Democrats and Republicans increasingly view the other party as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.” In her home state — where she also teaches — University of Wisconsin political science professor Katherine Cramer notes that “people, in casual conversation, are treating each other as enemies.”
Scholars continue to debate whether today’s polarization is rooted in a deepening ideological divide or simply in more effective party mobilization that accentuates long-standing disagreements. But the higher level of acrimony is clear: As “threats” and “enemies,” political opponents fall into categories of people whom we view with suspicion, and whom we treat accordingly.
In my last column, I analyzed the impacts of polarization as seen through the government shutdown and argued we need to remove Congress’ and the president’s ability to recklessly engage in brinkmanship. Today, I focus on polarization at the individual level and attempt to develop a positive standard for productive, interpersonal conversations among peers who disagree.
But before arguing for a specific standard, I think it’s important to clarify why interpersonal conversations with political opponents are valuable and consider the extent to which these conversations are possible.
First, we have the opportunity to break down misunderstandings — or at the very least clarify the difference — between others’ ideologies and our own. Given that “people with strong partisan and ideological views literally move towards one another” through the phenomenon of residential sorting, there is less opportunity than ever for Democrats and Republicans to talk with one another face to face.
While exchanges on the internet may overcome these barriers of distance, they are generally not conducive to anything but outrage. The overall result is that our perception of our political opponent’s beliefs can be articulated by people from within our own ideological circle. This does not inherently invalidate our initial perceptions but should at the very least spur us to double check.
This necessity to double-check is reinforced in John Stuart Mill’s argument for free speech in the chapter “Of the Liberty of Thought and Discussion” of his book “On Liberty,” where he claims we must allow dissent because otherwise, we have no grounds for believing what we believe: I would be hard pressed to claim that Yosemite is the most beautiful national park in America, for example, if I didn’t at least search up images or visit the other ones. I would be dismissing potentially better options without having fully considered them, and even if I don’t change my mind, engaging others forces me to articulate not just what I believe, but also why I believe it.
The implication is not that we can’t have any opinions just because they might be wrong. Such apathy, especially when it is used to justify inaction in the face of injustice, can be extremely dangerous. Rather, we draw a distinction between being firm in a conviction and considering that conviction to be beyond the scope of acceptable challenge. For example, the scientific method requires constant examination to sharpen models and incorporate new findings, but that doesn’t mean we can’t teach about evolution or create policies to address climate change.
There is a legitimate concern, however, that conversations with truly abhorrent opponents — take Nazis or white supremacists, for example — can never be productive and only serve to legitimize heinous platforms. Perhaps — as I’ve seen a post on my Facebook feed claim — some disagreements are not just of opinion, but of morality, and are therefore incommensurable.
I do not discredit these points, nor do I offer a specific formula to determine what is within and what is beyond the pale of acceptable discourse. I simply suggest that there are cases in which the extent of difference between Democrats and Republicans is hyperbolized as a means of intra-party mobilization, and that the very existence of these cases should make us wary and even skeptical of claims that we cannot productively engage people from the other party.
So what does productive engagement look like, and how can we achieve it? To me, productive engagement treats political differences as a negotiation rather than a battleground. It is achieved through an ethos of civility and “interpretive charity,” as Professor Eamonn Callan from Stanford’s Graduate School of Education argues in his paper, “Education in Safe and Unsafe Spaces.”
By negotiation rather than a battleground, I mean that a productive conversation requires parties to enter with good faith intentions and should temper the emotional stakes involved. As someone who debated extensively throughout high school, I’ve always enjoyed fiery cross-examinations and impassioned rebuttals. I recognize the value of debate in sharpening our conception of various ideas. But if you want to actually convince someone to change their mind, you’re better off asking more questions and making fewer attacks — in giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than immediately issuing a moral indictment.
This is not to imply that there aren’t cases where moral indignation is essential in bringing about change. But these examples usually involve government policy or actions taken by organizations, or they play out between actors of unequal power. Among peers at the individual level, the need for moral opprobrium is substantially reduced.
Civility, as Professor Callan puts it, mandates that “we express respect for others’ dignity in how we interact directly with them.” Interpretive charity asks that we assume others are approaching the conversation with good intentions until we have good reason to believe otherwise. Together, they offer a framework under which Democrats and Republicans might not become friends, but they can at least begin to engage in the productive conversations necessary to reduce the growing acrimony between them.
Contact Nadav Ziv at nadavziv ‘at’ stanford.edu.