It sounds counterintuitive to say that we’re not polarized as a nation. We see each other as almost separate countries.
There are people from every state who say they are willing to tear apart their communities and save the “good ones” from the devastation, whether that’s snarky liberals on a blog or gun-toting secessionists in the Mountain West. It seems like we can never ever agree on things, and even when we do express some consensus, we’re all suspicious of the others’ motives.
But we’re not as far apart as we think we are. There’s a lot of consensus on things, and I suspect the more people describe their philosophy of life or their aspirations, we’ll find a lot of common ground. That sounds sweet enough to give you cavities, I’m sure, but behind the eloquent sappiness, there’s real truth. We have way more goals in common than what separate us, and if we’re really interested in making progress towards those goals, we need to recognize that.
To help with that process, I’m going to break down exactly how we feed into this myth.
We assume too much about each others’ motives and arguments.
Have you ever entered a discussion with someone about politics and found that you could almost anticipate what they were going to say? You pretty much avoid it because you can already hear the way you’re going to disagree, and you’d rather not end up in a screaming match. But a lot of the time, it’s assuming that people will make certain arguments and preemptively closing your mind to new evidence or ideas that makes it so contentious. Now, there are some really bad ideas that are never going to be acceptable. But once someone gets to their point (instead of assuming what they “really” mean) and you ask for clarification rather than just taking the worst interpretation, you’ll probably find that you have something that you really can agree upon.
We talk more than we listen.
This is one where I am wholly guilty. I am a talker by nature. But I’m also a reader. So my “listening” is to read people with whom I disagree, and see the structure and data buttressing their arguments. Whether you’re talking in person or discussing online, it can help to really listen to the concerns and demands of the people you disagree with. After you try to understand where they’re coming from, why they make the decisions they do, and why they believe so firmly in their arguments, you’ll probably find that you have way more in common than you thought. Or you might find out that you agree on the result but not the process. Huh! Then you’re really not as far apart as you think.
We rely on slogan over nuance.
Everyone has a hobby-horse in politics. For some people, they’re very passionate about tax reform. For some people, it’s about racism or sexism. For others, it’s farmed fish. But it gets really exhausting when we try to flatten out many different causes and effects into a single narrative, preferably one that is closely related to our favorite political topic. It’s super tempting to go with a slogan, whether that’s “No New Taxes” or “Healthcare for Everyone” that sums up your entire argument and slams your opponent’s like a brick to the face. Woo! Winning!
But big slogans are pretty terrible for politics, because have you looked at how complicated the mechanisms are to flush your toilet, let alone run a county, state or country? Imagine if a plumber came in and said, “No clogs ever!” You’d be excited, but really pissed off after your toddler puts his shoes in the toilet and it clogs. Life is really hard, and we can’t anticipate everything. Dueling slogans make it feel like we can’t agree on basic tenets, because they’re too big and sloppy and broad to let us recognize that we’re really agreeing on substance. There’s a reason that we’re constantly warned that “the devil is in the details.” That goes for political discussion too.
We enjoy the reinforcement of righteousness.
It feels so good to win though, doesn’t it? And when you distill everything down to simple slogans while assuming the worst of your opponent and talking over them constantly, winning gets a lot easier. In fact, one need not engage with opponents at all! You can just stay in your circle of like-minded friends, constantly sharing the same ideas, sure that you are right and that you’d crush the opposition (if they weren’t terrified of meeting you on the playground). You can hear someone you think of as really smart and capable say, “I think you have good ideas” and find yourself floating on Cloud 9, rather than having someone you disagree with completely dismantle your argument and trying to find solace in whiskey.
We seem so polarized in our country because we don’t actually want to engage with the weaknesses in our arguments, because we don’t want to hear our flaws and faults, because we would rather have our friends blow smoke up our butts than take a well-deserved knockdown. But many of the things that separate us are illusory. They are choices we make rather than real separation on the issues. If we step back, stop making assumptions of each other, start listening and really engage (even when we lose), we’re going to start fixing the problems that we all agree upon.
Or we’ll all be neck deep in liquor.