There are at least two ways of thinking about how a democratic system functions.
One model is to imagine democracy as conflict. People have interests - material, social, cultural, and moral. They vote for the legislation or politician who best represents those interests. In this model, a group is “in power” when they accumulate more votes than another group. This group, now in power, can pass legislation that is in their interests. The minority party must then do whatever they can to block the legislation.
Consider the GOP’s decision to block everything from then-president Obama’s agenda. John Boehner verbalized their “no-compromise” position when he said: “We’re going to do everything — and I mean everything we can do — to kill it, stop it, slow it down, whatever we can.”
The interactions of everyday people mirror Capital Hill’s conflictual approach. A quick Google search using the term “loss of civility” will produce op-eds, podcasts, and organizations dedicated to addressing the increasing toxicity in American political discourse.
But there is another model of how democracy can function. A democracy can be about consensus-building. Sure, the argument goes, there will be one party that may have the majority of elected officials. But people in a democracy need to discuss ideas and agree on a path forward through a respectful and considerate exchange of competing viewpoints. This process allows everyone to feel as if they are a part of the process. Consider a civic league meeting where people from a neighborhood meet and address issues that are of importance to them. Or consider a town hall meeting where legislators get input from their constituents and then sit down together and craft legislation. This model can be called deliberative democracy.
The term deliberative democracy may not be used by people not in a political theory class. But when people lament the lack of discussion and consensus building in the political arena, they are commenting on the decline in deliberative democracy. Many people would prefer our democratic system to be more about consensus and less about conflict.
Unfortunately, we are going in the opposite direction. Citizens and political operatives see politics as all about power. Us versus them. I win. You lose. There is no compromise.
But why? Why are we this way?
I recently came across some research published in 2018 by Colorado State University at Pueblo Assistant Professor of Political Science Dr. Ryan Strickler. The study was entitled “Deliberate with the Enemy? Polarization, Social Identity, and Attitudes toward Disagreement”. It helps me understand one reason why our political discourse is so toxic. I will be simplifying Dr. Strickler’s research here for ease of interpretation, but you can read the original study if you prefer to see the work in its original form.
Strickler used survey responses to measure how strongly a person identifies socially with Democrats or Republicans. Identifying socially means seeing yourself as a part of the “tribe,” Democrat or Republican. Strickler calls people who strongly identify socially with a political party as high social partisans. He also used survey responses to gauge how much a person supports their party's policy proposals or platform. Some people may support some parts of the Democratic Party’s platform and not others. But some folks may support all of it. Strickler calls people who tend to agree with most or all of their party’s platform are called high ideological partisans.
You can see the breakdown of categories in the table below. Overall, 54% of the people surveyed were high social partisans, and 50% were high ideological partisans.
Strickler hypothesized that individuals who were high in either social or ideological attachment would be less likely to engage in the type of good faith conversations and consensus building essential to deliberative democracy. This makes sense. The more devoted you are to a group or an idea, the less likely you are to entertain conversations that critique those groups and ideas.
After dividing respondents into these four groups, Stickler designed an experiment:
Respondents were asked their opinions on civil liberties and immigration - two political issues that most people will have an informed viewpoint.
After each response, they were given a counterargument and told that the counterargument is from the out party (e.g., if a Republican makes a comment, a counterargument will be given and they are told it is from Democrats.)
They were then asked if this response was reasonable or worth considering.
Finally, the respondents were asked their opinion again.
This clever design is meant to tap into the phenomenon of deliberative democracy. Will people give a good faith consideration of a different viewpoint even if it comes from the opposing party? Will their social and ideological attachments matter in that consideration?
The results were interesting.
Ideological partisanship doesn’t seem to matter much. It doesn’t have a consistent effect on considering counterarguments.
But social partisanship is different. High social partisans, people whose social identity is attached to a political party, are less receptive to ideas they believe are coming from an outparty. This is for both Republican and Democrat high social partisans. Strickler’s hypothesis was supported for social partisans.
At first glance, this is somewhat surprising. One might assume that the people who were committed to their party’s ideology - the specific policy proposals and party platform, who would be the ones least likely to consider counterarguments. But according to Strickler’s research, it is actually the folks who see a political party as their tribe who are the least interested in counterarguments.
Upon deeper reflection, though, it makes sense. High social partisans have a sense of “us” versus “them,” “we” against “they.” And regardless of the substance of an argument, the “we” must be defended. If you discuss gun control with a Republican social partisan, they don’t care about the merits of your arguments - they are defending “their people” and you are a woke socialist. Likewise, if you ask a progressive to consider that maybe the rise in children saying they are transgender is because of social influences, they don’t care about the merits of that argument. They must defend “their side”, and you are a transphobe.
A high social partisan looks at the individual and their group to determine how they should respond to an idea. Once they code the individual or idea as being from an outparty, the incivility starts. The person is insulted and labeled: “racist,” “transphobe,” “socialist,” or “groomer.” The ideas are intentionally distorted, interpreted in the worst possible way, and given no credibility.
In short, high social partisans are less likely to participate in civil, good faith political discussions. If the numbers from Dr. Strickler’s research are reflective of the American population, then over half of Americans have these characteristics. Yikes! Yes, this is why we are so uncivil.
What can be done about this?
First off, I don’t think we can do much about people who are high social partisans. In my view, people are identifying more with a political party these days because they lack options. I wrote a piece last year called The Big Smush, where I talked about the lack of identity-building possibilities for people. One’s religion, job, or hometown no longer has the power to help build one’s identity.
But maybe we can accept that people will be social partisans and instead focus on developing spaces explicitly designed for discussions and consensus-building.
Our congress should have public, nonpartisan discussions. I am not talking about the political theater when congress is in session or the presidential debates we see every four years. I am talking about politicians committing to modeling respectful dialogue. We could have, for example, a televised or live-streamed event where a few congresspeople sit down and chat like regular people, sometimes agreeing, sometimes disagreeing.
Every locality has its community information meetings when there is significant new construction in the area, or the community wants to air their grievances about some issue (ex., A police chief meets with citizens after a police shooting). These are good. But we need more of them, and they need to be oriented towards understanding and exchanging ideas.
K - 12 schools can create instructional blocks that teach the values of consensus-building and how to do it. Colleges and universities can reinforce this. All 4-year colleges require students to earn 60 credits of general education, along with the credits they take for their major. Colleges should require 3 - 6 credits of coursework in their general education curriculum about civic education and the benefits of deliberative democracy.
These institutions can build safe spaces for civic dialogue and consensus-building. We can do this as a society. We just need the commitment.
I wonder if social partisanship decreases at the city/neighbourhood level compared to when discussing national issues.
For the experiment with social partisanship, I wonder if the results would have been altered if instead of being told about a view from the opposing side by the person running the experiment, the opposing view was introduced during an actual (online for my thought experiment) discussion with people from the opposing side. If so, would the size/composition of the group have any effect on the results? Would the presence of an audience for the discussion have an effect on the results? Would discussing a shared, non-political interest ahead of time influence the results?
Great article. Wish you had solutions. Here is a similar piece although the title is regrettable https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/05/30/bill-bishop-tribalism-worse-polarization-trump-00035785