Recap | Depolarization Summit

About The Summit

On November 19, 2020, Millions of Conversations hosted an online Depolarization Summit in collaboration with the Fetzer Institute, Vanderbilt University, and former Mayor of Charlottesville Mike Signer. Over the course of the day, speakers from a wide array of professional sectors came together to discuss key issues and strategies surrounding depolarization and political violence. As noted by host Mike Signer, panelists throughout the day also displayed the ideological diversity needed to address these issues, coming from a broad spectrum of political and cultural backgrounds and beliefs. The Summit was garnered 400+ attendees and 1.5k+ views from both within and outside the non-profit bridge-building sphere. 

Morning Session: Understanding the Problem, Assessing Policy Options


The Depolarization Summit morning session featured keynote speeches by Director Mary McCord and Mayor Steve Benjamin, followed by two panels in which professionals from a wide array of backgrounds in advocacy, security, policy, and more discussed some of the most pressing issues that today’s polarized America has been facing. During the research panel, Dr. Kareem Crayton, Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, and Dr. Alan Wiseman evaluated current trends in partisan sorting in order to enumerate some of the causes behind political sectarianism, and highlighted the importance of diversity in political and community decision making. The law and military panel discussed the growing prevalence of unlawful militia groups, and panelists Elizabeth Neumann, Dr. Jason Dempsey, Dr. Kori Schake, and Director Heather Hurlburt addressed the role the law can play in mitigating the safety risks and community tensions wrought by radicalization.

Opening Remarks

Following introductory remarks by hosts Samar Ali, Mike Signer, and Sharif Azami, the Depolarization Summit commenced with two keynote speeches by Georgetown University’s Mary McCord, and the Hon. Steve Benjamin, Former President of the U.S. Conference of Mayors and current Mayor of Columbia, South Carolina. 

Legal Director of Georgetown’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection, Mary McCord, began the day’s proceedings with a timely examination of “sidedness,” including the ways in which the Trump administration served to further exacerbate divisions in the United States and the tensions between opposing ideological and political sides. She expressed concern over the increasing prevalence of unlawful armed militia groups, and examined the role of law  in mitigating harm, supporting public safety, and preventing extremism, noting that “when the law can be a helpful tool, it’s one that lawyers are there to assist with.” Touching on the importance of an accurate, Constitutional understanding of the First and Second Amendments, Ms. McCord stated that “this issue should not be a ‘sides’ issue… Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals. This is about our democracy, what we do to protect it, and the legitimate protection of Constitutional rights.”

Mayor of South Carolina, Steve Benjamin, emphasized the importance of sharing stories for a more cohesive United States. Mayor Benjamin began by highlighting the value of American inclusion and diversity, as well as the importance of recognizing the historical realities of oppression and justice. Mayor Benjamin also acknowledged “the dangers we face when we allow all forms of hate to move forward, unchecked” – following the events that transpired in Charlottesville during the Unite the Right rally, he and other members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors recognized that inclusion must remain a core principle of elected officials, business leaders, and communities alike. Acknowledging that our country is at a precipice, he painted a picture of what our future could look like if we push ourselves not only to heal together, but also to build together. If we can do this, Mayor Benjamin said, “we would build a future not only around tolerance, but also respect, compassion, inclusion, and passion.” 

Watch the full version of these introductory speeches here.

Research Panel: Types of Groups & the Threat of Polarization

Dr. Kareem Crayton, elections and democracy scholar, consultant, lawyer, and professor. Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dr. Alan Wiseman, Chair of the Department of Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Moderated by Sarah Ruger, Vice President of Free Expression at Stand Together and the Charles Koch Institute.

There are entrepreneurial politicians responding to incentives that allow them to keep using polarizing rhetoric, says Rachel Kleinfeld of Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The challenge is how to alter these incentives.

The Depolarization Summit’s research panel laid the groundwork for understanding today’s political climate in the United States. Moderator Sarah Ruger introduced panelists Dr. Kareem Crayton, Dr. Rachel Kleinfeld, and Dr. Alan Wiseman, and launched into conversation about the critical threats of polarization and political violence. Dr. Kleinfeld noted how we face two types of polarization: that of policy differences, and that of affective polarization, in which our political views are mainly reflective of our cultural identity. As stated by Dr. Kleinfeld, “policies don’t translate into politics [when] affective polarization keeps our politics so toxic.” Dr. Crayton echoed this sentiment, stating that polarization becomes deeply problematic when it goes from disagreeing over a policy, to saying, “I don’t think you should be a part of this community…or I don’t think you should exist.” He noted how partisanship is often expressed as a manner of race identity and superiority, and that compromise and dialogue shouldn’t come from arguments about who we are, but about what “we believe and what we want out of government.” 

