It is chilling to see how numb we’ve become to the increasing threat we face — to our national security, economic stability, public health, and the integrity of our democracy  — from political polarization. 

There is an urgent choice we need to make as Americans: to be immobilized by the depth and enormity of our differences, both real and imagined, or to seize the opportunities presented by each new crisis to reverse this vicious cycle. We can use many of the same forces that brought us here to get ourselves out, but first we must wake up and confront the facts.

The evidence for the severity of this problem is all around us. As if all the shouting on social media isn’t enough, consider the studies of congressional voting activity that show our government to be more polarized than it was in the period just after the Civil War.

Pew polls demonstrate a steady increase in people’s attention on party-line positions and less attention on the specific factors that drive our most contentious issues. These are just a few of the data points that tell us we are in the grip of negative partisanship, meaning we are less aligned with our own party or ideology as we are opposed to the other side. 

The key to breaking this cycle is not to review its causes with the intent to find any single solution. There are just too many contributing factors. Some are based on individual psychology like ethnocentric or tribal tendencies, confirmation bias, physiological differences in threat sensitivity, and even just the prioritization of shared values like loyalty, authority, purity, care, and fairness. Others involve group dynamics such as conformity, extremity, and exclusion.  We find ourselves in different places within the structure of our society with different norms, suspicions and grudges against each other.

Following the data on polarization, we see that after decades of bipartisan functionality, the steep climb towards this new peak of division began at the same time as amendments to FECA and actions by the FEC ushered in the era of “soft money,” followed shortly thereafter by the 24-hour news cycle. 

It is no surprise that this situation has now intensified exponentially as consumers go deeper into insulated information silos driven by algorithms and media producers’ need to maximize profits.

In a surprising way, it is the intensification of this problem that could provide the solution. 

Studies on scores of international conflicts over the last 200 years that endured for many decades have found that the majority of them (between 75-90%) end in less than ten years after a major political shock. The opportunity for us to act comes in the shock waves caused by crisis, whether they are caused by polarization or just exacerbated by it. Whatever their stance may be on the fallout from the 2020 election, the course of (and reaction to) COVID, or the withdrawal from Afghanistan, people are facing the kind of uncertainty that shakes the foundation of their biases, motivates them to take action, and allows for a more critical approach to problem-solving.

If Big Tech and the mainstream media are now a prominent part of the problem, let’s take this opportunity to make a difference and do better. 

Let’s pursue and use technology that eschews the algorithms of “profit over country” for true dialog in view of a solution that may offer part of the way out.  The media acts as the currents in which we spawn our political progeny and where they complete the rest of the life cycle.  Our proclivity to look to the media to find and vet our choices is something that is firmly entrenched. 

Let’s go with the current. A few additions to this ecosystem may be enough to direct its existing forces towards detoxifying it, and with a little imagination, we might even enjoy it.

Americans can leverage this technology to produce alternatives to existing political solutions offered by those already in power, finding successful resolutions by paying particular attention to complexity (or diversity) of thought and mitigation of the inevitable unintended consequences.

There are hundreds of organizations working online and offline to facilitate the kind of dialog that is essential to solving our polarization problem. 

Let’s partner with them and pool our resources of influence to reach and mobilize a critical mass of the electorate, inviting them to join us in a social media experience in which we share, review and rate our suggestions for alternative political options to feature in a more widespread mainstream media experience, in a way that entertains as much as it empowers.  

We don’t have to shout at each other through social media comments that are increasingly being weaponized or ignored. Let’s let our voices be heard through the specific solutions we propose or the rating we give the solutions of others.

Strategies exist to make this a reality in the short term, if the proliferation into the culture is as explosive as others have been. In the long-term, these strategies provide for the sustainability needed to let these solutions work their way into prominence through an evolving dialog and consensus across a diverse group of people and opinions. 

It’s an approach that provides opportunities for companies large and small to establish ESG credibility beyond greenwashing by sponsoring the infrastructure. It can encourage local involvement among consumers and businesses on Main Street as they support each other with the help of a revitalized local press.

Let’s not let the opportunity pass us by. Let’s work together towards a culture of common sense built around a common purpose: to take polarization out of the mainstream with an exciting vision of a functional, competitive political marketplace.

Let’s use technology and the media to our own advantage and be prepared to iterate, to evolve, to anticipate the challenges presented by our mistakes and to try again in the knowledge that we, as Americans, are well-positioned to succeed.

Jim Ragsdale is CEO of Mainstream Nation