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Countering political division: the transforming power of a real conversation

bridging divides

As people have fewer opportunities to interact with people who hold different political views or share different underlying values, scholars say they become foreign – the 'other.'

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    A Donald Trump supporter waves a US flag as he and others face off with anti-Trump protesters about 50 feet away, near the site of a campaign appearance by the Republican presidential candidate in Bethpage, N.Y.
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Like many Americans, Jimmy Wolfe has been deeply discouraged by the presidential election this year.

It’s not simply because of what seems to be a rampant incivility during current political campaigns, says Mr. Wolfe, a part-time accountant who lives in Woodstock, Ga., with his wife and four children. It’s the fact that just having a mutually engaging conversation – let alone a friendship or meaningful relationship with someone with differing political views or from a different culture – has become less and less likely.

His own political instincts remain conservative, he says – though he hasn’t yet decided if he will vote for Donald Trump on Nov. 8. But for a number of years now, he’s considered it part of his vocation, rooted in his faith, to try to find a way to foster spaces where white suburbanites can build meaningful friendships with black residents in Atlanta – two groups with a long history of deep divisions.

“Politically, whether it’s guns, race relations, or crime, everyone in the country always says we need to have a ‘national conversation,’ ” Wolfe says. “It ends up being on TV or social media, but people hardly have the relationships that allow us to have real, transforming conversations.”

His discouragement with the political process this year has been painful for him, too, for reasons deeply personal. Nearly every week, Wolfe drives from his suburban home to spend some time with his former foster son, a black child who now lives with his father in Atlanta – two relationships that have in many ways changed his life.

Such efforts as Wolfe's take time and deep personal investment, however – hardly a feature of Twitter era. And the fact is, the nation has been on a trajectory of "sorting" itself into clear political and geographical tribes, exacerbating stark political divisions, and leading to the apparent rise in public vitriol, scholars say.

“Fewer and fewer people are interacting on a regular basis with coworkers, neighbors, and even some friends and family who share a different perspective,” says Amy Black, a political scientist at Wheaton College in Illinois, who last month gave a public forum on “Political Civility in Uncivil Times.” “So we’re getting more of an echo chamber, you live in a neighborhood with people who all vote alike, and all of your friends that you interact with all share your political views.”

As a result, as people have fewer opportunities to interact with people who hold different political views or share different underlying values, Professor Black continues. “Then they become foreign, they become alien to us, the other. In the same way that when we don't have racial diversity, or economic class diversity, it’s harder to understand people from different perspectives and ideologies.”

Despite his own conservative views, Wolfe says he's learned one idea through the relationships he’s developed: the fact of his own privilege, and efforts like his to reach out and perhaps help some of those living in poverty, can smack of paternalism and even self-congratulation. Even events that are meant to assist those living in poverty, he says, “they may be helpful for a time, but they don’t lead to friendships and relationships or unity among us.”

By establishing relationships, real conversations can begin. He still believes in the importance of individual decisions – both to avoid self-destructive behavior and improve society. But now he also has a deeper grasp of issues of systematic injustice, and finds himself defending the idea when other conservatives dismiss it. 

"When it’s closer to home, it’s a lot messier," Wolfe says of some of the political issues dividing the nation. "The issues are a lot less clear, and you find you have to let go of some of your politics, some of your viewpoints from the way you were raised, because poverty and race, they’re messy topics."

'Not willing to walk away angry'

It doesn’t help, either, that national political conversations are mostly transmitted through a media that is structured around split-screen shouting matches, or migrate to social media platforms in which anonymous vitriol is often the basic feature.

“These are almost inherently dehumanizing,” says David Gushee, a evangelical professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Atlanta. “And now even public event conversations are rarely helpful – I wish I could say different, I’ve been in so many of them – but all it takes is a couple of extreme people to hijack the conversation and get everybody angry.”

Like Wolfe, Professor Gushee looks to conversational spaces that are rooted within invested relationships – perhaps within classrooms or congregations – those friendships built over time.

“But that’s a long, slow process,” he says. “You take a person of a fixed conviction, and then you bump them into another person of a fixed conviction that’s different, but they care about each other, so they have an investment in a relationship, and because they do, they’re not willing to just walk away angry. So they keep talking.”

For him, the journey indeed took time. Considered one of the leading evangelical thinkers on topics of ethics, he had always maintained a traditional view of marriage and the precepts forbidding homosexual behavior. But as he experienced the deep pain this caused members of his family and close friends in the churches he attended, his thinking began to shift dramatically. 

“So then you end up with this inner conflict for a while,” says Gushee. “I don’t want to harm anybody, you’re supposed to love people. But it seems like believing these things, and teaching them, is harming people. So then what do I do?" He described this process in his 2014 book, “Changing Our Mind,” which offers a biblical defense of LGBT sexual ethics from a particular evangelical and theologically conservative perspective.

