"Liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another. Without these I do not see how the reins of government are to be managed." - George Washington
When it comes to politics, confirmation bias abounds. We all seek and spread the information that confirms our pre-existing beliefs, while not really considering an opposing or alternative view. The media and politicians play upon this well, and add a dash of fear, which reinforces our desire to associate with those who share our viewpoint.
According to a summer 2016 Pew Research Center study, this divisive trend in politics, and the fear propelling it, is on the rise. While the ranks of political division (liberal vs. conservative) have not varied much since 1992, feelings of fear and animosity have skyrocketed.
“For the first time in surveys dating to 1992, majorities in both parties express not just unfavorable but very unfavorable views of the other party. More than half of Democrats (55%) say the Republican Party makes them “afraid,” while 49% of Republicans say the same about the Democratic Party. Among those highly engaged in politics… fully 70% of Democrats and 62% of Republicans say they are afraid of the other party.”
The study also found that well over half of party loyals feel those with opposing views are “close minded and lazy.” And close to half of us believe living in a community with the like minded makes life “easier.” But does it make life better?
While this in-and-out-group behavior is comforting, maybe even instinctual, it’s not ideal. It keeps us from getting things accomplished through compromise, it isolates us from new ideas and it divides us in bitterness. We’re now a culture living most of our days online -- a place where monologue trumps dialog and people block those with opposing views.
America was built on the opposite sentiment of this isolation -- the idea of pluralism, which is a state where groups co-exist and function with multiple ideologies. This Lehrman institute Historical Essay looks specifically at the contentious religious diversity our founding fathers navigated (and not always with grace). Religious scholar, Steven Waldman, credits this willingness to co-exist and compromise as key to building our ideals of a tolerant, freedom-loving nation. "Part of Congress's evolution toward pluralism probably resulted from the simple fact that it was the most religiously diverse body most of the delegates had ever encountered.”
The Constitution was born, in part, through a lot of uncomfortable conversations among those with vastly different views. While we are arguably more tolerant of human differences now than we were back in the days of the Constitution, we also seem less willing to engage in dialogue. Is it this growing fear? And, if it is, what can we do as a people to temper, instead of fuel, this and other divisive emotions? Because this trend toward isolation and division should be a paradigm we all fight against.
We must seek to lower our shields of difference and see other people’s humanity. We must look to what lies behind their dedication to an opposing cause and attempt to better understand what they value and hold dear.
We can start within our own families, which undoubtedly have people of opposing political, religious or other views within them. Many of us have parents and siblings who do not share all of our ideology, but we love them. Can we not envision how our neighbor, with the opposing political sign, is likely loved by a daughter or parent that does not share their view? Why can’t we tap into our shared humanity in this instance?
Breaking through our shields of difference and understanding the values and motives behind someone’s view won’t likely change our own, but it can alleviate fear and soften disdain. And that is worthwhile because we are all in this business of life together and we need one another. Perhaps it’s time to focus on what connects us instead of what divides us.