This column is not about Donald Trump. You’re welcome.
While the deterioration of our public discourse preceded the 2016 election — and indeed Trump’s nomination and election can be seen as effects rather than causes of the phenomenon — political polarization is a defining characteristic of his presidency. Partisan Democrats see Trump’s imprint on most matters of public concern and find it highly objectionable. Partisan Republicans see something else: Trump as the victim of ceaseless attacks by his foes inside and outside government.
Another way of saying the same thing is that our national politics, at least, has become hyper-personalized. It’s not a sign of civic health. And it isn’t helping us tackle challenging issues that require prudence, coalition-building, and attention to detail.
The Pew Research Center recently published a fascinating new study that used experiments and hypothetical scenarios to go below the surface of public concerns about civil discourse. For example, rather than just asking all respondents how politicians in general ought to conduct themselves, the researchers randomly assigned respondents to three groups.
One was asked whether they thought it was very important for “elected officials to treat opponents with respect.” Given the president’s style, you might expect Republicans to view this question with more skepticism than Democrats, and you’d be right. But the gap wasn’t large: 68% of the overall sample, 63% of Republicans, and 72% of Democrats agreed it was very important.
To the other two groups, however, Pew presented a variant of the question. Some were asked whether it was very important for “Republican elected officials to treat Democratic elected officials with respect.” Democrats were far more likely to say yes (78%) than were Republicans (49%). Similarly, when the third group was asked about “Democratic elected officials” treating “Republican elected officials with respect,” far more Republican respondents (75%) than Democratic ones (49%) said yes.
That’s a finding about political perceptions rather than moral double-standards, I suspect. Both sides view their “team” as more-or-less following the rules while the other team breaks them. It makes them resentful.
Pew conducted another interesting experiment for the study that may point the way toward a more productive dialogue. It asked respondents about substantive questions: raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, substantially expanding walls along the border with Mexico, and banning “assault-style weapons.”
Of course there was disagreement, but that’s not the key point here. Later in the survey, respondents were asked whether they would be willing to share their views about these topics at a small dinner party with people who disagreed with them and whom they had never met before.
Although you might expect the predominant answer to be “no,” given the tenor of the times, that’s not what the Pew researchers discovered. Large majorities of both supporters (74%) and opponents (70%) of the minimum-wage hike said they’d talk about it. So did two-thirds of people on both sides of the gun-control issue and sizable majorities of people on both sides of the immigration question.
When asked if at the same dinner party they’d want to discuss their feelings about the president, however, 57% of Trump supporters and only 43% of Trump opponents said yes.
These and other recent survey results suggest that if we want to talk about controversial issues in a more useful way, we should all lean against the hyper-personalization of politics. Focus as much as possible on the substantive issues, not on personalities. Explore why you think what you think, and how others might have come to a different conclusion without being ignorant, foolish, or dishonest.
What values are most important to you? What facts do you believe to be indisputable? What evidence of a policy’s effectiveness do you find relevant and persuasive? What would make you change your mind?
Such constructive engagement across political differences takes time, concentration, and active listening. You can’t do it if your head space is occupied by someone else.