Maybe things aren’t as bad as they seem.
After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, the writing team of James and Deborah Fallows set off on a trip across the country to see how the nation’s political polarization was playing out on the ground level. What they found surprised many. In a series of magazine articles, and later a book, they made the case that people may be sharply divided over national politics, but at the local level there was often cooperation across competing ideologies to get things done.
Cardinal News has set out to explore this in Southwest and Southside Virginia, thanks to a grant from the American Press Institute Project as part of a nationwide project to promote civil discourse. Last week, Cardinal executive director Luanne Rife and I offered different views of this project. We both agreed that civil discourse is important; she made the case that it would be fixed starting at the local level, while I was more skeptical.
If you missed those essays, you can find them on our page that we’re calling The Cardinal Way: Civility Rules. We asked readers for comments. While the responses don’t constitute a scientific sample, they still offer potentially useful insight. We asked readers whether they thought it was possible to have a civil conversation and find commonalities with someone whose views differ from their own: 81.2% said “yes,” with 40.6% giving the highest yes score possible. Only 3.1% came down somewhere on the “no” side of the scale. Another 15.6% were somewhere in the middle.
We know our respondents aren’t necessarily typical. There are lots of surveys these days that show most people don’t know anyone who votes differently from them. The people who responded to our question generally said they did, although some said they had lost friends over politics. “Had a falling out with a dear cousin,” Patrick Beale said.
Several readers wanted to know how we got this way. “What has caused the great division in our country where it is almost impossible to respect the opinion of others?” asked Bonnie Elosser.
Multiple people said they knew the answer to that: They blamed social media.
“Yes, we can have civil discourse with differing opinions; but we have allowed our social behavior to be modified by hiding behind social media identities so that we don’t have to be civil,” Susan Brock said. “There has been a loss of social skills and patience, as well as valuing relationships and willingness to be flexible for the sake of the relationship. Social media rewards us with clicks and recs and that appeals to the ego. It’s like a drug: an exciting, if temporary, high that releases endorphins and makes us feel ‘like somebody important’ by having our opinions validated. Navigating a mature, face-to-face conversation does not always, especially if it is difficult. In fact, it seems that emotional and social maturity is not rewarded or highly valued in the public sector as much anymore. Are we so socially insecure that we cannot navigate, and perhaps no longer value, difference?”
Because of social media, it’s easier for people to live in bubbles where they rarely encounter someone who disagrees with them. “I think the biggest roadblock to fixing this issue is that each side has developed their own reality (aka ‘facts’) and it is impossible to have logical and sensical discussions when the person you’re talking to doesn’t even believe that the facts you believe are true,” Jack Robertson said.
Others blamed our two main political parties for moving further from the center.
“I genuinely blame the extremists,” said Kayley Mayhew. “Extreme views used to be an outlier. Now both parties are embracing hard-line views. Very few things in life are so black and white. Second, the two-party system is a failure. I think each candidate should have to run on their own merits, unable to align with any particular party. And if they don’t get work done by actually passing legislation, they should be fired.”
James Graham put it this way: “I am disgusted with both political parties and do not think that either are representative of my beliefs.”
Ethan Betterton also blamed both parties for how they approach politics: “What is even more important to solving the polarization problem is a recognition and acceptance by both sides on a given issue that achieving a policy solution requires concessions and compromise. Refusal to consider compromise is, in my mind, the greatest driver of political polarization. Democrat and Republican alike think that they don’t need to worry about compromise because there is always the next election to win a sufficient majority to railroad through whatever policy changes are desired by their side. You won’t solve polarization if people remain stuck in the mindset that either one or the other on a given issue is correct and that there is no middle option. There is always a middle option, and that option is always viable if the will exists to pursue that path.”
Janet Jayne agreed: “I honestly think that most people everywhere are centrists, maybe center-right or maybe center-left, but moderate. However, it’s the extreme ends of both that get all the attention.”
She, along with others, blamed the news media: “The media drives a lot of the discourse and division that we are experiencing today,” said Patrick Brunty. “While politicians are the main culprit, the media amplifies the ‘crazy.’”
So what can individuals do to solve a national problem? Jayne encouraged people to consume news from multiple sources, not just the ones they feel most comfortable with: “If there is a single critical aspect to the issue that you’re discussing here, I would say that it is this: polarization is shaped by the media, and the more diversity of news sources one accesses, the more likely one is to hold an informed view from the middle ground.”
Of course, there are always those who don’t want to consume multiple news sources or hear something or someone who they might disagree with. “I have found that I am able to listen and examine different political viewpoints although it is increasingly impossible to have in depth conversations as most people I know that differ from me are too emotional and impatient with someone who does not agree with their views on policy and they refuse to listen to opposing points from anyone who does not completely agree with them,” said Elizabeth Stanley. “It has become difficult to discuss issues with others.”
That’s the challenge that The Cardinal Way is here to explore.