Educating the Public on Evidence-based methods for improving inter-group civility.

American Democracy as a Shared Goal that Unites Liberals and Conservatives

One of our main evidence-based recommendations is to try to find common goals when seeking to unite groups that have a moral conflict.  Recently, two events have gotten me thinking about how to apply this more specifically to the current political division through a relatively benign shared goal – the goal of staying true to the founding fathers’ idea of American Democracy.

american-flag-447444_960_720I recently attended a gathering of concerned citizens – liberal and conservative – put on by Better Angels.  While most of us in the room were very politically active and gathered out of a concern for rising polarization, we recognized that we had challenges in getting less politically active citizens engaged in the relatively abstract and uninspiring goal of “depolarizing” American politics.  We had particular issues in attracting more conservative citizens for whom rhetoric around conflict reduction can seem like code words for liberal ways of thinking.  We were lucky enough to have some conservative representation in the room, which is a testament to Better Angels’ network, and they felt that the positive goal of promoting the American democratic ideal was indeed something they (and perhaps conservatives like them) would gravitate toward.  Given that common goals are a proven way to bring groups together and that waiting for the next 9/11 style attack or war to provide that goal, our nation seems in need of a common goal that can indeed unite us in relatively peaceful times – and specifically a goal that can get conservatives and liberals both interested in increasing civility in politics.

Around this time, Donald Trump has been engaging in rhetoric that seems designed to undermine our faith in democratic institutions, by pointedly failing to reassure citizens that he would accept the results of the election and facilitate a peaceful, civil transfer of power.  In light of our gathering’s suggestion for a common goal, I couldn’t help but notice how Trump’s rhetoric united many liberals and conservatives in their defense of our electoral system.  Consider this essays penned by the loser of the Republican loser of the 2008 election.

From CBS News:

Arizona Sen. John McCain, who lost the 2008 presidential election as the Republican nominee, slammed Trump’s behavior Thursday, penning a lengthy statement that never once mentioned his party’s candidate.

“All Arizonans and all Americans should be confident in the integrity of our elections,” McCain said in a statement Thursday. “Free and fair elections and the peaceful transfer of power are the pride of our country, and the envy of much of the world because they are the means to protecting our most cherished values, the right to liberty and equal justice.”

“There have been irregularities in our elections, sometimes even fraud, but never to an extent that it affected the outcome. We should all be proud of that, and respect the decision of the majority even when we disagree with it. Especially when we disagree with it,” he added.

McCain went on to discuss the results of the 2008 election.

“I didn’t like the outcome of the 2008 election,” he said. “But I had a duty to concede, and I did so without reluctance. A concession isn’t just an exercise in graciousness. It is an act of respect for the will of the American people, a respect that is every American leader’s first responsibility.

Many more Republicans have either criticized Trump’s remarks or attempted to walk them back for him, suggesting that the ideal of American Democracy is indeed strong enough to transcend partisanship.  It is also something that groups like The Village Square use to great effect in their programming.  So perhaps the next time you’re seeking something to bridge a liberal-conservative divide in your community, family or city – consider respect for the unique nature of American Democracy itself as a common goal that we can all work toward together.

- Ravi Iyer

 

Read Ahead

How to Make Real Progress Against Trump’s Incivility

I haven’t written much about Trump, who has taken “incivility” to new heights this election season, in part because there is no trumpevidence that telling large groups of people to be more civil has any value.  There is both anecdotal evidence and research that suggests forcefully telling people to be more civil will backfire.  Incivility and conflict involving large groups of people tends to be a function of a situational dynamic - two groups competing for a goal or a scarce resource like victory in a game or an election – that trumps any direct commandment to be more civil.  The rise of Trump as a political force is an opportunity for us to practice what we preach at Civil Politics and try to understand the dynamics that give rise to the conflict we see, in the hopes of cutting it off at its source.  As has been written in other places, Trump is a symptom, not a cause, and we are likely to see others follow in his footsteps whether he is elected or not.  If we really want a better political dialogue, we need to understand the root causes of Trump’s appeal.

It helps to start with the empirical fact that there are very few truly evil people in the world.  Human beings are uniquely social creatures who survived and thrived by being able to cooperate with hundreds of thousands of others, such that only ~1% of us are “psychopaths” who actually don’t care about others.  A human being who doesn’t care about others is akin to a bee that doesn’t care about his hive.  It’s rare.  The rest of us really do care about others beyond ourselves and try to do what we think is right, even if we sometimes do what others would think of as “evil” as a result.  That definition of “right” may include violence, theft, and incivility in the name of a moral cause (see research on idealistic evilthe dark side of moral conviction or terrorism and sacred values), but there is a moral cause behind most people’s actions, even when we disagree with those actions.

Trump supporters have many moral motivations that many who disagree with him would recognize and value.

- They worry about the lack of jobs for hard-working, but under educated Americans.
- They fear that the system of lobbyists and special interests is stacked against them.
- They think that politicians cannot be trusted to fight for everyday Americans, due to their reliance on donors who line their pockets.
- They feel that their identity and their ability to express their opinions is under attack.

