“…You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”
So began the late-life correspondence between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the founding fathers described in the HBO mini-series “John Adams” as “the north and south poles of our revolution.”
Once friends, differences in opinion and political competition had taken a toll.
They, like others in the founders’ generation, had deep philosophical disagreements. But as they went about the business of building a country, an endeavor that if unsuccessful would surely lead to their hanging, they hardly had the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Despite the differences between them and the odds against them, the founders managed to cobble together their opus – and ours – the Constitution, which despite all probability still guides this diverse group of people forward together.
But, alas, “politics ain’t beanbag” and two election cycles later, Jefferson and Adams had no tolerance for one another.
Fast-forward a couple of centuries and most of us are likely to relate to the fix Adams and Jefferson found themselves in. We, like they, have deep disagreement with – and sometimes little tolerance for – one another.
The two founders ultimately died friends, having given history the gift of their final correspondence. They died on the same day, July 4th, 50 years to the day after the nation they built was born.
“Whether you or I were right,” Adams had written to Jefferson, “posterity must judge. Yet I ask of you, who shall write the history of our revolution?”
The philosophical descendants of Jefferson and Adams are alive and well today in us, in this amazing American experiment “in the course of human events.”
And we are still writing the history of their revolution.
Like the founders, we hardly have the luxury to stop talking to each other.
Liz Joyner is a co-founder and Executive Director of the Village Square. Please take a moment to read the piece that inspired this title, Dining with Jeff, by Patricia Nelson Limerick.
Many Americans complain about the ‘messiness’ of democracy, by which they mean either the partisan negativity of the electoral process, or the seeming inability of our current political system to solve chronic problems. Rather than attempting to understand the specific causes of democratic messiness, Americans hope someone will come along and magically make the negativity and ineffectiveness go away. However, an examination of our history shows that democracy has always been, and likely always will be, messy. Consequently, rather than hoping for a wand-waving savior, we should attempt to understand the root cause of democratic messiness. The premise of this article is that democratic messiness occurs because democracy allows for a vast diversity of opinion on any issue, and this diversity represents contradictory human needs, and these contradictions lead to political conflicts.
A contradiction is defined in the dictionary as the expression of the opposite of a previous statement. In logic a contradiction is defined as two propositions that are related in such a way that it is impossible for both to be true or both to be false. In a democracy contradictions are not just about statements and policy propositions; they are more fundamentally about the contrasting human needs that underlie statements and policies. In this context each contradiction is composed of two competing needs, and the satisfaction of each need is necessary for a functioning democratic society. Completely satisfying one need means that the other need is completely ignored, and therefore completely satisfying any one need rarely happens in a functioning democracy.
Graphical Tools for Understanding Democratic Contradictions
College students taking an introductory statistics class are introduced to two useful graphical tools for understanding diversity and contradictions: the normal (bell-shaped) distribution and the correlation graph. The normal distribution (and other distributions) can be used to graphically map opinion diversity, and the correlation graph can map democratic contradictions. The normal distribution is shown in Figure 1. It can be applied to almost all human characteristics, including human values, expectations, preferences, attitudes and opinions. Opinions can vary from one end of the graph line to the other end. The shape of the distribution indicates that most people are moderate non-extremists on most issues, because their opinions are close to the center of the distribution. Opinions become more extreme moving away from the center in either direction, with the most extreme opinions located in the tails of the distribution.
Of course not all opinion diversity perfectly mimics the theoretical normal distribution. On some issues there is less opinion in the center and more toward the extremes, and sometimes opinion is skewed more toward one extreme or the other. Figure 2 shows positive and negative skewing, respectively. In positive skewing the majority of opinion on a particular issue is bunched to the left of the distribution, and in negative skewing the majority of opinion is on the right.
Nonetheless, most people have moderate (non-extreme) opinions on most issues. This is shown in a recent Pew Research Center survey on American political positions. Survey results revealed that current overall political opinion is skewed slightly to the right, politically speaking (negative skewing). About 27 percent of registered voters identified themselves as strongly conservative, 17 percent as strongly liberal, and the remaining 57 percent as various types of moderates.
Much research has examined factors that underlie opinions. Opinions are expressions of attitudes, and attitudes reflect needs. Thus different opinions on any given issue reflect different needs, and these needs are often contradictory. Another graphical tool can be used to operationally define contradictory needs. Correlation graphs show the quantitative relation between two variables (labeled X and Y in the figure below), to ascertain the degree of co-relation between them. In statistics contradictions can be operationally defined as negative correlations. A negative correlation describes an inverse relationship between two variables, as shown below.