“There are core experiences, core beliefs that don’t change that much, but then life happens,” Gushee says. “You meet people and you watch history unfold and you see things happening around you, and start thinking fresh thoughts. You read some new books, and some things begin to change.”

'Now I'm living my religion'

In a very different way, Utah state Sen. J. Stuart Adams also experienced a political transformation through his relationships with his LGBT constituents. A veteran of the bruising culture war battles over same sex marriage in Utah, he watched as the state was forced to nullify its constitutional amendment establishing marriage as between a man and a woman by a federal judge in 2013.

“I stood locked arms with my colleagues as we passed that constitutional amendment,” he says. And after same sex marriage was forced upon one of the most conservative states in the US, the political climate was “like a big freight train coming at us. We were going to have an explosion in Utah that would probably make Indiana and Arizona and North Carolina look like a summer afternoon picnic.”

But then something extraordinary happened. He and others, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, began to talk to LGBT rights advocates, and listen to their experiences and worries. Through a process of engaged conversation, Adams says, he and his colleagues became willing to pass civil rights legislation that protected LGBT people from discrimination in housing and employment.

As a result, Utah became the first – and only – Republican-led state to include such LGBT protections, while at the same time bolstering the state’s religious freedom exemptions. Both of these explosive issues continue to roil many red states across the nation.

“Finally the light went on,” Senator Adams says. “I thought it was best to restrict other people's ability to have rights in order to protect my own. I actually thought I was protecting my own rights. And then after going through this process, and I kind of thought about it – I am a Christian, and I believe in the New Testament and loving your neighbor, and doing good to those who perhaps who hate you.”

“Now I’m living my religion,” continues Adams, who has been traveling around the country to share Utah’s experience with what is called the “Fairness for All” concept, which seeks to expand both LGBT protections and religious freedom rights, and rise above the culture war battles that are still tearing apart other states. Without compromising his religious convictions, “I’m being more compassionate and tolerant, and I’m now getting respect on the other side back.”

Political opponent or 'enemy of the state?'

Still, there’s a sense in which politics is never going to be a pillow fight. For one thing, ideas and policies need to be debated vigorously to be thoroughly vetted, scholars say. The concern is whether there's room for efforts to find transformation in engaged relationships rooted in honest efforts to understand and respect those with differing views.

On the one hand, civil public discourse is a baseline of decent behavior in a democracy, and engaged conversations and decent behavior form the bedrock of self governance, according to Keith Bybee, a law professor at Syracuse University in New York and the author of “How Civility Works.” “If civility is meant to be the zero point for appropriate behavior, then incivility undermines the rudiments of social order and all is lost,” he writes.

But standards of civility are themselves subject to political dispute, he cautions. And politicians often break these standards of civility for strategic reasons, as part of their political tactics.

“We shouldn’t identify every breach of decorum as a signal that there are no manners,” Professor Bybee says. “Provocation is a time honored political tactic, and we’ve seen a lot in this campaign.”

During the founding of the country, federalists thought the country was on the verge of crisis, and they saw the rough and ready politics flourishing in the states as an 18th century version of a "basket of deplorables." And though long forgotten now, one of the charges leveled against the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was that it breached long established “standards of etiquette that surrounded and sustained Jim Crow segregation, an etiquette itself that enacted and sustained a ritual hierarchy.”

Similarly, current movements such as the tea party and Black Lives Matter often resort to a politics of disruption, and though the process may not be pleasant all the time, that doesn’t have to mean that incivility has broken down and that we stand at the brink of barbarism.

Nevertheless, there does have to be a standard of civility that communicates to political opponents that you care about behaving decently. “That’s the critical feature,” Bybee says. "You have to want to look good in my eyes, and I have to care that I look good in your eyes.”

“If we have a deeply polarized country, and then Democrats and Republicans don't care what the other one thinks about them, that’s when we have a problem. That’s profound, that involves a kind of dehumanizing of our opponent. They are not people we disagree with, they are enemies of the state, enemies of the people.”

Part of Wolfe’s frustration is that this is what he often encounters among conservative and liberal sides both: hypocrisy, stereotypes, and judgmentalism expressed in abstract, dehumanizing terms.

“My instincts are conservative, but I try to be open to the possibility that I am wrong” when he discusses politics, he says – though he thinks a close friendship should develop first before broaching political subjects.

“And you have to do an internal search,” Wolfe continues. “What do I really want? Do I really want to be friends and have unity with this person, or do I want to be right?... But if you really want to understand or build a friendship, then you have to lay aside that need to be right and when you do that, then you’re a lot more willing to listen.”

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