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Public Libraries for Bipartisanship: Solutions in Brief

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In a 2019 survey, 20% of Democrats and 15% of Republicans said they thought the country would be better off if much of the opposite camp “just died.” Democrats stereotype Republicans as close-minded while Republicans stereotype Democrats as lazy. Like-minded partisans use their own news sources, live in precincts that vote the same way, and marry within their views.

America has a serious problem: bitter partisan vitriol that blinds each side to the wants and needs of the other. In tandem with growing partisan hatred, Americans have sorted in both the physical and digital realms, choosing social spheres that match to their convictions — and creating a feedback loop that only fuels negative partisanship.

The New Center has a novel idea to change this.

Today, we release “Public Libraries for Bipartisanship,” a policy proposal designed to mend the polarization infecting our politics. It suggests that Congress designate a new funding stream to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to create a grant program for local bipartisan innovation. Public libraries across the country could apply to receive grants to host bipartisan workshops that allow people from across the political spectrum to get to know and respectfully debate one another. Predicated on contact theory, the solution builds off the idea that intergroup discussions can diminish the bias people feel toward other groups.

These workshops could also provide resources for digital literacy, and critical guidance on how to navigate today’s complex (and frequently misleading) political environment online.

On the bipartisan discussion side, activities in public libraries could include:

  • Sessions in which liberals and conservatives air their thoughts, concerns, and questions surrounding ideas from the opposite camp.
  • “Debates” surrounding political issues.
  • Exercises to classify politics-related sentences into facts versus opinions.
  • Evaluating bias in articles from left-leaning and right-leaning news sources.

On the digital literacy side, activities could include:

  • Identifying fake news with tools like a guide to hyperlink meanings.
  • Teaching about native advertising, or ads disguised as news articles.
  • Training for detecting the political agendas behind information presented on social media.

Even if Congress doesn’t allocate a new stream of money for this new grant program to the IMLS, public libraries across the country can still take action. An existing grant program at the IMLS, the Community Catalyst Initiative, offers money to public libraries that implement programs designed to improve their communities’ wellbeing and spur social change. Bipartisan discussion workshops can likely fit under this umbrella.

As our political division rattles families, workplaces, schools, and social networks across the country, it is critical to invest in solutions that bring Americans back together. With the help of earnest bipartisan listening, the U.S. can begin to bridge its partisan chasm — and pull the poison from our politics, one town at a time.

Read the full paper here.