Figure 3 demonstrates that one variable is listed on the X axis, and the other variable is on the Y axis. As the X variable increases from zero, the Y variable declines toward zero. For example, as household income increases (X), the percentage of income spent on basic necessities (Y) diminishes. Another example of a negatively correlated inverse relationship is any team-based competitive sport where ties are not possible. In tie-free competition there are only two possible outcomes, Team X wins and Team Y loses, or Team Y wins and Team X loses. The two teams have an inverse relationship. Every time one team scores, it takes the other team further away from its goal of winning, and vice versa. One team’s score contradicts the other team’s likelihood of winning.
When needs are contradictory, completely fulfilling one need completely obviates the other need. In a democracy completely fulfilling one need is usually unacceptable because some people want one need fulfilled, and other people want the other need fulfilled, as indicated by survey results and as the normal distribution predicts. An inverse contradictory relation between two needs means that the only acceptable democratic solution is to try and balance the two needs, by somewhat fulfilling each one. This solution is always less than totally satisfactory to adherents who strongly support completely fulfilling one need and ignoring the other. These less than totally satisfactory solutions are another reason why many people say that democracy is ‘messy’. These contradictory needs are most generally manifested in a cultural dimension, Collectivism versus Individualism.
Collectivism versus Individualism
In collectivist cultures groups such as families, neighborhoods or countries are more important than the individual. Conformity, obedience, cooperation, duty, loyalty, obligation, and sacrifice are valued, and interdependence is acknowledged as the fundamental glue that holds societies together. In individualistic “it’s all about me” cultures each individual’s needs, desires, values and goals have precedence over an individual’s collective obligations. Independence, autonomy, freedom, competition, and individual rights are valued. Simplistically one could say that collectivism imposes various forms of social control over individual behavior, and individualism is about removing social control over individual behavior. As societies become more individualistic they become less collectivist, and vice versa. It is not possible to be both highly collectivist and highly individualistic at the same time. Consequently an inverse relation exists between collectivism and individualism. Since all humans have both collective and individualistic needs, no society is ever completely collectivist or completely individualistic; it is always a matter of which set of needs is more or less satisfied, in relation to the other set of needs. Figure 4 shows the inverse relation between collectivism and individualism.
Control versus Freedom
Although there are many specific aspects involved in the overall difference between collectivism and individualism, one aspect that democracies continually grapple with is control versus freedom. In all societies groups exercise control over their members because members internalize obedience to group leaders and conformity to group values and norms. Since almost all humans are members of groups, their individual choices are restricted by their group memberships. In highly collectivized societies group control over individuals is increased, and in more individualized democratic societies (less collectivized) group control over individuals is diminished and individual choice is enhanced, as shown in Figure 4. One way to frame American history is to trace the ongoing struggle between control and freedom through the various issues that can be conceptualized in the control versus freedom context.
Control versus Freedom: equality vs. opportunity
The freedom versus control issue is initially discussed in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration mentions both ends of the fundamental contradiction that forms the backbone of democracy: opportunity (freedom) and equality (control). Opportunity is represented by the phrase “pursuit of happiness”, and equality is of course represented by the phrase “all men are created equal”. It is noteworthy that the phrase is “pursuit of happiness”, not “guaranteed happiness”. Thus happiness itself is not granted as a right, but the pursuit of, or opportunity to achieve, happiness is. This phrasing implicitly acknowledges individual differences in interests, ability, talent, skill and motivation, differences that can graphically be represented by the normal curve. Individual differences in these traits mean that some people will do better at using the opportunity to pursue happiness, and others will do worse.
The implication underlying the phrase “all men are created equal” is that democracies must somehow counteract some of the effects of inherent individual differences. Despite individual differences equality must be preserved in fundamental ways. Since no society can ever completely erase the inequality that results from individual differences, equality can only be offered to citizens through guaranteed rights that apply to all, the most important of which is equality before the law and equality of each person’s vote.
Opportunity and equality are inversely related, and democracies attempt to balance them. This is an extremely important balancing act, because an extreme emphasis on either leads to the death of democracy. Communism was theoretically an extreme emphasis on equality which in practice led to permanent “dictatorships of the proletariat”. An extreme emphasis on opportunity also leads ultimately to dictatorship, where the few economic winners monopolistically control most of the wealth, the middle class is destroyed, and the majority live in squalor.
