Understanding one another in an age of polarization
This year is sure to be a challenging one in the political arena.
With split control of Congress and the beginning of the campaign to see who will run against President Trump in 2020, there will, no doubt, be heightened political tension.
As if it could get much worse.
The political polarization we're experiencing today has been a subject of study for years. Where it started — who started it — is even a point of divide. Some trace it to the election of Barack Obama as president; others to the Reagan era.
We're not here to solve that argument. But we would like to issue a challenge to our readers for the coming year, one we intend to take on ourselves. We're sure this is not a novel idea, nor one that hasn't been tried before. But here in the Midwest, where we pride ourselves on our reasonableness, our friendliness and — in Iowa — our privileged place on the political calendar, we think it's worth stepping into the shoes, or at least the head space, of people on the other side of the political fence.
And there perhaps is no better way to do that than by consuming political news differently.
Next year, we would suggest, instead of just turning to the comfort of your familiar sources of news and opinion, add a source that might make you feel uncomfortable. A source you know will hold an opinion that differs from your own. Read it frequently and try to understand why they might believe the way they do.
We happen to think, as you might expect, that local newspapers are a good source for news and opinion. But we also know people have choices. Above all, we hope you choose sources that are reliable and that deal in facts.
None of this is aimed at convincing people to drop their principles or political beliefs. Nor do we believe it is a prescription to be taken in equal measure, given that we have a president who repeatedly misrepresents the truth. But we believe there is value in all of us trying to understand people who hold different beliefs.
Our broken politics is real. It is an issue that must be dealt with. The fragmentation of media and the growth of social media has made it so much easier to burrow into silos of comfort. We do not think that is healthy for a democracy. And, we should note, political polarization is a problem that predates Donald Trump. It will also be with us long after he is gone.
There is a potential downside to trying this. Researchers at Duke University earlier this year conducted an experiment that exposed conservatives and liberals to social media messages from elected officials and opinion leaders of opposing political viewpoints. They found that conservatives became more conservative and liberals more liberal as a result, though not in equal measure.
The study had limitations, but this may well be a sign that Facebook and Twitter aren't the places to try what we're suggesting.
Perhaps a good way to go about this is not to focus on the people or types of news and opinions that tend to divide, but rather on things that may be less polarizing.
So, instead of reading various opinions about the White House's demand for $5 billion for a border wall, study the impact that immigrants have on the U.S. workforce. You might be surprised to find it is more complex than you think.
Then, go and read about the conditions in Central America that are driving people and their families to escape north. You might find an empathy that didn't previously exist.
Perhaps study reports about current border security measures.
This likely won't be as viscerally rewarding as flaming the other side with a perfectly worded tweet or posting a link to a news site of dubious origin (think, Russia). But it might help.
We hold no naive belief this will change the political culture in this country. However, it may be a way to better understand your neighbors, even if you don't end up agreeing with them.
We are neither red nor blue.
Our neighbors are our political opposites.
We should get to know each other just a little bit better.