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


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Is the Internet a Net Minus for Democracy?

There are those who argue that the internet has been bad for democracy. When it comes to politics the web is just an elaborate echo chamber quoth the critics. It has skewed the public discourse and produced crippling polarization.

In an article in The Breakthrough Journal Lindsay Meisel rejects this argument:

The Internet may not be the great liberator, as some web evangelists claim, but there is scant evidence that the Internet is undermining political discourse or driving today’s polarization…despite the proliferation of small, extremist news sites, large moderate giants like Yahoo! News and are still far more widely read.

Citing a study from U of Chicago Meisel writes that while “ideological segregation is marginally higher in online news consumption than in off…

…it’s significantly lower than in face-to-face interactions with family, friends, and coworkers. This last finding suggests that the echo chamber effect is probably more of a problem offline than on, which doesn’t come as much of a surprise. Alternative perspectives can be difficult to find among the groups we associate with on a daily basis, but online, a curious liberal can easily click over to Power Line or Fox News. And that’s just what the study found — those who were likely to visit the most extreme political sites were also likely to visit moderate sites and sites on the opposite end of the political spectrum.

According to Meisel we should place blame for polarization on the ideological sorting of the parties as well as of the geographical sorting of the partisan population, that is, of the sort of sorting Bill Bishop has so ably described. Besides this Meisel spies significance in the election of Reagan and the rise of conservative reaction to the welfare state, and then the Democrats reaction to the Bork nomination:

The scorched earth campaigns that have increasingly characterized American politics began, by most accounts, with President Reagan’s nomination of Robert Bork to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987

Admitting that the internet may have accelerated polarization by helping shift power from party elites to "party regulars"; Meisel refers us to the new emphasis on primaries that began after 1968 and the consequent shift of power away from vested elites:

Where parties once chose their candidates in smoke-filled back rooms, through negotiations among party elites that were arguably driven more by regional and financial interests associated with the parties than by ideological considerations, the wholesale shift by both parties to binding primaries after the disastrous 1968 Democratic convention dramatically shifted power to rank-and-file partisans.

So then without mediating elites, however shady, our democracy gets more partisan? And the internet naysayers are just so many intellectual elites who loathe the shift of the public discourse into the lap of the rabble?

Whatever the case, Meisel's message is that the internet has merely been an enabler for processes that were already firmly in place. But the internet is a force for democratization and in the long run that's a good thing.


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