Equality, like collectivism and control, is imposed, in the sense that guaranteeing basic equality somewhat restrains the effects of individual differences. Opportunity, like individualism and freedom, represents the less restrained impulses of each person.
Control versus Freedom: security vs. various specific freedoms
Perhaps the most currently salient control vs. freedom contradiction is the inverse relation between security and freedom of movement. This contradiction has become painfully obvious since the 9/11 attacks. Americans who fly commercially are very aware of the airport security controls put in place after the attacks. Freedom of movement in airports has been greatly restricted and the flying public has been inconvenienced. As security (control) increases, freedom, in this case freedom of movement, inversely declines.
The recent National Security Agency (NSA) controversy highlights another contradictory security versus freedom issue: communication security concerns (control) versus freedom of speech. The NSA and the Obama administration justify the massive surveillance of the various forms of private citizen electronic communication as necessary to combat terrorism. Critics say that the surveillance violates the implied right of privacy incorporated in the freedom of speech portion of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution. This contradiction is another inverse relation of needs that democracies will always confront.
Gun control versus unrestricted private citizen gun ownership is another security versus freedom issue that is currently controversial. American civilians have legally been able to own and use guns since the beginning of the country, and this use is supported by the 2nd Amendment. However, as the country has gotten older and as guns have become more lethal both the federal and the state governments have imposed various forms of gun control, without completely banning private gun ownership. As always there are passionate proponents on both sides, and both sides believe that the other side is out to destroy America. A balancing act of contrary needs results from this ongoing inverse relation.
Control versus Freedom: sin crimes
Another general control versus freedom category that continuously plagues democracies revolves around what is referred to as ‘sin crimes’: recreational drug use, gambling and various forms of pornography and prostitution. Many argue that participation in these activities is not a crime, because no one (other than perhaps the participant) is harmed, and therefore participation should not be controlled. Others argue that indulgence in these activities is a crime because others, such as children, can be harmed, and more generally because participation in these activities debases social morality. Therefore these activities should be controlled. Once again we have competing contradictory human needs that can graphically be displayed as an inverse relation.
As with all contradictory social needs, the United States attempts a ‘sin crime’ balancing act. We allow for limited amounts of gambling and prostitution freedom, in limited locations. Until the recent semi-legalization of marijuana in some states, we have not allowed any legal recreational drug freedom, and the other classic recreational drugs (cocaine, methamphetamine, opiates, and psychedelics) remain completely illegal. However in the American past the balance between sin freedom and sin control has been very different. For example, before 1920 marijuana, cocaine and opiates could be bought legally in drugstores. In the towns of the west in the late 1800s brothels and gambling were both legal and prevalent. This is mentioned simply to point out that the balancing act between contrary human needs is ongoing and dynamic, and the balance point is always open to future change.
Control versus Freedom: other social issues
Another social issue that can be conceptualized as an inverse contradiction of needs framed in the context of control versus freedom is abortion. Those who support the ‘pro-life’ position want to restrict abortions as much as possible, thus controlling the choices of pregnant women. Supporters of the ‘pro-choice’ position want abortions to be legally available to any pregnant woman who wants one. The Supreme Court decision in Roe vs. Wade made most abortions legal in the United States, but the pro-life supporters have never given up trying to restrict abortions. The point being that although the current balance favors the pro-choice position at this time, there are always those who wish to change the balance in the future.
A further social issue that can be conceptualized as a control versus freedom contradiction is divorce. Highly collectivist societies make divorce difficult, thus controlling the romantic choices of individuals. As societies become more individualistic, divorce usually becomes easier to obtain, giving individuals more relationship choices. In the United States the balance dot has shifted dramatically from difficulty in obtaining divorce (control) to ease in obtaining divorce (freedom). This has occurred as the United States has become less collectivist and more individualistic.
Control versus Freedom: economics
The control versus freedom issue extends to economics. Arguably the history of economic thought can be viewed as an intellectual struggle between proponents of a controlled economy versus proponents of a free market economy. This struggle plays itself out in the economic policies of the various democracies.
