Who is your ‘them’?

Politics fizzes and fractures along countless different lines. But democratic systems are really about finding where the “us” is on all those axes.

MELANIE STETSON FREEMAN/STAFF
Haitian immigrants live in a church on Great Abaco Island, Bahamas, two months after Hurricane Dorian destroyed their homes on Sept. 1, 2019.

Here’s a question worth considering: Who is in your sense of “us”? Politics fizzes and fractures along countless different lines, from ideology to race to gender. But democratic systems are really about finding where the “us” is on all these different axes.

In Sara Miller Llana’s cover story, the “us” is clearly defined along the lines of national origin or race. In the wake of Hurricane Dorian, the president of the Bahamas has vowed not to rebuild homes for unauthorized immigrants nor to serve them in shelters. As one Bahamian told Sara: “We know [the Haitians] are people, but we are poor, too.”

The result is that the two sides are talking past each other, with common ground hard to come by. Indeed, few issues create a clearer sense of “us” and “them” than immigration and race.

Yet across many parts of the West, polls show that the traditional sense of “us” is fracturing. For liberals in particular, “us” increasingly includes unauthorized immigrants, and racism is a systemic problem “we” need to solve – it’s not just “their” problem.

This shifting sense of “us” is at the core of the polarization we see today in Western democracies. Throw in views on the economy and on religion, and these two senses of “us” get even sharper.

The danger, political scientists point out, is that these political tribes are becoming so sharply defined that we are viewing them as a stronger and more influential part of our identity. Experiments have repeatedly shown that people can be swayed to consider a position contrary to their own – but only if the argument is coming from someone on their side of the issue. In other words, we’re very open-minded – so long as the person talking to us is one of “us.”

“An emerging body of research ... has demonstrated that ‘polarization’ in the public is based less on the issues, and more on the growing strength of partisan social identities and the ‘us vs. them’ mentalities they create,” writes Ryan Strickler for the London School of Economics blog.

How, then, do we begin to knit together a new sense of “us”? The current approach is, essentially, to convince the other side that they’re wrong. We see that approach reflected in our politics: anger, frustration, and a sense that compromise is capitulation.

But an article from Forbes suggests a different approach. It points to something called the Ideological Turing Test, which boils down to the question: Can you make a convincing argument for the other side? Few people can, and that’s because most don’t really know how the other side thinks or what their best arguments are. When you know the other side’s best arguments, something transformational happens.

“A key – the key – to the deliberative democratic ideal is mutual respect,” writes Mr. Strickler. “Not any political discussion will do; discussion and debate must be marked by open-mindedness, recognition of the legitimacy of moral differences, and a goal of achieving consensus.” In short, effective democratic politics must be perpetually reforging a new “us.”

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