Building upon his primary research focus on the U.S. Congress, Dr. Wiseman added that the processes of bipartisan lawmaking haven’t changed much over the last several decades, and that efforts to present America as a deeply polarized nation are largely tied to the political strategies of entrepreneurial politicians who use polarizing rhetoric to mobilize identity groups to vote for them. All three panelists identified political sorting–namely, geographic and demographic–as a key issue when examining the forces behind polarization and political diversity. Further, when asked about “the next frontiers” of challenges in these areas, Dr. Kleinfeld and Dr. Wiseman expressed interest in altering political incentives and processes in order to limit the influence of self-interested politicians. Dr. Crayton names the aforementioned topic as the “supply” side of the issue, whereas the “demand” side must also examine the systems and communities that rally behind these types of polarizing politicians. 

Watch the full version of this panel here


Law and Military Panel: The Role of Civil Society & Law

Elizabeth Neumann, global security expert and former Assistant Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Dr. Jason Dempsey, Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security. Dr. Kori Schake, Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. Heather Hurlburt, Director of New Models of Policy Change at New America. Moderated by Mary McCord, Legal Director at Georgetown University’s Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection.

With the collapse of confidence in our other institutions, we turn to our fetishized view of our military in the sense that it can solve complex problems simply through the use of force, warns Dr. Jason Dempsey.

This panel, which incorporated experts in law, security, and  military, addressed the intersection of these sectors within the legal limits of security in the context of escalating violence. A particular focus was paid to the connection  between political extremism–especially white supremacy–and the increased prevalence of unlawful armed militias within the United States. 

Moderator Mary McCoy introduced panelists Elizabeth Neumann, Dr. Jason Dempsey, Dr. Kori Schake, and Heather Hurlburt. To start, Ms. Neumann spoke about a recent lack of leadership resulting in ideological divides within law enforcement. With a background in homeland security, she described a shift that took place during the Trump administration, in which an overemphasis on “law and order” and immigration upended the department and its ties to local law enforcement. Dr. Schake addressed actions taken by police and the former president at his Lafayette Square photo op, and the involvement or usage of the military in domestic partisan politics. Ms. Hurlburt added that a growing belief that the law does not apply to certain American citizens is “a road to violent conflict,” and that “if we don’t have agreement on what security is and who it’s for, then the most fundamental purpose of government is lost, [as is] our agreement on it as a people.” 

Dr. Dempsey discussed how unlawful militias have co-opted ideals of patriotism into modern cultural wars. He highlighted the issue of a “fetishized view of the military… that can solve problems simply through the use of force and tribalism,” adding that this perspective is prevalent among the 25% of far-right extremist group members who are ex-military. Dr. Dempsey also added that while mental health plays some role in radicalization, understanding the moral injury that occurs upon and after deployment is even more crucial. Ms. Neumann and Dr. Schake emphasized that leadership is incredibly important in halting extremism, and Dr. Schake added that “there is no substitute for an educated public… education is our only political safety.” 

Watch the full version of this panel here, and read the NPR article written about this Depolarization Summit session here

Watch a recording of one of the morning breakout sessions here.

Afternoon Session: Advocacy, Community, & Society: Transformation & Healing

Following morning breakout sessions, we dove into the second half of our programming. These two sessions built off of the insights shared earlier in the day, and began to shift gears from identifying and understanding a problem to coming up with active, transformative solutions.

The afternoon session of the Depolarization summit began with two panels, each of which focusing on strategies and solutions different sectors, leaders, and community members can use to address polarization. The civil society and advocacy panel, which featured Bernadette Onyenaka, Nathan Stock, Sadia Hameed, and Clint Brewer, laid out the steps that can be taken towards holistic peace, conflict management, and community building, with a particular focus on addressing and transcending ideological divisions. The final panel of the day, which brought Shamil Idriss, Sabeen Malik, and Nealin Parker into a conversation about bridging, conflict resolution, and mediation, outlined the importance of working towards shared goals and shared futures, and the bridge-building process from the local to the national level. The Summit concluded with keynote speeches from President Bob Boisture and Dr. Jonathan Metzl.

Civil Society & Advocacy Panel: Power of Ecosystem & Field Building

Bernadette Onyenaka, Racial equity curriculum designer, facilitator and consultant. Nathan Stock, Non-resident Scholar at the Middle East Institute. Sadia Hameed, Founder and Executive Director of Thought Partnerships. Clint Brewer, Public affairs strategist and consultant. Moderated by Michael Signer, Former Mayor of Charlottesville, Founder of Communities Overcoming Extremism, and practicing attorney.

Nathan Stock of Middle East Institute expressed a need for an investment in a holistic multisectoral approach to conflict resilience work for decades to come.

This panel considers pathways to peace outside of government and security sectors, turning to NGOs and other advocacy organizations working to build transformative ecosystems in divided societies. 

Panelists Bernadette Onyenaka, Nathan Stock, Sadia Hameed, and Clint Brewer were introduced by moderator and host Michael Signer, who led the panel discussion about the power of ecosystem development. Mr. Brewer, who has a background in journalism, shared his experience addressing ideological conflicts and “getting outside of one’s comfort zone” when doing advocacy work and building a civil society. He advocated for maintaining political independence from partisanship when doing this work, and to avoid seeing politics as a “zero-sum game.” Ms. Hameed, of Thought Partnerships, applied international conflict management tools to address issues within the United States, modeling an ecosystem approach to mitigating polarizing risk factors. This ecosystem approach is a pathway to “cross-sector, collective, mutually reinforcing action” that interweaves throughout NGOs, government, faith communities and more. 

