Can We Have Political Healing? Why I’m Hopeful

Article from Medium.com

By Andrew Green, Ph.D.
Very rarely does a social media post get under my political skin. However, one did in the aftermath of the recent presidential campaign (just ask my students taking political science courses at Central College this fall!).

Posted by a friend on the West Coast, the meme was a map of the United States shaded in blue and red. The blue represented states that were primarily won by Secretary Hillary Clinton. The remaining states were shaded in red and were primarily states that Donald Trump had won. Americans have grown accustomed to seeing electoral maps shaded in blue, red, and even purple, but what was troubling about this particular map was how its creator had labeled it. The labels did not define the blue states as Clinton states and the red states as Trump states. It labeled the blue states as “America” and the red states as “Dumbexpletiveistan.”

At first, I tried to dismiss the meme as a post from a disgruntled West Coaster upset about the election of Donald Trump. As a native Midwesterner attending graduate school in southern California, I commonly had to dispel myths held by residents of the West Coast about the Midwest (e.g., yes there are large metropolitan areas in the Midwest). But the more I thought about the meme, the angrier I became. I don’t consider myself or many of my family and friends, regardless of whether they voted for Trump, Clinton, or for a third party candidate, to be uniformed, unengaged, or even dumb. Not only did the meme underscore how much the liberal left needed to learn about people who live in states that Trump won (and by the way, the right has just as much to learn about people who live in urbanized states that Clinton won as well), it also underscored how much work we have to do in improving political discourse in the United States.

Why has our political discourse become so emotionally charged and at times offensive? And what can we do to improve political discourse in the U.S. in order to tackle the important problems this country faces as we enter a new presidential administration?

I am writing this piece from Washington, D.C., just prior to the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I am fortunate to be participating at an academic seminar sponsored by The Washington Centerfocusing on the transition of power and how we can improve political discourse in America. Undergraduate and graduate students, including two of our Central College students, have the opportunity to engage with prominent political and media elites in Washington about major issues facing our country ranging from race relations to foreign policy to various domestic policy issues all within the context of the transition of power on January 20.

I have been fortunate to work with 13 impressive undergraduate and graduate students from all over the country in a small-group setting. Their candor and commitment to improving our discourse gives me hope that we can indeed improve our political discussions. They hold extremely divergent opinions, and yet hearing their discussions has been a breath of fresh air.

It’s hard to have tough discussions about topics on which you disagree fiercely, and stay civil. Yet these students are willing to listen, respectful, and open to new ideas — this is also something I’m seeing from Central College students back on campus. When the debate is over, they even become friends, and their collegiality is something Congress could take notes on.

Why can’t we all disagree and stay cordial? Why is political discourse so mean-spirited? For starters, the widening divide between the two major political parties impacts how we interact with one another. Research done by the Pew Research Center in 2014 chronicles the growing divide between Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. According to Pew’s data, the ideological consistency of and the gap between our political parties grew significantly from 1994 to 2014. In fact, “in 1994 23 percent of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17 percent of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively” (emphasis in the original). More problematic for political discourse is the deteriorating views that the parties hold about the other side. Based upon 2014 survey data, Pew demonstrates that 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans believe the other party is a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

Compounding the problem of growing partisan division is the geographic distribution of Democrats and Republicans in America. Lee Drutman, in an op-ed for the New York Times during the 2016 campaign, wrote that the close nature of the presidential race may lead Americans to be under the illusion that partisan political races are indeed competitive across the nation. In the piece, he writes that “In most places, meaningful two-party electoral competition is nonexistent. Rather than being one two-party nation, we are becoming two one-party nations. … Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.”

While Drutman’s piece focuses primarily on the implications of partisan division on elections, becoming “two one-party nations” also has implications for the political rhetoric that is used by elected officials when communicating with constituents and rhetoric used by constituents when discussing elected officials, particularly when discussing elected officials of the other party. When seats are safely held by one party or the other, there is no electoral incentive for candidates or voters to engage in honest, respectful dialogue during campaigns or after the election is over. In other words, we should not be surprised when we end up with the negative rhetoric, the inflammatory language, and the demeaning of opposing candidates that we do when there is no incentive for political players to engage in a respectful dialogue about important issues or topics.

The rise of social media also plays a big role in the rise of deceptive speech. Social media networks, such as Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, do contribute positively to the flow of political information. Social media allows for elected officials to quickly communicate with supporters and the media, and allows for constituents to quickly communicate with elected officials and stay informed about what is going on in government. In fact, recent research done by Professor Leticia Bode at Georgetown University published in the journal Mass Communication & Society, does suggest that political learning “can and sometimes does” occur via social media platforms.[1]

However, social media also has negative effects on political discourse because it creates a quasi-“echo chamber” for ideas and allows for radical ideas to drown out respectful conversations about politics. Nicholas Carr, a writer for Politico, says that social media “favors the bitty over the meaty, the cutting over the considered. It also prizes emotionalism over reason. The more visceral the message, the more quickly it circulates and the longer it holds the darting public eye.” In short, honesty suffers.

