How to engage effectively in a political world where the tables are likely to keep turning.
Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines than at any point in the past two decades, the Pew Research Center reported in 2014. And it isn’t just that we’re rooting for our own political team. We increasingly hate the other side more and more and see their policies as a threat to the well-being of our nation and ourselves.
Let’s be clear that partisanship isn’t an inherently bad thing. It brings clarity to the political system. By identifying with political parties, individuals can gain a better understanding of their own political beliefs and join with others to advance them. When parties advocate for very different policies, voters can have a better understanding of the consequences of their choices at the ballot box. And political allegiances – having a “team” you prefer to play on – is often a huge factor in driving political participation such as voting and contributing money to a candidate.
Partisanship has been a crucial force in driving civic engagement since the early days of this country. But when the embers of political passion burn too hot, it can be counterproductive. The inauguration of President Donald Trump, and the torrent of protest it has unleashed, threatens to widen the nation’s political fissures further.
All Kansans have values and beliefs they want to see advanced in the state and country. Many of us consider ourselves to be members of political parties – and even those of us who fancy ourselves to be independents often lean consistently in one direction or the other.
Partisanship is a reality of engaging in political life. But it can also be done in smart, thoughtful ways that contribute to the common good. Here are seven steps, informed by ideas in the Kansas Leadership Center’s framework, for being a better partisan in an age of polarization.
1. Partisanship is a “Hell of a Drug.”
Don’t overindulge. Partisanship provides a feeling of belonging and being on a team. We get to know who we are and what we stand for. But it’s also, as the political scientist Brendan Nyhan says, a “hell of a drug.” Much like a strong cocktail or a few
pints of beer, too much of it can warp our perception. Polls show it can make us more accepting of behavior on our teams that we strongly criticize the other side for. It’s easy to see the worst in our opponents and the best in the people on our team. Rather than getting swept up in the fervor, we would be wise to sip partisanship in moderation – and be willing to cut ourselves off.
2. Consider that you Might be a Flesh-starved Zombie Yourself.
In a recent TEDx Talk, Stanford University sociologist Robb Willer compared our political discourse to a zombie apocalypse film. We tend to see our side as the heroes and the other side as mindless zombies out to destroy us. But what if it’s the other way around? What if your side looks just as bloodthirsty to a group of zombies only trying to defend themselves? You might consider how the other side might have good reason to feel as threatened by your political beliefs as you are by theirs.
3. Look to See Your Values in the Other Side.
As strongly divided as we appear to be, a lot of basic human values seem universal. The problem is that, as individuals and groups, we place different priorities on them. Willer mentioned in his talk that research shows liberals giving a higher priority to values such as equality and fairness; conservatives are more likely to elevate loyalty and respect for authority and tradition. Since we all share these values at some level, if you look hard enough you can see how what opponents value might connect to what you believe (even if feels like a stretch at first). Surely there are ways in which liberal beliefs reflect purity, respect and loyalty, and conservatives value fairness and equality.
4. But Speak to Their Values.
One of the biggest mistakes we tend to make in political communication is to assume that we should lead with stressing our own values and beliefs. But if everybody does this, we’re doing little more than creating a tower of political Babel that allows no one to understand anyone else. If you’re going to engage the other side in conversation, you probably, as Willer says, want to speak to their language by acknowledging their highest values, not your own.
5. Dial Back the Outrage Machine.
Outrage can be a powerful fuel for political action. But if you blow your top at every action of the other side, you’re bound to wear out, if not yourself, then certainly others around you. Use some perspective to gain control over the level of your outrage. Why does this upset you so much? Has your side ever done something similarly upsetting to others? How might you take positive action on what you care about rather than react in anger? If you can manage your own emotions, you’ll be better positioned to respond in more effective ways to advance what you care about the most.
6. Try Thinking about Political Problems like they’re a Giant Jigsaw Puzzle.
A puzzle has hundreds of pieces of different shapes, sizes and colors. But you will need all of them if you want to put the whole thing together. As much as we want to advance our own beliefs, we’d be mindful to be curious about other viewpoints and how they might fit with ours to solve challenges and problems. How would we behave differently in political dialogue if our starting point was that our views are just one piece of a much bigger puzzle?
7. Play the Long Game.
As attractive as short-term victories can be, we’d be to wise to value upholding rules and trustworthy processes above the outcomes we prefer. This can be difficult, because it often means accepting an outcome we find less than ideal or slowing the pace for an objective we desire. But if we can uphold trustworthy processes no matter who’s in power, then we can ensure fair, respectful treatment over the long haul. Just because your side is winning or losing now doesn’t mean it always will. So plan for a future in which the tables will keep turning.
This article was originally published in the Spring 2017 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. For a subscription to the printed edition of The Journal, visit klcjr.nl/amzsubscribe.