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Opinion: Raise the heat on yourself to lead through polarization

Editor’s note: This commentary is being produced as a part of Elevate 2021, an effort by The Journal to bring new voices into the pages of the magazine to discuss important civic issues and expand the range of viewpoints available to readers.

 

 

Paul Wagle has dabbled in many careers from pharmaceutical chemist to economic developer. Equipped with two bachelor’s and two master’s degrees, he now serves as a health care ethicist. With a passion for engaging others civically, Wagle volunteers for a handful of nonprofits, including KLC as a member of the Civic Engagement Advisory Board.

Politics traditionally breeds conflict, but 2020 has raised the heat of political disputes to record-breaking temperatures. This situation is brilliantly demonstrated in JP Sears’ satire The Left vs Right in 2020. In this YouTube video, Sears depicts two polarized personalities arguing and refusing to listen to the other’s perspective. (Sound familiar?) These personalities vocalize the ridiculous assumptions and thoughts we experience in arguments like: “I look like I am listening, but I am not. I am just rehearsing what I am going to say next.” However, this funny skit touches on a reality that is more of a tragedy than a comedy, namely political polarization.

There are numerous detrimental effects to polarization. Recent studies have shown that political polarization has been linked with increased violence, and greater acceptance of lies from one’s own side. There is also a pressure to conform to a political party’s view even if one does not originally agree. As much as any time in modern history, we need to be focused on  the “United” States. This may not be as difficult as it seems, because studies have shown that we are closer to agreement than most people think. Kansas Leadership Center principles equip leaders to unite Americans in today’s divisive times. But it is easier to give the KLC principles lip service than it is to act upon them.

How many times have you seen a political leader who worked across factions on a contentious issue? As much as politicians boast of bipartisanship, many bills are passed with few votes from the “other” party. In December 2019, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi boasted of over 275 bills that passed the House but had not been considered by the Senate. Of 10 that she cited as “bipartisan,” only two had more than 10 Republican votes. This is not just an issue with Democrats. The reason behind Pelosi’s statement was to encourage Senate Republicans to start working across factions. As December ebbed,  there was a bipartisan effort to provide some coronavirus relief, but negotiations were labored.

But if voters were just a little more informed, they would elect better politicians, right?

Unless you are a bit eccentric, exploring tough interpretations of one’s political views is anything but fun and hardly entertaining. The 24-hour news networks know that their viewership drops when they provide a diet of nuance. They have learned to cater to their audiences for the sake of entertainment, and more importantly, for the sake of making money. Consequently, to the detriment of America, we tend to choose news sources that reinforce our political ideologies.

Before we place all of the blame on politicians and broadcast news, we need to think about our own part of the mess. When was the last time you explored a tough interpretation that authentically challenged your own political views? What about the last time you worked across factions and actively sought out someone with a different political point of view to start where they are? It is dangerous to be surrounded by people who tell you only what you want to hear. Are you able to be close friends with someone who would support the “other” candidate? The study is in, and four out of 10 Americans do not have a single close friend who supports the opposing party’s candidate.

When I was around middle-school age, I had a friend who would wear an awful beige shirt with a bright red soup can on it. Surrounding the image were the words “Labels are for soup cans.” I thought that shirt was absolutely hideous.  But as I reflect on it now, I realize that my friend understood something I did not: Every person is more than the labels we attribute to them.

There are hopeful signs that people in my community want to work on this problem of polarization. Wichita has been selected by StoryCorps to bring people of different views together for a program called One Small Step. The goal is to help people get past politically polarizing labels by sharing life experiences. It is through speaking from the heart that we are able to work across factions. StoryCorps is tearing down the false barriers we put up to keep out the people we disagree with.

As Americans, we are all part of this mess. Contrary to many social media posts, we cannot get up and move to another country each time a different point of view lands in the White House. As KLC alumni, we have been equipped to act experimentally to engage civically. KLC has given us tools and a language to lead in each of our communities. As the temperatures drop this winter, let’s raise the heat ourselves to lead through this politically polarized climate.

References

Dunn, A. (2020). Few Trump or Biden supporters have close friends who back the opposing candidate. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2020/09/18/few-trump-or-biden-supporters-have-close-friends-who-back-the-opposing-candidate/

Flynn, D. J., Nyhan, B., & Reifler, J. (2017). The nature and origins of misperceptions: Understanding false and unsupported beliefs about politics. Political Psychology, 38, 127-150.

Fu, G., Evans, A. D., Wang, L., & Lee, K. (2008). Lying in the name of the collective good: A developmental study. Developmental science, 11(4), 495-503.

Gerber, A. S., Huber, G. A., Doherty, D., & Dowling, C. M. (2011). The big five personality traits in the political arena. Annual Review of Political Science, 14, 265-287.

Kalmoe, N. P., & Mason, L. (2019). Lethal mass partisanship: Prevalence, correlates, and electoral contingencies. In NCAPSA American Politics Meeting. Kiely, E. (2019). Pelosi’s Bipartisanship Boast. FactCheck.org. Retrieved from https://www.factcheck.org/2019/12/pelosis-bipartisanship-boast/

Yudkin, D. A., Hawkins, S., & Dixon, T. (2019). The Perception Gap: How False Impressions are Pulling Americans Apart.

 

winter 2021 journal cover

A version of this article appears in the Winter 2021 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.

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