Let’s Read, Listen, and Connect to Bridge Political Differences

I grew up in an era when arguing about politics over dinner was a friendly family sport. Although these discussions were often passionate, we would always end amicably, agreeing to disagree. The arguments did not focus on political party positions but rather on issues. Today, political tensions are at an all-time high, and what used to be friendly banter can now devolve into heated debates that rip families, friends, and colleagues apart. James Lo, assistant professor of political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, who researches political preferences, has been measuring how levels of political polarization have changed over time. By studying something called the overlap interval, Lo measures how many Republicans lie to the right of the most right-leaning Democrat and how many Democrats lie to the left of the most left-leaning Republicans. According to Lo, “Today, the overlap interval is zero.” He says, “This was certainly not always true. In the 1960s, for instance, you had intervals where about 50% of the legislators in the two parties overlapped.” Why has the political gap widened so much over the decades?  Lo’s research indicates  “that the Republican Party has experienced a dramatic shift to the right and ideological moderates in both parties have all but disappeared.”

Research on Political Divides Today

Today these divides have reached new heights. Pew Research Center has been studying political divides from many different angles and found that “the share of adults who see strong partisan conflicts—particularly the share who perceive very strong conflicts between Democrats and Republicans—is much higher today than in 2016 or 2012.” It also found that “about nine-in-ten Americans (91%) say that conflicts between the party coalitions are either strong or very strong.  A narrower majority of adults (59%) say strong or very strong conflicts exist between rich people and poor people, including 31% who say these conflicts are very strong. About half of Americans (53%) say there are strong conflicts between Black and white people, although just 19% say these conflicts are very strong.”
Various Pew studies conducted over the past 18 months provide more detail about the nature of these divides:
  • Roughly 40% of registered voters in both camps say that they do not have a close friend who supports the candidate who isn’t from their party, and fewer than a quarter say they have more than a few friends who do.
  • Among all registered voters, 44% say it is a lot more difficult to be a Black person than a white person in this country. The share of voters who say it is a lot more difficult to be Black has increased 9 percentage points since 2016, but this change has come entirely among supporters of the Democratic candidates.
  • Although Democrats and Republicans may align on some of the problems facing the country, they divide ranks on the severity of some of these issues. For example, large majorities in both parties—95% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents and 72% of Republicans and Republican leaners—agree the coronavirus outbreak is either a very big or moderately big problem for the country. However, roughly twice as many Democrats (76%) as Republicans (37%) say it is a very big problem.
  • Even views about higher education show partisan divides. About half of American adults think colleges and universities are having a positive effect on the way things are going in the country. About 38% say they are having a negative impact—up from 26% in 2012. The increase in negative views has come almost entirely from Republicans and independents who lean Republican.
Are we really so divided on issues though? Or could this be more perception than reality? “America’s Divided Mind,” a new report by the University of Pennsylvania and Beyond Conflict, suggests that "Democrats and Republicans both think that the divide between them is more than twice what it actually is." The study reveals “an opportunity to address a range of false beliefs that Americans hold about each other that lead to fear, distrust, and hostility.” The authors suggest that current research studies and polls don’t capture the psychological factors that fuel polarization and that if we understand those, we may be able to bridge divides.

For example, they tested partisan views on a range of issues such as immigration.
Researchers asked members of each party to rate their own views on immigration, not asking about specific policies but rather about general preference for closed or open borders. In the survey, zero means keeping all borders completely open to all migrants and 100 means keeping all borders completely closed to all migrants. Survey takers were asked to estimate how the average member of the other party would answer the same question. Democrats had a median score of 35, but Republicans estimated that Democrats would have a median score of 9. Meanwhile, Republicans had a median score of 75, while Democrats estimated Republicans would have a median score of 92.
Does this research provide a new way to open dialogue about the issues of the day? The study authors suggest that there are actions that we can take nationally, locally, and individually to mitigate the political divide:
  • We need to engage opinion leaders to stop the spread of polarizing rhetoric. If those in a place to sway opinion change their approaches, they can do much to change hearts and minds.
  • Community leaders can create awareness campaigns about partisan misperceptions through voter’s guides and outreach to faith and cultural communities.
  • Individually, we need to really listen to those who see issues differently than us and find areas of agreement.

Using Moral Reframing to Build Bridges

In our school communities, we can and must work to facilitate effective dialogue so that we can create healthy cultures for students and adults. Sociologists and researchers suggest that a technique called moral reframing is showing some success in how we can do that. Robb Willer, a Stanford professor who has studied partisan divides notes, “The way people typically approach political persuasion is that they talk about their own reasons for holding given political positions, but this neglects the fact that the person you’re talking with often has very different moral values, very different psychological makeup, and a very different social background.” Willer says that persuasion is rooted in empathy. “If you want to begin to change someone’s mind, you should make your argument from an understanding of their values, not your own.” Past studies of this technique have shown that it can bring people together on a range of issues, such as economic inequality, environmental protection, and same-sex marriage.
What is a good first step? Willer suggests that we can begin by reading as much as possible on views that are opposing to our own. Today, people tend to read and watch those sources that confirm their point of view. Willer notes that by doing so “we’re sort of training ourselves to be really, really bad at speaking to someone with different values.”
There are many organizations that can provide additional strategies for bridging divides. For example, the Common Ground Committee is a nonpartisan group that brings people from diverse political backgrounds together to find common ground on issues like race, taxes, and health care. Their forums “invite citizens to shift their goal from winning arguments to making progress on issues.” The organization Bridge Alliance showcases 32 members that are doing work in bridging divides.
Many schools are already doing this work successfully, but we must continue to grow and experiment if we are to become communities in which respect, empathy, and mutual trust are the foundation. We are learning communities first and foremost. Let’s put that muscle to work in bridging political divides.
Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.


Neal Wrightson
10/28/2020 10:15:35 AM
Thank you Donna. This a key area in which independent schools can be leading a much-needed change in our culture. Education for democracy must be centered on dialogue and the skills you call out here. Public education can be part of this process - must be a partner- but is currently so politicized that it has been paralyzed regarding any attempt to open conversations. I hope NAIS and the independent school community will take the lead in giving children a chance to talk about politics and their interests and values.

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