Do America’s Political Parties Need Couples Therapy? (And Other Questions About Democracy)

In the past 6 months (or maybe the last 5 years) Americans have been thinking about democracy and its fragility in entirely new ways. At the same time -- whether we’re talking about Poland, Turkey, or India -- it feels like democracy is on the edge around the world. But how big are these threats to democracy, actually? And how helpful is it to talk about all these different countries' experiences in the same discussion?

On this episode Sarah Baldwin '87 talks with Rob Blair, a political scientist at Watson and founder of the Democratic Erosion Consortium. He’s been thinking about all these questions, and thankfully he has answers.

You can learn more about the Democratic Erosion Consortium here.

You can learn more about Watson’s other podcasts here.


INTERVIEWER: From the Watson Institute at Brown University, this is Trending Globally. I'm Sarah Baldwin. In the last six months-- well, really the last five years, Americans have been thinking about democracy and its fragility in entirely new ways. At the same time, whether we're talking about Poland or Turkey or India, it feels like democracy is on the edge around the world. But how big are these threats to democracy, actually? And how helpful is it to talk about all these different countries' experiences in the same discussion?

Rob Blair is a political scientist at Watson and founder of the Democratic Erosion Consortium. He's been thinking about all these questions. And thankfully, he has some answers. On this episode, I talked with Rob about democratic erosion, what it is, how it can be stopped, and why, despite the hype, it can be so very tricky to spot.

The Democratic Erosion Consortium, started in Twenty-Seventeen as a group of universities that all taught the same class, which was designed to help students identify and analyze threats to democracy around the world. We'll get into more about the consortium later. I started by asking Rob about some of his most recent research on another issue that's been in the news lately, something closely related to democratic erosion.

SUBJECT: One of the recurring themes of my work on democratic erosion has been the danger that polarization poses for democracies, the risks that it can pose for democratic and civic life.

INTERVIEWER: There's been a lot of focus on political polarization in America in the past few years and its effects on our country. But as Rob started looking into the issue, something became clear.

SUBJECT: We really don't understand very well how you can actually depolarize people. We know that Democrats and Republicans really dislike each other in a way that they haven't in the past. Levels of polarization have really been rising in the last few decades. And we don't really know what to do about it.

INTERVIEWER: Rob wanted to do a study that measured the effectiveness of different strategies for depolarizing people. To do this, he teamed up with Braver Angels, an NGO that leads workshops designed to help Americans become less polarized in their views. These workshops, they don't include much discussions of politics or public policy. They focus on people's emotions and their relationships.

Some of the tools they use were actually first designed for a very different context.

SUBJECT: Couples therapy.

INTERVIEWER: So here's how the study worked. Rob and the Braver Angels got two groups of volunteers. Both groups had people from across the political spectrum. They used surveys and different sorts of tools to measure everyone's political polarization. One group then just went about their day. The other group went to couples therapy.

SUBJECT: You have them go through a series of structured, moderated exercises over the course of a day. And the idea is rather than try to encourage them to reach consensus on a particular issue, the goal is just to generate empathy and understanding, and dispel stereotypes, and ultimately create a greater feeling of warmth across that partisan divide.

INTERVIEWER: So to humanize the other?

SUBJECT: Exactly. So for example, in the first exercise, the Democrats will go to one room, and the Republicans will go to another room. And they'll each have a moderator with them, a Braver Angels volunteer.

And they will come up with a list of stereotypes about their side. So the Democrats will come up with things like they think we're all a bunch of tree huggers, or they think that we hate the police, or they think that we're unrealistic or whatever. And then Republicans will do the same and they'll say things like, oh, they think we're all racists, or whatever. These are the sorts of things that come up in these workshops.

And then they will go through those stereotypes one by one, and discuss why they think they're incorrect. Why is it wrong to say that all Liberals are tree huggers? Why is it wrong to say that all Republicans are racists? And then they have to identify the kernel of truth underlying the stereotype. Is there a kernel of truth underlying the stereotype that all Democrats are tree huggers?

They do all of this separately. And then they come back together in one room, and they just share what they did with the other side. It's a self-reflective exercise, but they're each doing it on their own. And then they're just sharing the results of that exercise with the other side, and it creates this real sense of shared vulnerability, especially identifying that kernel of truth. That's really hard, to say, yeah, maybe there's something to this stereotype.