Indeed, many of these positions are emphasized by Bernie Sanders, which is why you sometimes see people who support Trump and Sanders both.  Calling Trump supporters racist, stupid or naive is not only a misleading caricature, but also a recipe for only exacerbating the coarsening conflict that we are trying to avoid, as it drives each side into its corner.  If we want things to get better, research suggests that we have to start from a place of common goals and develop a positive relationship with Trump fans rather than having convincing them why they are wrong as our ultimate goal.  Staging violent protests at Trump’s rallys is the opposite of this.  How can we instead reduce the divisions, rather than inflame them?

Let us acknowledge that we need to do something to help people who want to work hard but are being left behind by an increasingly global and technological economy.  Let us acknowledge that lobbyists and donors have undue influence and work to curb that influence, whether it be through campaign finance or a simpler government with fewer rules to be gamed.  Let us all accept that we want a society where no identity, American or immigrant, religious or atheist, urban or rural, feels threatened and unable to express their opinions freely, and work to make relationships across these divides.  And let us accept that whatever we think of Donald Trump as a person, his supporters are generally ordinary Americans who care deeply about their kids and their communities.  Let’s help them with their concerns as it makes no sense to be someone who cares deeply about poor Americans who simultaneously denigrates many in that group, who happen to support a candidate they disagree with.

To be clear, I do not support Trump or his rhetoric which is deeply uncivil and divisive.  But those who are demonizing Trump’s supporters and disrupting his events are only exacerbating the problem.  As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that” and there is ample research that suggests that forging positive empathic relationships across divisions is indeed the only way to truly heal a great moral divide.

- Ravi Iyer

Ravi Iyer has a Ph.D in psychology from the University of Southern California and has published dozens of articles on political and moral attitudes.  He works as a data scientist at Ranker and is also the Executive Director of Civil Politics, a non-profit that promotes evidence based methods for healing inter-group divisions.
Read Ahead

Stewart/Colbert’s Rally to Restore Sanity and the Psychology of Moderates

As someone who is interested in promoting civility and reason in politics, I have been really excited over the past few days by Jon Stewart’s announcement of a Rally to Restore Sanity (“Million Moderate March”), coupled with Stephen Colbert’s satirical “March to Keep Fear Alive”.  The below video, where the announcement is made, is well worth watching, if only for it’s entertainment value.

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Rally to Restore Sanity
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

Normally, we look at our yourmorals.org data in terms of liberals and conservatives, but what can we say about moderates.  In many instances (e.g. Measures of general moral or political positions using Moral Foundations or Schwartz Values), moderates score between liberals and conservatives.  However, there are a couple interesting findings about moderates in our data that might be of interest.

First, moderates are less engaged in politics.  This isn’t a particularly controversial finding as research in social psychology shows that extreme attitudes are more resistant to change and more likely to predict behavior.  Moderates are defined by their lack of extremity and this lack of extremity predicts a disinterest in politics and lack of desire to engage in political action.

As such, it is not surprising that, as Stewart notes, the only voices which often get heard are the loudest voices.  Shouting hurts your throat and moderates are unwilling to pay that price.  But couched in terms of entertainment and comedy?  Maybe that will spur moderates to attend in a way that an overtly political/partisan event could never do.

Going a bit deeper, the other area where moderates score differently than liberals and conservatives is in terms of their willingness to moralize issues.  Moderates are less likely to frame issues as moral and less likely to be moral maximizers. Morality can be a great force for good, but there is also research on idealistic evil and the dark side of moral conviction.  You’ll notice that while liberals and conservatives moralize individual issues in the below graph at different levels, the extremes generally moralize issues more than moderates or less extreme partisans.  It’s worth noting I recently attended a talk by Linda Skitka where her team found (in China) that high moralization scores predict willingness to spy on and censor people with opposing viewpoints.

Moderates also score lower on a general (not issue specific) measure of moral maximizing.  Below is a graph of scores on individual moral maximizing questions.  Again, a lot of good may be done in the name of morality and moral maximizers may be less willing to let people starve or let injustice stand.  However, a lot of bad may be done in the name of morality as well and “never settling” for imperfect moral outcomes seems like a recipe for the kind of political ugliness that we see these days.  Moderates appear willing to accept imperfection in the moral realm.

Maximizing is a concept made popular by Barry Schwartz at Swarthmore in his book, the Paradox of Choice and his TED talk.  The argument isn’t that high standards are a bad thing…but that at some point, there is a level where overly high standards have negative consequences.  The point that Stewart and Colbert are making is that perhaps partisans have reached that point in our political dialogue, to the detriment of policy.

I probably won’t make it to DC, but I do plan on celebrating the Rally to Restore Sanity in some way, perhaps at a satellite event.  I am generally liberal and will be surrounded mainly (though not exclusively) by liberal friends.  It would be really easy to use the event as a time to mock and denigrate the extremity of the other side.  However, liberal moral absolutism has it’s dangers too.  For those of us who really want to restore sanity to political debate, it is an opportunity to be the change we want to see in the world and take a moment to reflect on how our political side can ‘take it down a notch for America’, rather than assuming that Stewart is talking to ‘them’.  And perhaps that begins with accepting some amount of moral imperfection.

- Ravi Iyer

Read Ahead
Our goal is to educate the public about social science research on improving inter-group relations across moral divides.