Ms. Onyenaka built off this strategy from her position as an educator, sharing a vision of cross-sector collaboration not only in conversation, “but to make a plan for implementation around it with racial equity at the center.” She drew a distinction between addressing specific ideological narratives and “meeting people where they are”; as Ms. Onyenaka said, “[it has] lots of implications for how we can move forward as a nation when we really start to talk about the things that we’re afraid of and the vision that we actually do share… a happy, healthy life is what everyone wants.” Mr. Stock, whose work centers around conflict and polarization both abroad and at home, says that “there’s no substitute for patient, long-term conflict analysis and relationship-building… you need to take the time to identify who are the people that need to be at the table.” 

Participants also responded to audience questions surrounding polarizing media landscapes, strategies in bridge-building work, and how to find the resources to do on-the-ground advocacy. 

Watch the full version of this panel here


Bridging, Conflict Resolution, & Mediation Panel: Effective Bridge Building Methodologies

Shamil Idriss, CEO of Search for Common Ground. Sabeen Malik, Senior Policy Advisor at Google. Nealin Parker, Founder and Co-director of Princeton’s Bridging Divides Initiative. Moderated by Rachel Brown, Founder and Executive Director of Project Over Zero.

Nealin Parker of Princeton University breaks down conflict mediation into a “now & later” approach. She highlights that, “the now is not enough, it must lead into the later.”

The final panel of the day examined best practices for mediation in a polarized country, highlighting expertise on how to transcend divides from one-on-one interactions to broader societal movements. 

Moderator Rachel Brown ushered panelists Shamil Idriss, Sabeen Malik, and Nealin Parker into a conversation about societal peace-building and developing resilient communities. Ms. Parker spoke about how the 2020 election was not a “turning point, where we can now rest easy,” but rather a continued circumstance in which society will continue to operate “through the peaceful transition of power…as we’re still in a little bit of an acute moment.” She noted that creating ecosystems of peace requires efforts both in the short term and long term, saying that “you can’t do the later without the now, but the now isn’t enough [on its own].” Mr. Idriss addressed the “false dichotomy between peace and justice,” stating that “when you think about peace as positive peace and not just the absence of violence… and when you think about justice as more than just punitive or retributive justice… they’re really two sides of the same coin.” He emphasized the importance of appreciative inquiry, genuine trust-building, and cooperative action, especially on a local level. 

Ms. Malik leveraged her knowledge of online spaces and digital communities to highlight the need for long-term, institutionally-based conversations about the online world, noting that “online behavior is very much a reflection of offline behavior.” Building off of Mr. Idriss’s concept of celebrating “positive deviancy,” Ms. Malik emphasized the importance of developing infrastructures, moderation strategies, and incentives that encourage positive online reciprocity and put online interactions within ongoing, community-focused contexts. 

To close out the day’s panel discussions, panelists further examined the relationship between the online and offline, the present and the future, and peace and justice. As put by Ms. Parker, “peace is meant to be in service of justice, and justice makes a sustainable peace possible.”

Watch the full version of this panel here.

Watch a recording of one of the afternoon breakout sessions here

Concluding Remarks

The Summit came to a close with two final keynote speeches from Millions of Conversation’s own Senior Policy Advisor, Dr. Jonathan Metzel, and the Fetzer Institute’s President and CEO, Bob Boisture. The event was officially concluded upon remarks by hosts Samar Ali, Mike Signer, and Sharif Azami.

Director of Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University, Dr. Jonathan Metzl, built off of his own work–including his recently published book Dying of Whiteness–in order to address the divisions that keep us from coming together. Dr. Metzl spoke about the need for resolution instead of polarization after times of crisis, offering the 2020 elections, collapsing healthcare structures, and COVID-19 as examples. He expressed that democracy doesn’t work when we want benefits for ourselves and not for others – “either we build systems that work for everybody, or we all go down the tube together.” Dr. Metzl emphasized the importance of individual conversations, as well as broad structural change, because “ultimately we need new ways of talking across the divide and creating shared futures together.” 

The Fetzer Institute’s Bob Boisture addressed the importance of “going deeper in terms of thinking about the moral and spiritual dimension of this challenge of polarization.” Mr. Boisture compared polarization to climate change, saying that on our current trajectory, our system would fail. He noted that there’s a lack of understanding at play in the tensions between red and blue America, which he witnessed first hand over his years of work in civil society, and that the personal and cultural “operating system” of America was in need of replacement. Mr. Boisture identified the Fetzer Institute’s goal of building a “spiritual foundation for a loving world” as a necessity in solving humanity’s greatest challenges, and that this vision of love entails not only trying to understand ‘the other,’ but also committing to “building a society that works for all of us.” 

Watch the full version of these closing remarks here

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