Listening as a political de-polarizer

Voters place more importance on accountability through direct dialogue with their elected officials than they do on party identity.

Citizens in Marana, Arizona, listen as Republican gubernatorial hopeful Karrin Taylor-Robson speaks during a July 9 meet-and-greet at a cafe.

Half a century ago, 144 Republicans in the U.S. House were less conservative than the most conservative Democrats, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. And 52 House Democrats were less liberal than the most liberal Republicans. Members voted with their party leadership roughly 60% of the time. Today there is no such overlap. The House has only about two dozen moderates. All members vote the party line more than 90% of the time.

That wider ideological divide has resulted in a crisis of confidence in how voters view their elected officials. Chloe Maxmin, a Democratic state senator from Maine, notes in a new book criticizing her party’s dismissal of rural America, “People from all across the political perspective share one thing in common: a deep distrust of politics and a profound frustration with not having their voices heard in our government.”

Fixing that problem – restoring the American system of representative democracy to reflect more closely its original design – may not be as hard as it sounds. A new study by the University of Maryland found that voters place more importance on accountability through direct dialogue with their elected officials than they do on party identity. That attitude provides a counterpoint to the common view that American society is irredeemably polarized and democracy is broken as a result.

The study, based on conversations with more than 4,300 voters, starts with a pessimistic benchmark: Ninety-one percent of those surveyed believe lawmakers “have little interest in the views of their constituents” and are more influenced by special interests than by “the people.” It then asks voters to consider a hypothetical scenario: Would it matter if a candidate promised always to consult his or her constituents and give their recommendations higher priority than the views of the candidate’s party leadership?

Seven in 10 said it would, and 60% said they would cross party lines to vote for a candidate making that pledge. Similarly, 71% said that “the majority of the public as a whole is more likely to show the greatest wisdom on questions of what the government should do” than either just Republicans or just Democrats.

“We have more in common than we believe, but we can only discover the common ground when we take the time to show up, to listen, and to respect one another,” writes Senator Maxmin, who co-wrote her book, “Dirt Road Revival,’’ with her campaign adviser Canyon Woodward.

While 49 members of Congress have already announced they are not seeking reelection this year – many out of frustration with partisan rancor and polarization – some are showing the value of that kind of listening. Rep. Dusty Johnson, a Republican from South Dakota, for example, easily defeated a primary challenger last month despite rejecting his party’s false claims about the 2020 election. The reason? He has built trust with voters through monthly town hall meetings and conference calls.

To apprehend the perspective of others, “We must learn to listen to what they have to say – and to listen from their position, not from our own,” writes Heidi Maibom, a philosophy professor at the University of Cincinnati, in a new essay in the online Aeon newsletter.

The ideological divide of today’s politics is not without a remedy. It starts with restoring a simple premise of representative democracy – that by listening to all those they represent, public officials can find the greatest good for the greatest number of people.

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