There's another one called the fishbowl exercise, where all the Democrats will sit in a circle, and all the Republicans will sit in a circle around them. And the Democrats are asked to discuss why they think their policies and values are really good for the country. And then they're also asked to discuss any reservations they have about their own party. And then they switch sides. Republicans get in the middle and Democrats sit outside and watch them. And again, this experience of being watched by the other side while you express your reservations about your own party, it creates this space where I think it's much easier for the two sides to build empathy with one another.

INTERVIEWER: After the workshop, they measured participants polarization again.

SUBJECT: We measured polarization in a bunch of different ways, through a bunch of survey questions. We did an implicit association test, and found that the workshops were quite effective, especially in the short term, but even in the long term. Even after about seven months, you could still see a change in the behaviors of the students who participated in the workshops, which was remarkable.

INTERVIEWER: Rob wasn't too surprised by the results, and that's because he had already attended one of these workshops himself.

SUBJECT: I was out on sabbatical at Stanford, and I participated in one of the workshops in San Francisco. It was a very impactful experience, and it stuck with me. And that was exactly why I was enthusiastic about running the study. I just thought, wow, this is different. This is unique. This is an unusual way to try to tackle this very serious problem.

And so I wasn't terribly surprised to see that it had indeed reduced polarization. I think the fact that we were still able to pick up that behavioral effect even six months later-- and these were six months by the way. This included the start of the pandemic, it included the George Floyd protests, it included the start at least of the presidential elections, very divisive presidential election. We thought those things were for sure going to swamp any effects that we might see of the workshops, and yet we were still able to pick them up after all that time, which meant that I was surprised by it.

INTERVIEWER: And now you're going to tell us, how do we scale that to society or at least Congress?

SUBJECT: Yeah, so this is a tricky question. Now we're designing a couple of follow up studies, where we want to look at one scalability. So how do you reach a much larger group? Because these are small workshops. It's five to eight Democrats, five to eight Republicans, and then a small group of observers.

So depolarizing America in groups of 20 people at a time, that's going to be a pretty slow process. So we're looking at online versions of these workshops, which can reach many more people. We're looking at shorter versions of the workshops, so a half day instead of a full day, which maybe makes it a little bit easier for people to attend. I Braver Angels, actually, they are starting to think about working with Congress people. And we're really eager to scale this up to a much larger population.

INTERVIEWER: Studying US politics is actually still pretty new for Rob. Prior to Twenty-Sixteen, his work had focused on governance and security in post-conflict countries, primarily in Africa, but then Donald Trump became president. And despite Rob's training as a political scientist, he didn't really know what to think.

SUBJECT: I was reading a lot of the same headlines that I'm sure you were reading, and a lot of your listeners were reading, warning that American democracy was at imminent risk and that we were facing threats that we hadn't faced before. I felt like I just didn't have the analytical tools to make sense of those warnings. I would read the alarmist headlines and think, oh my God, should my hair be on fire? Or should I be taking a deep breath and relaxing? And I didn't know.

It wasn't my area of research. I hadn't read a lot of the stuff that I thought I needed to read to understand this risk properly. And so it started as just a course, basically an undergraduate course on democratic erosion. And then as I started talking to friends of mine at other universities, it was clear that there was a lot of interest in this. A lot of people were feeling that same sense of-- powerlessness isn't quite the right word. But this sense of really wanting to understand what was going on around us.

And so we decided, let's network these courses. Let's teach them the same syllabus. Let's have our students do collaborative assignments. And it just grew from there.

INTERVIEWER: It started with three universities teaching the class.

SUBJECT: And then the next semester we were up to, I think, eight or 12. And then it was up to 20 or 25. And then it's just grown from there.

INTERVIEWER: While Trump's election might have been a catalyst for this course, there were other reasons for it, too. One of the main reasons was, as Rob puts it, a lot of older theories about how democracies decline don't really fit the world today.

SUBJECT: It used to be that when a democracy collapsed, it was a military coup or some other sudden, from one day, the next sort of event, where a democracy would become an autocracy almost overnight. And that's just not the way it happens anymore. Typically, it's death by 1,000 cuts, and often from within.

So it's democratically elected leaders undermining democratic norms and institutions, often in the name of democracy itself, often claiming that, well, these reforms are necessary to safeguard democracy when really what they're doing is entrenching the power of the incumbent leader. And this is a pretty new phenomenon. And I think as a scholarly community, we're really just starting to wrap our heads around it.

