Why Do Americans Deeply Disagree?

People today struggle to understand lots of other people’s worlds.  Democrats do not understand Republicans, who in turn claim rather famously that Democrats are trying to take over the country–how evil. Political commentators all over the place are noting how this era of politics has been so divisive, so polarized.

The Pew Research Center released a new social values poll in early June that suggests lots of interesting  differences between Democrats and Republicans.  For instance, people in the two parties are hugely divergent in what the role of government should be:

If you are one of those clever people thinking “sure, we disagree more about the social safety net, but that is just one aspect of politics,” then okay, you got a point, but what about the environment?

These are not small changes.  In less than a span of a generation, nearly a quarter of Americans have changed their minds about the environment.  The data I’ve presented thus far all emphasize how Republicans have changed.  However areas where Democrats are the primary people who changed also exist, especially on social values issues, whether religion plays a significant role in their lives, or whether they believe people should have traditional marriages.

The point is this: Americans are now more than any point in the last 25 years, more socially divided, more philosophically divided, more politically divided than at any other point in the past 25 years.  Probably longer.  Why?

I don’t think anyone really knows all too well the answer to why we are so divided.  But I think one of the several contributing factors for why is an increased lack of understanding for the points of views of those who disagree.  Simply put: the fact is dead.

There are few reasons that I could come up with for arguing as the devil’s advocate for my argument above.  I would be flabbergasted by any such position, and I would have to spend a great deal of time to figure out just what reasoning a dissenter would have, or how she would attack question the facts I presented above.  Simply: I would not understand immediately how someone could look at the facts above and say “yeah, those aren’t big differences.”  I am willing to put in the effort to figure out what world a person could live in to disagree with me, but many are not willing to put in that effort.

What happens when people are worlds apart and unwilling to try to understand each others’ worlds?

One of the most valuable parts of that fact article I linked, and one of the most valuable lessons I read from a Canadian journal, Informal Logic, is a concept called “Deep Disagreements.”  The main thrust of the concept is that when people do not share enough assumptions about the world, whether we’re talking about what constitutes persuasive evidence, or what an acceptable protocol for argument might be, whatever, when people don’t share enough rules, no agreement can be made.

The danger of being worlds apart and being unwilling to consider how other people could validly see the world around them is that we might cease being able to be able to compromise.  This is a recognition that Republicans, according to the Pew Research Poll, are making first.  But it is also a recognition that we can’t peacefully agree on how to manage the resources that we need to share.   Talk about cynicism!

If we can’t figure out how to agree on these core ideological differences, what hope for peaceful agreement is there?  Why should we pretend to be one nation?  Major Garrett argues in The Atlantic that these divisions are real and should not be ignored with popular rhetoric about how united we are.  News flash: We’re not united about much of anything.

Another reason that polarization might have expanded might be how we associate with each other.  There are (at least) two prominent works that attempt to explain this trend: Bowling Alone by Robert Putnam and Going to Extremes by Cass Sunstein. Putnam’s book presents data to argue that people are no longer associating with the people at their geographic locations.  Bowling membership trends have plummeted.   Church memberships are struggling.  We are no longer attending parent/teacher conferences.  Basically, we are no longer forced to interact with our neighbors.

Sunstein’s book goes one step further.  Not only are we choosing who we associate with and where we get our news, but we are picking out those pieces of evidence that further confirm our preconceived notions.  Instead of actively challenging ourselves, we ignore the evidence that would challenge us in favor of that which confirms what we think we already knew.  And then sitting down with people to talk about the issues only further cements and radicalizes our positions.

If Sunstein is correct, there is very little we can do to reduce the amount of disagreement we have with one another.  Yet, very little is not nothing.  There seems to be some light shining through these depressing data: if we make people feel better about themselves, they might be more willing to accept uncomfortable conclusions.

The thought seems silly, but if you make sure that the other person understands that you don’t think he is an awful person for disagreeing with you, you might find more common ground than you thought was there.

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