Academics Help Us Understand How Best to Bridge Political Divisions

Author: Glenn Davis
Created: 16 April, 2014
Updated: 14 October, 2022
5 min read

"To help liberals understand (and be civil to) conservatives."

"To help conservatives understand (and be civil to) liberals."

"To help everyone understand libertarians, who are often ignored because they don't fit on the left-right spectrum."

On the website of CivilPolitics.org, readings and resources in each of these areas aim to foster mutual understanding in our divided political environment. The three phrases also succinctly sum up their efforts.

CivilPolitics.org is an organization devoted to using research in psychology in order to better understand political divisiveness. Its efforts focus on serious, relevant, useful research -- research that they believe can make a difference in the world, particularly the world of politics.

The group is run by three academics who have combined their brainpower to educate the public on areas where people are deeply divided, and show how research can lead to improvement. Their expertise, they claim: “lies in the use of data to understand moral psychology.”

Jonathan Haidt, the most well-known of the group, is a social psychologist at NYU-Stern School of Business. He studies the moral basis for group behavior, cultural differences, and politics. He is the author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion and The Happiness Hypothesis.

Ravi Iyer is the chief data scientist for Ranker, an internet-based platform that provides lists and rankings of “everything” through crowdsourcing consumer opinions.

Matt Motyl, a fifth year doctoral candidate in Social Psychology at the University of Virginia, studies how people of different moral and political values can communicate in a more civil manner.

In The Righteous Mind, Haidt opens with the oft-quoted Rodney King line: "Can't we all get along?" Haidt then expands on this soundbite with the fuller context from King's iconic interview that day:

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"Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out."

Haidt continues by explaining that this is what his book is about. "Why it’s so hard for us to get along... to understand why we are so easily divided into hostile groups, each one certain of its righteousness."

This description of Haidt’s book also relates directly to the purpose of CivilPolitics.org. Its research examines the cultures of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians in America -- all self-righteous in their own way -- and explores how these separate cultures contribute to the deep divisions which exist.

CivilPolitics.org is a relative newcomer to the scene, only about 6 months old, but has hit the ground running. Part of their success has come from press coverage of Jonathan Haidt. Haidt is a dynamic speaker and has been featured on

several TED talks, as well as appearances on popular shows such as The Colbert Report.

The key question for these three visionaries is: Can a small group of psychologists change the political environment in America?

Iyer, in an email interview, commented on the goals of the organization. As he explained, CivilPolitics.org exists to help groups and individuals who disagree find ways to bridge their divides.

Motyl expanded on the purpose of the group:

“CivilPolitics.org provides evidence-based remedies to the gridlock afflicting our government and to the partisan hostility all too common in Americans' conversations.”

Some examples of specific works related to these goals can be found on their website. These include Haidt’s article, What Makes People Vote Republican and Seven Habits of Truly Liberal People by Kwame Appiah. Additionally, in what Haidt calls The Largest Study Ever of Libertarian Psychology, he reviews a paper published by Ravi Iyer.

Iyer described how the focus of CivilPolitics.Org is not only using research to support the work other groups are doing, but also to use the experiences of these groups as research itself.

“We hope to improve the social science that is available,” Iyer said.

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The Village Square is one group that has offered an environment for their research. In a previous interview, Liz Joyner, executive director of the Village Square, explained that Jonathan Haidt provided the academic basis for what the group was doing.

“We were a lab school for their academic work,” she explained.

CivilPolitics.org has also worked with several other groups in similar efforts, among them, Living Room Conversations and Bringit2TheTable. Iyer said no group can do this work alone, but anytime an individual or group uses their research, CivilPolitics.org is having an impact.

So far, according to Iyer, they have remained within their own network of contacts, but plan to do more active outreach to other groups in the future.

“I see us as a bridge between academia and practitioners,” Iyer said.

Motyl added:

“There are many local groups doing great work to bring people together in hopes of addressing these problems. We, at CivilPolitics.org, hope to help those groups use evidence-based interventions.”
According to Iyer, CivilPolitics.org also collaborates with researchers at many other academic institutions, including USC, NYU, the University of Virginia, UC-Irvine, and the University of Illinois.

Their funding, so far, has been primarily through grants which support their research. A modest budget of about $40,000 has supported some part-time staff, writers, web design, and other organizational costs.

Haidt, Iyer, and Motyl are researchers, first and foremost. As such, they have studied many diverse areas and are finding their own way of making their research relevant. Maybe not everything thing they do will change the world. But, it’s hard to deny their value as part of the solution.

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This is the fourth in a series of articles about relatively small, lesser-known, grassroots movements hoping to reverse the trend of congressional stalemate, political divisiveness, and the lack of civility in public discourse in America.

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