Free market economies respond to increasing human economic needs by expanding. An expanding economy is needed to provide jobs for an increasing population. Environmental preservation, which controls and inhibits present economic activity, is needed to provide resources for future generations. In a graph of this inverse contradiction, an expanding economy (freedom) would be on the Y axis in and environmental preservation (control) would be on the X axis. The negative correlation shows the contradictory inverse relation between these two needs. Expanding the economy inevitably leads to varying degrees of environmental degradation, and environmental preservation leads to fewer jobs.
Another contradictory issue with economic consequences is immigration. In its history the United States has been inconsistent regarding immigration, with increased immigration representing freedom, and decreased immigration representing control. At times we have had an open door, and at other times we have closed the door. The inconsistency reflects contradictory needs. New immigrants fulfill societal and economic needs, such as helping to expand the country westward and providing cheap labor for growing industries. However, immigration, particularly illegal immigration, represents a loss of control, both over the borders, and over who is allowed to become citizens of the country.
Self-sacrifice versus Self-interest
A more psychological aspect of the Collectivism versus Individualism overall contradiction is the contradiction between self-sacrifice and self-interest. Collectivist societies try to blunt self-interest by having group members internalize collective values that periodically require self-sacrifice. For example, a young person’s parents want her to take over their small restaurant operation so that they can retire. In a collectivist society she would without hesitation honor her parent’s request even though she desires to go to medical school and become a doctor. In individualistic cultures children are taught to follow their own self-interest, regardless of the desires of their fellow group members. Thus the young person in the example would pursue her medical school plans regardless of her parents’ desires.
The self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction shows up in several different issues. Americans want government services/benefits, but they do not want to pay for them. Receiving free or low-cost government services and benefits is clearly in each individual’s self-interest, but paying for these benefits is a form of self-sacrifice. The work ethic versus entitlement contradiction is another example of the self-sacrifice versus self-interest contradiction. Work ethic is the internalized attitude that hard work (self-sacrifice) is both rewarding in itself and necessary to earn rewards. Entitlement (self-interest) is the belief that people should receive certain resources and rewards from their society simply because they are members of that society.
The Underlying Psychological Contradiction
The overall collectivist-control-self sacrifice versus individualist-freedom-self interest contradiction has an underlying fundamental psychological component: internalized self-control (impulse control) versus lack of self-control (impulsivity). Impulsivity could be defined as the freedom to do whatever a person wants whenever he/she wants, if it makes that person feel good. This definition implies that people should be able to ignore societal rules and norms if they so desire. Impulsivity is opposed by impulse control, which promotes conformity to societal norms and delay of gratification. There are individualistic forces in American society that promote impulsivity, such as advertising and modern music (rock and rap), and there are collectivist forces that promote impulse control, such as laws, ethics and religious mores.
Impulsivity apparently peaked in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. During these decades several markers of impulsivity reached their highest levels, such as the amount of illicit recreational drug use and the number of out-of-wedlock teenage births.
The basic point of this paper is that democracy can be conceptualized as an endless dynamic governance process that attempts to balance contradictory needs. These sets of contradictory needs can be categorized within the overarching framework of collectivism (control) versus individualism (freedom). Because of individual differences, there will almost always be some people for whom one of the set of two contradictory needs is more salient than the other need, and vice versa. When the balance is equidistant from either axis, supporters of each need are roughly equally powerful in influencing the democratic process. When the balance is more toward one axis or the other, supporters of one need have more influence than supporters of the other need, at least temporarily.
The strong implication of this analysis of democracy as sets of contradictory needs is that most balance points between contradictory needs are usually in the center or close to it. Partisans on either side have difficulty accepting this fundamental fact about democracy. The two major political parties, which are each dominated by their respective partisans, generally fall on opposite sides of each of these contradictions, and they strive to make their particular position dominant by overcoming the other position and thus eliminating the contradiction. Centrists not only accept the fact that these contradictions will never go away; they value these contradictions as the essence of democracy. Centrists believe that partisans waste their time trying to eliminate whatever contrary position they oppose. Instead, centrists believe that the focus should be on finding balance points that best serve the long term health of our democracy.
The Village Square in Tallahassee hosted humanities scholar Clay Jenkinson on October 15th for a live audience taping of the nationally syndicated show The Thomas Jefferson Hour. To learn more about our program and listen to an audio of the program CLICK HERE. To look at pictures of the program CLICK HERE. The below piece by Mr. Jenkinson ran in ” Context Florida and the print edition of the Tallahassee Democrat.