INTERVIEWER: Well, something you just said is part of what I find really troubling. This notion of using democratic institutions to undermine democracy. Can you give an example?

SUBJECT: Yeah. So you could see restrictions on freedom of the press, for example, where a democratically elected leader will say, look, the media has completely gotten out of hand. They're spreading misinformation, and so we need to really tighten up our libel laws. We need to allow for journalists to be arrested and silenced.

Oftentimes restrictions on the independence of the Judiciary will be framed in those terms as well. These are unelected judges infringing on the activities of the elected branches, and so we need to curtail their power in some way. So taken in isolation, any one of these laws or any one of these actions might not really be such a big threat. But when you start to see them pile on, that's when I think that the risk really starts to get quite real.

INTERVIEWER: But sometimes, one single action can be a big threat. What was going through your mind when the rioters stormed the Capitol on January 6?

SUBJECT: That is democratic erosion. That's what it looks like. That is a real threat to democracy playing out right in front of our eyes.

INTERVIEWER: But at the same time, Rob's skeptical of some of the ways this riot and its aftermath were portrayed.

SUBJECT: I don't think it's accurate to describe it as a coup. I don't think that our democracy was at risk of toppling on January 6. But what it signaled was there is a large and potentially growing part of the population that is just not willing to accept the results of a democratic election. And in fact, is so unwilling to accept those results that they will storm the Capitol building, something that was unthinkable before January 6.

INTERVIEWER: And of course, the fact that so many people feel this way is a huge problem, whether they get inside the walls of the Capitol or not.

SUBJECT: I don't think we can all breathe a deep sigh of relief because democracy survived and Joe Biden is president, the winner of the election became the president. I don't think we should be lulled into that false sense of comfort. The fact that our democracy survived is not really the relevant point here.

INTERVIEWER: It's more of a stealth-- well, like you said, death by 1,000 cuts or stealth erosion.

SUBJECT: Exactly. And again, if you look at the way that democracies in places like Poland or Venezuela or Nicaragua, if you look at the process of democratic erosion in those countries, this is exactly what it looks like. It's a gradual process. And oftentimes you have people at the start of the process saying, stop being such alarmists. Our democracy is still intact, and it's just one law. It's just one action. But over time, they accumulate, and the democracy eventually collapses.

INTERVIEWER: And this is where a really interesting part of the consortium comes in. In addition to studying things like polarization and teaching students around the world about what democratic threats look like today, they're also turning these students into almost democratic erosion detectives.

SUBJECT: Students, for their final papers, they will write a country case study. And it's typically on a country that has undergone some process of democratic erosion in the recent past. And the case studies follow a standardized template. And then we will take them, and we have summer research assistant summer fellows who will convert them into data. They're actually being used to generate real data that can be used for real analysis.

INTERVIEWER: And just as interest for Rob's classes has grown, so too has interest in their findings.

SUBJECT: In Twenty-Seventeen, master students at Texas A&M, they presented some preliminary findings from the dataset to USAID, the State Department, and a consortium of 21 different NGOs that are involved in democracy promotion around the world. Then the following summer, we ran this democratic immersion summer fellowship, where we had students really getting their hands dirty with the data, figuring out cool ways to visualize the data, cool analysis to run with the data so you can track, here are the specific moments when the democracy in this country started degrading. And so we're hoping to be able to use those to create reports that would be useful for the policy community.

INTERVIEWER: They also make students in the classes observe the messiness of democracy firsthand.

SUBJECT: That's actually, I think, one of the coolest assignments that we have. So I should say, we weren't able to do this during the pandemic because we didn't want to send students out. But basically, the idea is students are required to attend some sort of political event, broadly defined, in the area around their university. And then I had them write a blog post about their experience.

And then we also had a joint session. In my case, it was with the University of Memphis, where my students would share their experience attending political events. And the students at the University of Memphis would share theirs. And what was cool about that is politics in Providence, Rhode Island looks really different from politics in Memphis.

And our students might not be exposed to that otherwise. So it was a way for them to see, oh, this is what being on the ground in this totally other setting really looks and feels like. And I also think for a lot of them, they went to rallies. So I know they would go to DACA rallies, or they would go to rallies for racial justice, or they would go to meetings of the local chapter of the Republican Party or the Democratic party. And I think for a lot of them, it was just cool to get out and engage with real world politics as part of a course assignment.

