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Much of today’s political communication is polarized, distorted, hostile, and out of our control.  Political differences now divide people more than race, education level, income, gender and religion.  Many argue that the 2012 U.S. Presidential campaign was the most negative in recorded history.   Huge numbers of citizens join groups to create and praise vicious attacks, complain about the loss of civility, or withdraw from politics entirely.  Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher keep ranting, and their true believers shout for more.

            The polarization affects people personally.  Parents have disinherited their children over political issues, politically-active family members are being asked to tone-down their personal texts and emails, and hosts of family gatherings have to seat siblings and in-laws with different political opinions at opposite ends of the birthday or Thanksgiving table.  


            At the same time all this media-fueled political incivility is paralyzing institutions and destroying relationships, thousands of less-prominent members of dozens of organizations are exercising political power in humane, civil, and often very effective ways.  Since most media go by the rule, “If it bleeds, it leads,” these groups don’t get much coverage.  But they’re out there.

 For example, the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation ( is a network of over 1600 people who bring citizens together across political divides to discuss, decide, and take action together on issues like immigration, abortion, money in politics, and same-sex marriage.  In addition to groups on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, NCDD provides a Resource Guide on Public Engagement, sponsors regional and national conferences, and connects people with blogs and listservs.  One NCDD member created, to “revitalize the art of conversation among people with diverse views and to remind our fellow Americans of the power and beauty of civil discourse.” 

A like-minded group in the Boston area staffs the Public Conversations Project  (, which affirms

In this world of polarizing conflicts, we have glimpsed a new possibility:  A world in which people can disagree frankly and passionately, become clearer in heart and mind about their activism, and, at the same time, contribute to a more civil and compassionate society.

The PCP has lived out this commitment in successful projects with teams of people from the United Nations, city and county governments, religious and legal organizations, universities, and citizens groups in the U.S., England, Mexico, Iceland, Norway, Finland, and New Zealand.

On the opposite side of the U.S., a team of communication professionals in California and Arizona leads the Public Dialogue Consortium ( ) which enhances the quality of political communication in organizations and communities struggling with these same divisive issues. The PDC uses community meetings, workshops, and trainings to help people practice dialogic communication which, in their words, requires “remaining in the tension between holding your ground while being profoundly open to the other.”[1]

Sound familiar?  These groups and many others are applying versions of the approach to communication that I’m recommending, and they’re finding that it works. 

In Apple Computer’s hometown of Cupertino, California the PDC’s dialogue training has significantly reduced conflict and hostility over diversity and immigration issues. Well-developed web resources and sophisticated software streamline citizen contacts with government, and community meetings, block parties, dessert parties, and informal dinners provide openings for the face-to-face interaction that is the foundation of Cupertino’s success.  Representatives of other small and large cities have come to Cupertino to learn how to replicate what they’ve done.  Now, “When Cupertino citizens do turn to the city government for help, officials find they can be most responsive by combining the advantages of electronic tools with the benefits of person-to-person contact.”[2]

The Cupertino experience illustrates again that politics does not have to be warfare, and that interpersonal and dialogic communication can help accomplish political goals.  So whether you are concerned about marijuana legalization, immigration reform, animal rights, health care, energy and the environment, LGBT+ issues, anti-racism, abortion, police brutality, gun control, or some specifically local issue, you can get involved and make a difference by working to make your political communication as personal as possible.


The reason this kind of political communication can be effective is that it builds social capital.  What’s “social capital”?  Well, “capital” is a term for the assets or wealth owned by a person or an organization—its property, buildings, or equipment.  Human capital is made up of the properties of individuals, and social capital refers to connections among people—the trust, supportiveness, reciprocity, collaboration, networks, and sense of togetherness that makes a group strong and effective.  This is what the NCDD, PCP, PDC, and dozens of similar organizations are building. 

Your family might have more social capital than some others because you communicate frequently, support each other consistently, and collaborate effectively with other families.  Organizations, clubs and churches build social capital when members spend relationship-building time together and when they pool resources to solve problems.  Cities and counties build social capital when they encourage networks of relationships that enhance mutual recognition and effective partnerships. 

Have you heard the expression, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know?”  This statement is about social capital.  If you are poor, handicapped, belong to an ethnic or religious minority, or are otherwise disadvantaged, you suffer in part because you don’t have as much social capital as others do.  Social capital greases the wheels that allow communities to operate smoothly.  The networks that make up social capital are conduits for the flow of helpful information—how to find a job, license a vehicle, find the lowest prices, get a date, register to vote, contest a traffic ticket, locate an honest mechanic or babysitter, recycle waste, choose a good internet or cell phone provider. 

Social capital matters because where social capital is high, public spaces are cleaner, people are friendlier, and the streets are safer.  Social capital also affects children, because when parents belong to networks of trust, their children have more opportunities, choices, and educational options.  Social capital also increases how much money people have.  Where trust and social networks flourish, individuals, firms, neighborhoods, and even nations prosper economically., pp. 11-12.  And there is even a strong relationship between social capital and better health.  “As a rough rule. . ., if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying over the next year in half.  If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”[3]  Social capital is a real asset.

So, how do people build social capital?   By making their communication as personal as possible.  Social capital is built in families, groups, clubs, and organizations where people gather because of mutual interests, social activities, or economic and political aims—sports teams, child care cooperatives, neighborhood associations, cycle clubs, churches, service clubs, fitness groups, soccer leagues, cooking clubs, PTSAs, sororities and fraternities, retirement groups.  These are the places where people pay attention to quality of life issues.  “Informal educators’ interest in dialogue and conversation, and the cultivation of environments in which people can work together, take them to the heart of what is required to strengthen and develop social capital and civic society.”  This is what the PDC has done in Cupertino and what the PDC did in Mexico, Finland, and New Zealand.  When your political communication is effective, you build social capital, and this can be tremendously valuable.




[1] Pearce, K. (2010).  Public Engagement and Civic Maturity:  A Public Dialogue Consortium Perspective.  Raleigh, N.C.:  Lulu, p. 28.

[2] Phelan, A. (2010).  Access Cupertino: Citizen Engagement for the 21st Century.  Washington, D. C.: International City/County Management Association.  See also Spano, S. (2001).  Public Dialogue and Participatory Democracy:  The Cupertino Community Project.  Cresskill, N.J.:  Hampton Press.

[3] Rothstein (2005).  Social Traps and the Problem of Trust.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, p 331.  See also Wilkinson, R. & K. Pickett (2009).  The spirit level.  Why more equal societies almost always do better. London:  Allen Lane.


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