These sorts of tactics, including the use of memes which Robert Montenegro, a writer for bigthink.com, calls “the lowest form of political discourse,” serve to disaffect those who might otherwise agree with a position the post’s creator holds. And once a reader feels disaffected or demonized by the other side, the likelihood of engaging in respectful dialogue decreases significantly.

So how do we go about improving political discourse in the United States? We can all agree that the country faces significant policy challenges during the Trump administration, whether it be the fight against ISIS, the repeal-and-replace or amending of the Affordable Care Act, or what we are going to do about reforming entitlement programs such as Medicare or Social Security. However, in order to effectively solve these collective problems, we must engage respectfully, honestly, and rigorously; but we must carefully listen as well.

During one of the opening sessions of the program here at The Washington Center, Julia Azari, a political scientist from Marquette University and faculty leader of the TWC academic seminar this week, offered three suggestions for improving our political discourse. First, she argues that we must discuss political issues with careful honesty. Hearing opposing viewpoints which can challenge our long-held assumptions about politics and government is hard. It is clear that some on the left are disappointed with the election of Donald Trump. However, to say that Trump was not elected legitimately, like U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) did in an interview with NBC News last week, is not engaging in honest dialogue about the presidential election. The reality is that Donald Trump won a majority in the Electoral College, which makes his election legitimate. It is fine to be upset about an election outcome, and at some point or another we all will be, but that does not give us license to engage in dialogue grounded in false truths. We must be willing to be open and honest about our attitudes and beliefs, but we must commit to communicate with each other in a respectful and honest way in order to begin to bridge the divide.

Second, we must use inclusive language. We have all probably been guilty of using exclusive language about a person or group in private or amongst like company, and discussed the same person or group differently when engaging the person or group directly. Regardless of the audience, we need to use inclusive language, whether it be during face-to-face communication, online, or during public fora. It is very easy to use exclusive language on social media or online, which serves to demean or disaffect people. Just think about Trump’s Twitter reaction to Lewis’s claims that he is an illegitimate president. He claims “Congressman John Lewis should finally focus on the burning and crime infested inner-cities of the U.S.” Not only is the tweet racially charged, it also is factually incorrect as Lewis has been a prominent civil rights leader for more than 50 years. If Trump wants to engage the African-American community as he said he did during the campaign, using racially charged rhetoric in reference to a civil rights icon will do nothing to encourage dialogue between the Trump administration and the African-American community. Committing to using inclusive language at all times would foster an inclusive environment, and the trust and reciprocity we need to solve collective problems.

Third, we must engage with rigor. This means that our discourse must be grounded in evidence and reason that reaches beyond our personal experience. As Azari told the students during the seminar, “you are the expert on your own experience, but lived experience alone is not expertise.”It is our responsibility as citizens to challenge assertions made by politicians that are not grounded in facts or are grounded in disputable facts. Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said: “In the wake of the presidential election it has become abundantly clear that the American people have overwhelmingly rejected Obamacare time and time again.” While there is palpable opposition to the Affordable Care Act, King’s statement is not grounded in fact. He assumes that Trump’s victory alone gives him a mandate to govern, which is questionable considering that Trump lost the popular vote to Clinton, receiving only 46.1 percent. King’s statement also runs counter to public opinion polls, including a one by the Kaiser Family Foundation, which shows that while only 43 percent of Americans hold a favorable opinion of the Affordable Care Act, 47 percent believe that it should not be repealed and 28 percent believe that a repeal should come after a legitimate replacement is introduced. We need to commit to seeking out facts from experts in the field and use the evidence appropriately without spin or misrepresentation. We also must commit to reading and fully understanding the materials we are sharing online.

I would add one other suggestion to Azari’s: We need to do a better job of listening to one another. Modern TV news commentary programs are dominated with political and media elites who simply talk around (or over) one another, often failing to address or acknowledge legitimate points offered by others. This also occurs in our day-to-day lives as we engaged in political discussions at the coffee shop, over lunch, and on social media platforms. Julie Winokur, a documentary film maker who presented her film “Bring It to the Table” at the TWC seminar, told the students that many Americans believe listening is only about waiting for the other individual to stop talking. If we are truly going to engage in respectful dialogue, and make an attempt to understand the beliefs and attitudes of others, we must commit to carefully and critically listening to one another.

In the aftermath of the violent encounter between protestors and Trump supporters in Chicago last March, President Obama told a crowd at a fundraiser in Dallas that we should be teaching kids “how to disagree without being disagreeable and how to engage and how to analyze facts.” From what I’ve seen working with students this week in Washington, at least some of tomorrow’s leaders are receiving that message, and taking it to heart. I’m encouraged that many of today’s students seem committed to an open and honest dialogue, and I have hope that we can work together to achieve our collective goals.

Andrew Green is professor of political science at Central College in Pella, Iowa.

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