INTERVIEWER: I was very interested to look at your recent posts. And of course, there's someone looking at the US and Turkey and Iraq and Slovenia and India and the Philippines, but then I saw Australia and Canada, and I was like, what? It's the end of the world or the end of democracy if we're worrying about Canada.

SUBJECT: Yeah. So one of the principles underlying this project is we shouldn't assume that a democracy is safe just because it's been around for a long time and just because its institutions seem to be strong. I think that the fact that people are worrying about the quality of democracy in the US, I think if you would ask people 20 or 30 years ago, the notion that American democracy was at imminent risk of decline would probably have sounded pretty absurd to most people.

Is Canada at risk of immediate democratic decline? I think probably not, but I think these are students who are grappling with, these are the phenomena that often precede democratic erosion or they're often red flags that democracy might be at risk, and so let's take a close look at even what appear to be fully consolidated democracies, and let's see what are the potential threats that are looming under the surface so that we can address them before they become serious problems.

INTERVIEWER: Are there any countries that you see that are having democratic revivals?

SUBJECT: Yes. So I certainly think you have definitely seen some countries where citizens have beaten back threats to democracy. So Burkina Faso is one country that comes to mind, where there were multiple attempted coups. Citizens managed to beat those back at least a couple of times, and it was just a remarkable-- that's a hard thing to do. And it was a remarkable phenomenon to watch them succeed.

I don't want to overstate the extent to which democracy is at imminent risk around the world. I think that places like Canada probably for the most part, that's a consolidated democracy and it's going to stay a consolidated democracy. And I think that's true of a lot of other consolidated democracies around the world, places like South Korea, Australia, et cetera, Sweden.

But if you look at just the global trends, it doesn't look great. Really it looks like overall this is a trend towards greater autocratization, if you will. And I think there are particular countries where we should be-- especially I think places like Poland, Hungary, Turkey, Brazil, Bolivia to some extent, these are countries where I think the risks are really especially severe.

INTERVIEWER: Is it harder to go from being a democracy to being more autocratic? Or is it harder to go from being an autocracy to being a democratic country?

SUBJECT: That's a good question. And I don't know that we know the answer to that question. I think once there has been a transition from democracy to have to a full-blown authoritarian country, even if you manage to democratize again, I think the risk of relapse is probably generally going to be quite high.

Now, it doesn't mean that it never happens. I think Germany in the '30s, that's a great example of a country that bounced back and does not appear to be at risk of major democratic decline anytime soon. And then there are other examples. But I do think that that initial breach, it just creates conditions where--

And I think probably more than anything, autocracy, it starts to feel like a real possibility. And so even once the country re-democratizes, that history, it casts a long shadow. And I think it's hard for a country to get out from under it.

INTERVIEWER: So the consortium is not going to be out of business anytime soon, you think?

SUBJECT: Yeah, I don't think so.

INTERVIEWER: Which is, of course, unfortunate. But if there are going to be threats to democracy around the world, let's be thankful for organizations like the Democratic Erosion Consortium and for scholars like Rob. Whether it's using strategies from couples therapy to study political depolarization, or finding ways to get people to see their country's politics with fresh eyes, the consortium is helping students and policymakers re-evaluate what puts democracies at risk and what they need to thrive.

They say you don't really appreciate something until it's gone. After talking with Rob, it also became clear that on top of everything else, the Democratic Erosion Consortium is also doing something a little more fundamental. It's helping us learn to appreciate democracy while we still have it.

SUBJECT: Becoming a democracy, that's a hard trick to pull off.

INTERVIEWER: Rob, thank you so much for talking to us today.

SUBJECT: No, it's been a great pleasure. Thanks for having me.

INTERVIEWER: This episode was produced by Dan Richards and Eleena Coleman. Our theme music was composed by Henry Bloomfield. I'm Sarah Baldwin.

You can learn more about the Democratic Erosion Consortium on their website. We'll put a link in the show notes. And you can find all our episodes by subscribing to Trending Globally wherever you listen to podcasts.

And if you haven't already leave us a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps others find us. You can learn more about the Watson Institute's other podcasts by going to our website watson.brown.edu/podcasts. We're going to take a belated spring break, but we'll be back in a few weeks with another episode of Trending Globally. Thanks.

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About your hosts

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Sarah Baldwin '87

Host, Trending Globally
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Dan Richards

Producer and Co-Host, Trending Globally.