As the 21st century finds its rhythm, and the 2016 presidential contest begins to take up most of our public space, it seems clear to me that we have two political parties in the United States, but they are both thoroughly Hamiltonian.We have what might be called the “greater Hamiltonian Party” and the “lesser Hamiltonian party.” The obscene dominance of money, political action committees, lobbyists, fundraisers, and unrestrained attack ads has essentially disenfranchised the vast majority of American citizens.
In a world where there is no longer any real accountability, our political discourse has spiraled down into the gutter. A citizen from Jupiter, or any rational American, forced to watch nothing but Fox and MSNBC 24 hours per day, would soon despair of the American experiment.
What is to be done?
My view is that we need a Jeffersonian party or (better yet) a Jeffersonian movement in America. Jefferson believed that a republic could not survive without a high level of civility. In his first inaugural address, after a hotly contested election, Jefferson wrote two passages that every American should stop to consider.
First he said, “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
In other words, Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner, there are more things about which you agree than disagree. Stop exaggerating your differences – to raise money from your most virulent supporters, to appease the most extreme elements in your caucus, to erect a pedestal of righteousness in your name.
Jefferson’s second passage is even more important. “Let us,” he wrote, “restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty and even life itself are but dreary things.”
Think about what Jefferson is saying here. The ideal of a republic is social “harmony and affection.” We live in the freest country in history, on what Jefferson called a “wide and fruitful land” with “room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation.” We have every reason to rejoice, almost no reason to lament.
Who would not agree that the rancorous partisanship and political paralysis of the past dozen years have made our public life (the res-publica, as the Romans put it) dreary, tedious, dispiriting, degrading, demoralizing, and exceedingly frustrating?
National renewal begins with a new commitment to civility. The style of our national debates should be serious, at times pointed, but always respectful and civil. The whole spirit of the Enlightenment can be summed up in a statement attributed to the French philosopher Voltaire:
“Madam, I disagree with what you say, but I shall defend to the death your right to say it.
We need to bring down the temperature of our national debates. We need to listen more carefully to each other. We need to try to understand not only what the opposition is saying, but the set of American principles that underlie what they say. We need to refine our debates so that they begin again to be evidence-based, rational, sensible, and helpful. Demagoguery is telling people what you think they want to hear even if you know what you are saying could never be instituted in law.
Demagoguery is playing on the fears, the darker energies, the prejudices, and the uncivil desires of the people. Demagoguery is deliberately saying things that you know actually degrade the possibility of true resolution of our problems. By those definitions, the United States in 2015 is awash in demagoguery.
Jefferson believed we would only be a republic if we had a well-educated and well-informed public – a nation of people who could see beyond narrow self-interest to the health and happiness of the entire commonwealth. Jefferson famously said that in our system the will of the majority ought always to prevail, but “that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”
Here’s what we desperately need. More civil public discourse. A willingness to compromise. The ability to see the virtue of the opposition, and to realize that they feel passionately about what is good for America. A willingness to read – books, articles, websites, the classics, the Founding Fathers – and to inform ourselves before trotting out the usual talking points (from Rush or Rachel or Sean or Glenn).
We need more Village Square events. I’m so excited to be coming to Tallahassee in the persona of the third U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson. I do the work that I do, portraying Jefferson (and other historical characters) across the country, and playing Jefferson 52 weeks per year on the Thomas Jefferson Hour, because I believe something vital is missing at the core of American life, and that Jefferson’s view of republican democracy is the answer to what has gone wrong in American life.
Not everything about Thomas Jefferson is admirable, but his understanding of how a republic works is as important today as it was when he first penned these thoughts two centuries ago.
If I can play a small role in restoring Jeffersonian values to our national discourse, I will say, to use one of Jefferson’s allusions, like the character in the Bible, nunc dimittis, now you may dismiss me, for my work is done.
Clay S. Jenkinson is a humanities scholar, Rhodes Scholar, author and social commentator. He has lectured about and portrayed Thomas Jefferson in 49 states over a period of 15 years, before U.S. Supreme Court justices, presidents, 18 state legislatures, and countless public, corporate, student and television audiences. Column courtesy of Context Florida.
The Village Square will host Jenkinson for a special live audience taping of the The Thomas Jefferson Hour at 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Thursday at Goodwood Museum & Gardens. “Founding Ideals: A Conversation with President Thomas Jefferson” is a fundraiser for The Village Square. You may purchase tickets by clicking here. Questions? Email email@example.com or call 850-590-6646.
