Can’t touch this — why talking across our political divide is not enough

Despite the shared, potentially-unifying threat of COVID-19, America remains deeply divided. What if anything can touch this ever-widening gulf that is hand-cuffing our nation? Might it be as simple as just meeting and talking it out?

In 2017 — a year after President Trump won the presidency — a journalist colleague of mine reported his findings after a full year of chronicling two Americans on opposite sides of the political spectrum — one a Trump-supporter and one a never-Trumper. The two met, sort of became friends. It went well, until it didn’t

This type of reaction to well-intentioned inter-partisan contact is not uncommon. This one happened to be part of an ambitious initiative called “My Country Talks.” This project, originally launched in Germany by Die Zeit, went global last year in an attempt by various media organizations to bridge increasingly hostile political divides by matching people with opposing attitudes on thorny issues and then instructing them to meet for a face-to-face discussion. 

They invite readers to logon to their website and complete an opinion survey, which they then use to match citizens living in the same area who hold divergent views on a potentially polarizing issue. These odd-couples are then encouraged to meet locally over a coffee or a beer and talk. Many of these conversations go well enough, especially when the discussants hold more moderate positions. But too many don’t and have been known to have no effects or those opposite to what was intended by the conveners.

These encounters are typically based on something known as intergroup contact theory, an approach to quelling interethnic strife by bringing disputants together to meet face-to-face, which was originally developed by the social psychologist Gordon Allport in the 1950s. These inter-partisan meetings can show positive changes in political attitudes and relationships. But these days, their effects are often slight, fleeting or worse — they go sour — and the participants end up feeling even more outraged and alienated from the other side. 

In fact, a study recently found that a majority of both Republicans and Democrats report feeling they have less in common with members of the opposite political persuasion after speaking with them about politics — something experienced as “stressful and frustrating,” particularly by liberal Democrats.  

Why does such a tried-and-true approach to addressing intergroup conflict fail today? Three reasons: the people, the problem and the process.

The people aspect of the problem is the part we are all most familiar with. Some folks are just difficult. They may be particularly rigid, dogmatic, contrarian or contentious, or just suffer from what my spouse calls BPD (Bad Personality Disorder). These sorts frustrate every attempt to talk openly about issues that matter and when the issue under discussion threatens important aspects of their identity — their gender, race, religion, or party affiliation — it’s game over. Conflicts over these types of issues shut down most of us to taking in new information or seeing another point-of-view, and BPDs are no exception.

Then there’s the problem of the scope of this problem. The current political divisions we are facing are not only about Trump or his policies. Rather, they are the latest symptoms of a 50+ year trend of escalating political, cultural and geographic sorting and polarization, which shows little sign of stopping. Yes, Trumpian politics are an accelerant — gasoline on a trash fire — but not the cause.

The causes are many and complex, ranging from differences between reds and blues in the threat-sensitivity of their brains and moral priorities to our winner-takes-all political processes, legacy of racism, acute levels of economic inequalityhyper-partisan media and the fact that foreign powers intentionally exacerbate our internal divisions. Most of all, it’s how these many forces can feed and align with one another, creating what I call a “superstorm of polarization.” In other words, something just talking it out often can’t begin to address.

On top of the people and the problem is the process most of us are inclined to use when talking politics. The term “dialogue” is often employed to describe the process of talking over our differences; however, most Americans don’t dialogue — they automatically resort to debate. This is because we are highly socialized to debate through learning it in school, by watching legal proceedings (all 456 episodes of “Law and Order”), or when following political campaigns. Debate also feels like a more fitting response to political differences when emotions run high — a chance to defend yourself and intellectually challenge and defeat the other. 

But, there is a profound difference between debate and dialogue. Debate involves a closed, strategic form of persuasion aimed at winning an argument. It involves making a case for your side, then listening attentively to the other side to identify flaws in their logic that you can use against them. 

Dialogue is the opposite. It involves a process of opening, sharing and discovery, similar to what is often seen in AA meetings. It usually requires a carefully facilitated process where the participants share personal stories about their own experiences and often learn new things about themselves, the others and the issues under discussion. But dialogue is mostly misunderstood and underutilized in the hyper-competitive, litigious context of the U.S. Given the trifecta of defensive people attempting to navigate complex problems through a fault finding process, no wonder we often can’t get very far by just talking it out.

Nevertheless, there is hope. Today, there are hundreds of community-based organizations working in thousands of cities and towns across the nation who know how to support cross-partisan dialogues effectively — and how to move them into joint-community action. These processes often take time (many are ongoing), patience and a willingness to learn and to act. But when well-facilitated processes allow sufficient time “to understand what we don’t know,” they can open up people’s understanding and tolerance of even our most feared differences — and mobilize real change. 

So, if you are genuinely looking for a way out of our toxic divisions, find and connect with those groups in your local area who are already managing to do so.

Peter T Coleman is a professor of psychology at Columbia University who studies intractable conflict.

Tags conflict Dialogue Donald Trump hyper-partisanship Never Trump partisanship political debate political divide political division Social conflict Trump supporter

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