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Thomas J. Leeper

Thomas J. Leeper PhD

Finding Common Ground in Divisive Times

Finding common political ground requires acknowledging our shared psychology

We often think that the other side in a political debate is trying to destroy America, or at least offering a dangerous alternative to our own views of the political good. Often coupled to that skepticism of opposing views is an inability to understand how it is that our seemingly intelligent friends, family members, and acquaintances could hold political viewpoints that appear to contradict so blatantly with what we see as right. Why do we think these things and what can we do about it? 

Elections bring political disagreements to the forefront of national conversations and personal relationships. The attention to those disagreements created by political campaigning and media coverage thereof make salient our lack of comprehension of the other side. Yet, politics is also fundamentally about processes of debate, deliberation, and compromise. That our ingrained psychological processes drive us to see our own views not only as preferable but objectively correct and the views of others as not only less preferable, but fundamentally wrong and ill-informed runs contrary to the core demands of the democratic process. (Deliberation constitutes an immense body of normative and empirical research, Diana Mutz’s Hearing the Other Side  is a nice overview that also offers original empirical findings.)

The horserace coverage of the Presidential election that dominates national news coverage over the months preceding elections, the increasingly negative advertising that sandwiches that coverage, and the election night hullabaloo all focus our attention on who might win, who is winning, and who has won. But in times as divided as the polarized conditions in which we find contemporary America, who wins is hardly important. Those who take office with bare majorities or just pluralities of the popular vote are not mandated by our elections, they are tipped just past the threshold of election. Therefore, the disagreements we have about politics do not end when polls close across the country – they persist and they matter.

This persistence of divided opinions means that how our minds deal with political disagreements and the electoral victory or defeat felt as the final votes are tallied will matter long past the few moments we individually took to vote or the months our nation took to decide who will lead and who will wait at the sidelines. To sustain a democratic system, despite the disagreements we have and the strength with which those on opposite side of the political spectrum feel those convictions, we must understand how we come to hold our own views, how those views bias our interpretation and evaluation of political happenings, and how the minds of others in politics follow the same types of processes to different ends.

We vote because we care. We want to see government do as we think. But I am only one voter – one among 200-plus million other eligible voters who share collective responsibility for governance. I may feel quite strongly about my views and the strength of my commitment to those positions biases how I see new information – research shows that as I hold my views more strongly, everything I see, hear, and read reinforces what I already think . And as the strength of my opinions increases, when I hear others make arguments about politics, I am less and less likely to be persuaded by them and am less and less likely to believe they are at all credible .

Accepting this bias in the process by which I evaluate the political world is but a first step toward finding common ground. If one person cannot accept the way their own mind works, they can hardly accept that others suffer the same cognitive limitation. And yet, we frequently do not believe that we are biased (though we frequently see bias and ignorance in others’ views). What we must come to accept is that the psychological processes that lead my opinions to bias the way I view the world are analogous to the processes by which others, holding different but comparably strong opinions, are led to opposite conclusions by the same political facts. Disagreements already established persist, reinforce themselves, and pervade our thinking about new issues and new candidates.

When we disagree with others it is not always because either of us is wrong, but we because we see the world in different ways. Opinions to which we are committed prevent us from seeing the world in other ways. While I often hear people decry the ignorance of those on an opposite side of a political issue or a political campaign, it is rarely ignorance by motivated reasoning over the same information that leads liberals and conservatives to opposite conclusions.

The result of this year’s elections, like those anywhere else, demonstrate that disagreements matter – they decide who gets power and who does not. Despite the time, money, and attention spent on campaigns, often they do not matter (at least not in the ways pundits say) . Elections let us express our views, but they hardly resolve our disagreements; indeed, campaigns often act to mobilize and demobilize rather than persuade. It is therefore after elections in the times of governance rather than electoral competition that collective deliberation and an effort to understand the other side must be attempted. Our disagreements over anything hardly end when one candidate (or slate of candidates) tips past the threshold to “victory” and deliberation will not necessarily lead the other side to concede and may even make disagreements seem worse .

Ultimately, politics and our psychological dispositions have alternate objectives. Our minds seek to defend our views from threat – bolstering our opinions and derogating those of others. Yet democratic politics can only be about compromise, but to compromise we must acknowledge our own biases. Then we must see and appreciate the value in the views of our opponents, while acknowledging how the same psychology that leads us to be so confident of our views leads them to confidence in theirs and each of us to a firm belief that the other side is disastrously wrong.

Understanding the psychology of our own views is a critical first step to understanding the diverse array of political viewpoints present in our society, which is ultimately necessary if the polarization in those views can ever be reconciled into anything resembling political compromise.