Byron Dobson, writing in the Tallahassee Democrat:
About an hour after attending an encouraging forum Thursday night on race relations, I skimmed through Facebook and was struck by reports of 78-year-old John McGraw punching a black protester as the man was being led out of a Donald Trump rally in Fayetteville, N.C.
Apparently unapologetic about his actions, McGraw, who is white, is quoted in the New York Daily News saying, “Next time we see him, we might have to kill him!”
Talk about experiencing fleeting moments of hope and despair.
Amanda Claire Curcio, writes in Tallahassee Democrat:
Come here often?
And with the most cliché of all pickup lines, the 2016 “Speed Date Your Local Leaders” began.
Local leaders went from table to table, sitting down with a handful of community members at each for 10-minute intervals. A bell chime signaled them to move and begin new conversations.
During the two-hour session of “civic speed dating,” held Thursday evening at St. John’s Episcopal Church, anything was up for discussion. Topics included having honest conversations about race, supporting micro-businesses, pets, the future of public schools and building more bicycle lanes and sidewalks.
Our panelists for Created Equal and Breathing Free on January 12, 2016
Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (and our experience is that it draws an audience of about five). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy.
The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”
The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free
Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goals that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.
This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues that are closest to their hearts.
The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.
We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).
Processing the Results
We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.
A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibly that despite our best efforts that in a given program we could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. Beyond chalking those instances up to “you win some, you lose some” we at the Village Square have come to believe strongly that there is a real shift that occurs through our continued efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus to build the ecosystem of relationships in our community – many program specifically are focused being on the same “team” in working to address community issues that has nothing to do with political partisanship. This focus leverages the bonds that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance requires it. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy well-traveled by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).
Our Theory of Change
Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.
Take a look at this smart piece by Richard Sheffield in the Deseret News on how the Supreme Court can become a role model for the kind of discussions we ought to be having about our disagreements. Here’s a snip:
While anticipating the court’s decision, I wonder how we can better handle disagreement and tension between the two sides of tough issues. Also, the recent racial tumult at the University of Missouri has spread to the Ivy League and beyond, increasing the focus on competing racial issues and the related on-campus arguments.
What amount of ugly rhetoric should be allowed as free speech, even though offensive? Should race still be considered in admissions to increase diversity in campus debates? When do volleys shot between two sides become counterproductive?
Ironically, I think the Supreme Court justices themselves can serve as a model for fruitful interaction on highly charged issues — whether on campuses, in Congress or City Hall, or even at Christmas dinner.
Americans have this very popular notion that we really don’t agree on anything politically.
Such a notion is so pervasive that to suggest otherwise seems like a bit of a fairy tale. Americans of each party look upon the other with ever-increasing antipathy – so much so that almost ⅓ of party voters see the other party as a threat to the nation.
Congress also shows real evidence of no longer agreeing on anything at all:
All this looks incredibly dire. The most tempting conclusion to draw, of course, is that Americans disagree on more than they ever have before. In each party, we’re very much encouraged to propagate such a belief.
But America has a dirty secret that party leaders and media outlets don’t want you to know: as a country, we have broad agreement among issues that seem intractable and completely split. Let’s look at a few of the most seemingly-polarized examples: abortion and guns.
When polled whether they are “pro life” or “pro choice,” Americans have been split nearly 50-50 for 20 years.
But it turns out these distinctions, while not totally meaningless, tell us very little about one’s political positions on abortion.
For example, when we ask Americans to state their political preferences about abortion restriction timelines, 85% are willing to choose either 20 or 24 weeks as a cut-off. Only 8% insisted that abortion should be always or never legal, regardless of timeline.
We also know from repeated polling that consistently, over 80% of Americans want abortion to be legal but with some restrictions. It’s about 10% each that never want any restrictions at all, and about 10% that never want to allow abortion at all. Between is a wide spectrum of varied and often conflicting views about timetables, exceptions, parental notifications, etc.
This spectrum and nuance allows for discussion and an attempt to seek understanding, where the labels of “pro life” and “pro choice”–which seem to have very little to do with one’s policy preferences at all–do not.
We see a similar seemingly wide gap between “gun control” advocates and “gun freedom” advocates when we ask broad questions about guns. In this case, about 50% of Americans consistently want stricter gun control laws, and about 50% either want them kept as they are or scaled back.
Such a question paints us as fiercely pitted against each other, but it is deceptive. Within the incredible complexity of what the many gun control laws entail, how many people are really going to be simply “for more” or “for less?”
