has changed. Now the receivers of messages are also the senders and the medium of communication of messages to others. They become micro-communicators, leading to a distributed communication structure.
There are new mediums that enable this model, particularly platforms like Facebook and Twitter. When you distribute these micro-communicators along the political spectrum, you will see a dynamic that looks like this:
As you can see, different traditional mediums tend to send political messages from whether they are on the spectrum, but the heavy lifting of the communication is actually the micro-communicators sharing their messages through Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. To make matters worse these mediums tend to be homogenous networks, where people only communicate with relatively like-minded people, so the communication structure ends up being “bubbled” around the political spectrum, with few bridges between bubbles.
The second challenge is that because of the nature of these platforms, communicating complexity has become difficult, since you only have a certain amount of characters or attention span to work with. This leads to simplistic language on the left side of the complexity curve, using the concept by Oliver Wendell Holmes: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”
What this means that our political conversation has become simplistic, and people limit their communication to short, simplistic and judgmental phrases that do not reflect the true complexity of whatever it is they are communicating about. In this context, it is difficult to remain neutral, because neutrality requires finding value on both sides of the spectrum, and finding value on both sides of the spectrum requires understanding the complexity of the issue. The effect of this micro-communicators in bubbles sharing simplistic messages, is that slowly but surely those who were in the center move toward the extremes, creating a void in the middle.
Once the structure of political communication looks like this, it is very difficult to restore micro-communicators to the center, because few bridges are left to communicate the bubbles on either side of the spectrum. If we want to reduce our polarization, we have to make a proactive effort to bridge toward the other, understand why they think the way they do before we judge them for thinking that way, and be open to co-creating solutions that take into account the best of what each bubble has to offer. And that, of course, requires humility, which is hard for all of us find.