Tackling Political Polarization: An Unconventional Gathering

Perched on a narrow stretch of the Big Sur Pacific coastline, Esalen Institute is about as far away as you can get from the Washington DC and still be in the same country—geographically, but also politically, culturally, and institutionally. Yet, for a few days in the first week of October, those distances were bridged, and Esalen played host to a carefully curated, invitation-only “conclave” of 24 experts to address the subject of Political Polarization. The result was three days of political and cultural analysis that surprised the insiders, educated the outsiders, engaged both Republicans and Democrats, and left everyone encouraged—not a small achievement when it comes to such a notoriously thorny subject.

“The polarization between the parties exists even when the issue under debate has no ideological content,” explained Brookings Institute scholar Tom Mann on the first morning. And he pointed to a telling statistic: “In the 1960s, 5 percent or so of Democrats and Republicans said they would be unhappy if their child married somebody from the other party. Today, it’s 49 percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats. People today are more unhappy if their child marries someone from another party than someone from another religion.”

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