Division in America

Americans feel more divided than ever. “85% of registered voters describe Americans as being greatly divided in their values, and only 15% say that democracy in the United States is working extremely or very well,” reports PBS. A 2020 report by Statista writes that 33% of Democrats and 36% of Republicans feel that they are justified in using violence to advance their political goals. Pew Research Center says that only 21% of both Democrats and Republicans think that Washington relationships between both parties will get better in 2021. Why is this happening? Is it because of the so-called ‘Trump Era’? Is it because of the rise of social media? 

I believe that the metaphorical ravine in between political affiliations is caused by a lack of discourse, and therefore lack of understanding. Many Americans just block out the people they disagree with, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, or Instagram. It is easy to just simply block or unfollow the other side. That’s what Braver Angels, a non-profit, bipartisan organization, is interested in. They’re dedicated to the depolarization of American politics. Their local alliance co-chair Jeff Gudman, as a Republican and 2020 candidate for Oregon treasurer, helps lead Braver angels. He believes that Americans aren’t as divided as they think. “When you talk with people of different political views, there is much commonality about their concerns including but not limited to caring for parents, providing for their children, feeling safe in their community, etc.” 

Ryan Nakade, Gudman’s Democratic co-chair, also believes that more open discourse could help to close the divide. “I hope more discourse across different worldviews helps to depolarize.” He also says that he thinks “…Discourse has to be facilitated in a productive way where participants can feel adequately safe and free to share their personal views without being condemned or attacked. Participants must also come with the right motives—to genuinely learn and understand each other—instead of attacking or demonizing those with differing beliefs.”  

All of this seems reasonable, but why bother? Why would the political parties be interested in discourse and depolarization, since they benefit from a divisive America after all, right? Nakade also mentions “on a purely strategic (self-serving) level, it’s important to know what your adversary thinks and believes. Understanding their data, values, framings, and talking points can help you to better advocate for your own convictions in a way they can understand and even get behind (if you want to change someone’s mind, you have to first make sure they understand what you’re saying). If you are in a debate, you can better predict what your adversary is going to say, and then have a premeditated counter ready.” He also thinks that discourse can prevent extremism, and that talking with people, even those extremists, can lead to a more moderate America. “In my personal experience talking to radical/extremists groups, open discourse and communication skills such as active listening, paraphrasing, asking open ended questions, discovering underlying needs and values, etc. goes a long way. When people, especially those on the fringes, feel acknowledged, heard, and accepted, they tend to calm down. They may still believe in their ideology (I haven’t talked any flat earthers into believing the earth is round), but may have less animosity behind it, which will have a less destructive force in society. Also, I think that having more open discourse could prevent individuals from radicalizing in the first place, if they felt heard and accepted.”

The depolarization effect of conversations with the other side  in particular has lots of evidence behind it. According to researchers at the University of Chicago, “mixed groups have… been shown to have two desirable social effects. First, exposure to competing positions generally increases political tolerance. After hearing a variety of views, including those divergent from their own, many people become more respectful of alternative positions and are more willing to consider them plausible or legitimate.” 

What can everyday people do in their lives to increase tolerance and decrease polarization? In Portland, we usually hear the same liberal ideas every day, sort of like an echo chamber.  When was the last time your neighbor had a yard sign advertising a different political candidate than you?  When was the last time Franklin invited a conservative speaker to campus? I feel as if many of us in Portland view the other side as extreme or hateful. It would be nice to hear some different ideas in our little bubble. That doesn’t mean we have to change our minds, but it would be nice to have a glimpse into the other side of the spectrum. I would like to see more open mindedness in our community. I propose we have a place at Franklin where we can have open conversations.  I would like to see more opportunities to hear a variety of political perspectives. This could look like a debate club, a lecture series, or a student discussion group just to name a few ideas. Let’s help make 2021 a less divisive year than the last.

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