It turns out that when you ask people about specific policy questions, not only do their views become more nuanced, but we can see a broad amount of agreement among Americans.
For the majority of these common gun control concepts, Americans have 80% or more agreement. On other questions like high-capacity clips, we have the potential for a productive discussion if we put aside our “pro gun control” or “pro gun freedom” labels.
Why the discord?
There are a lot of policy questions about which Americans have a lot of different ideas. In this way, disagreement is a great thing: it means many ideas come to the table to “duke it out” in the hearts and minds of the country.
But why do we think that some disagreement means we have little or nothing in common with people of the other party?
There are folks that have a strong interest in you believing you have nothing to agree on with the other party: namely, politicians.
The most consistent and reliable voters are those who are most consistently conservative or liberal. So politicians running for election actually have a political incentive in order to transform us from being more moderate to being more extreme, as we become more valuable to them.
They’ve gotten good at it.
These incentives are very powerful and can’t be fixed by pleas or demands for bipartisanship or civility. We have to undermine these forces at their root.
In the “illuminating” and “powerful” new book Wedged, Erik Fogg and Nathaniel Greene uncover these forces and provide concrete steps for Americans to identify when they are being manipulated into supporting partisan extremes, and how to help themselves and others fight back.
Seven projects will get a share of $174,400 in grants from the Knight Foundation Fund via the Community Foundation of North Florida. Selected from more than 40 applications, the winning projects were picked for how well they aligned with the target goals of the Knight Foundation, which endeavors to enhance communities through unique partnerships and efforts.
Here are the 2015 winners:
The Village Square – Group strives to foster civic engagement and conversation on local, state and national issues, despite political affiliations and perspectives.
Rabbi Jack Romberg writes about the decision we will make on whether to accept Syrian refugees:
I say it directly, without hesitation, with a slight bit of fear, which I am determined to overcome. Let the Syrian refugees come to America. Let them find the safety, the succor, that they cannot possibly receive in any other country. No, we cannot take them all, but we should at least follow the lead of Germany – which is ironic given the comparisons floating around between the plight of the Syrian refugees and the Jewish refugees of the late 1930’s.
I say this without condemnation of most of those who argue we should not let them in. I think I understand those feelings. They are expressed (by most I think) not out of hatred, but out of concern for the impact on our country. Rather than condemn the motives of those who think differently than I do, I would rather address their concerns directly, out of simple respect for my fellow Americans. And then I would hope that at least some might see a path to changing their minds.
Read the entire piece online at The Jewish Observer. Please do feel free to submit alternative perspectives, argued with respect and civility.
Death happens to the best of us, and also to the worst.
We saw that again last week in Paris, and in Beirut, where hundreds of people going about the business of daily living had the bad fortune to cross paths with fanatics armed with weapons of war and hearts full of hate.
The Grim Reaper is not obliged to give a heads-up that your number’s up. There is always a chance that a marathon in Boston or a church in Charleston will be violated by twisted souls that nobody’s God would claim.
The Grim Reaper outsources only a fraction of his job to nut jobs claiming to be guided by homicidal Higher Authorities. The bulk of his business is done by Alzheimer’s and heart disease and cancer and 57 varieties of addiction.
The Grim Reaper does not respect boundaries. Surprise visits to offices and schools and family vacations are not off limits. He works his regular shift on birthdays, anniversaries, and the occasional bar mitzvah. He does not care that Americans are about to celebrate that most Leo Tolstoy of holidays, Thanksgiving, where “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
This Thanksgiving, as always, happy families count their blessings and carve the turkey, while unhappy families sharpen the long knives and use them on one another. No matter what else might be happening in the world, unhappy families can rarely resist the annual opportunity to eat, drink, and resurrect ancient grievances.
In her brilliant new book Tribal, my colleague Diane Roberts reminds us that much of the human race is hard-wired to believe that God wants bloody vengeance for last week’s defeat on the football field. We should not be surprised that there are people on every continent seeking bloody vengeance for Civil Wars, and Balkan Wars, and wars dating back to the twelve tribes of Israel.
This Thanksgiving, let’s skip the competition for Smartest Guy in the Room and Prettiest Presentation of Green Bean Casserole and focus—really focus—on learning something we didn’t know about someone who shares our holiday table. That’s as close as we can come to cheating death.
Florence Snyder is a corporate and First Amendment lawyer. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org