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The Paradox of Political Polarization

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One of my favorite podcasts is David McRaney You Are Not So Smart. He recently interviewed Lilliana Mason, author of the book Uncivil Agreement, How Politics Became Our Identity. It's a great interview about an interesting book and you should check it out. When I first listened to this interview some months back, I was fascinated and I've been meaning to write about it ever since. At the end of the interview it takes a very interesting turn. McRaney asks “What do we do? How do we fix it?”
Now you say in the book that as long as this social divide is maintained, then we’re going to behave more like warring tribes than unified nations of people who have different values and different ideas about what policies should be enacted. Now, it’s just like the side has to win and the other side has to lose, no matter what. I feel like these are both the same question, which is, “What do we do? How do we fix it?” I’m just going to stop talking and let you talk as long as you want about that, because I think that is the thing that people want to hear most from you, once you have made them feel as bad as I currently feel.
Mason then goes on to explain a number of things and suggests that one can practice techniques to avoid snap judgments and stereotypes "you can create, by practicing, a secondary response which can follow the first one relatively quickly that says wait don’t assume that. Give this person a chance. They’re a human being. They have family. They care about people." And then the kicker:

The problem with this is that it requires motivation.
People from more homogenous groups, for instance rural white and Christian, are seldom exposed to other religions, races, or cultures "and the more isolated they are, the less they’re going to be motivated to try to understand outsiders." Conversely, those who have social circles including people who are racially or religiously distinct from them have more motivation to be tolerant. "That means the people who are probably reaching out to you saying, 'I want to change this. I want to be more tolerant,' are the people who are already more tolerant and probably more exposed to people who are unlike them."

This itself falls along party lines:
What I found is that people who are largely in the Republican Party, because the Republican Party is largely white and Christian and straight, they tend to be socially exposed to other partisans who are very similar to them. It’s relatively rare for a Republican to meet another Republican who is racially or religiously distinct from them. Democrats are the party of everybody else. Democrats were 56 percent white, 19 percent black, and 17 percent Hispanic in 2016. So, for Democrats, any given Democrat is likely going to be exposed to another partisan member or another party member who is racially or religiously distinct from them, because there are plenty of very religious Democrats who are people of color, and there are plenty of very secular, white Democrats. Within the larger party umbrella, Democrats tend to be exposed to people unlike them on a much more regular basis, or at the very least they think of the people in their party and their group as more diverse.
The people who need to try the most are the people who are the least inclined to try. 
Saying everyone needs to behave the same way to fix this problem is not exactly correct, because it’s the people who are the most socially isolated who really need to practice this the most. It’s unclear to me exactly how to motivate that, because that’s an extremely threatening thing to say to somebody who feels very comfortable in their homogeneous socially homogeneous group.
This to me is similar to the paradox of fact checking. For those that want to know the facts, they're already doing fact checking. For those that need to live in a bubble, better fact-checking tools are not going to change anything because they won't use them nor will they trust them - they'll just scream fake-news whenever the facts don't align with their required alternative reality.

Mason wants us to stop framing things as a zero-sum game:
We need to find a way to step back and think, “OK, what’s the greater good?” Find a way to think about what is the best for the most people. Obviously, it’s not human instinct to do that. But we’ve done it before and we had crosscutting identities between the parties not that long ago. It is possible for us to have crosscutting identities again. That would link us to the other side in terms of thinking of them as human beings.
And the author provides a really good idea of working together in service to improve our understanding and compassion for each other.
The last thing that I’ll say is that the one policy that I’ve thought of this since I wrote the book that could work would be service. One way to get people of varying backgrounds to work together is to put them work together doing some type of service. Working in a soup kitchen or building houses for Habitat or working in Peace Corps or doing something in the military. The military is a giant melting pot of all different kinds of political orientations. One thing that could be helpful is to work together. This is my like moonshot idea.
Check out the full interview and the transcript.


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