Polarization is Not the Problem: A Post-Civic Culture

Increasingly, the dilemmas facing politics in the United States if not worldwide are being portrayed as outcomes of polarization. It is an attractive topic for discussion, because there is undeniably a great deal of polarization, if defined as wildly different (polar opposite) viewpoints on one or more issues. Moreover, it seems to be tied to popular conceptions of the role of the Internet in enabling individuals to find support for their views online, even if extreme. Conceptions of echo chambers and filter bubbles are tied to this perspective. While I have argued that echo chambers and filter bubbles have been over hyped and under researched, I also can’t believe that polarization has not been prominent throughout the history of American politics.

So what is the problem? What has changed?

Perhaps it is the degree that proponents of different viewpoints have begun to take more ideological, righteous, or even sectarian positions. Their opponents are not wrong, they are seen and portrayed as bad if not evil.

What is surprising about this in the context of American politics is our history of being the model of a so-called ‘civic culture’ (Almond and Versa 1963: 8), defined by a culture based on “communication” and “consensus” in which diverse opinions are moderated by the structures and process of the political system, such as the two-party system and our system of checks and balances. This view was roundly criticized as simply a description of American politics post-World War II, as contrasted with less stable democratic systems leading up to the second world war, such as the Weimar Republic. However, there has been some face validity to this civic culture notion, at least up to the divisions surrounding the Vietnam War. Today, the idea of a civic culture seem ludicrous. 

So I don’t think we should be as focused on the dynamics of polarization, or a diversity of opinions, but more on the dynamics of this politically sectarian righteousness. Maybe it is the nature of the issues being considered, such as the right to life, the environment, and immigration, that have connections with deep ethical or religious principles. But the search for answers to this question will lead in different directions than the search for the dynamics of polarization on the issues of the day.

There is a thoughtful letter to the editor of USA Today by David Engen of Spokane, Washington, that focuses on the decline of civil discourse. I find myself in agreement with him and others who are focusing on the decline of civility in American politics as absolutely central to fixing or mitigating what seems to be a decline of our political processes. Yet even the discussion of civility in American politics has been steeped in claims that one or another sectarian group is to blame, such as a recent story about whether voters see the Democrats or President Trump as more responsible for a decline in civility (Wise 2018).

Are we lost in what I would call a post-civic culture?

References

Almond, G. A., and Verba, S. (1963), The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Dutton, W. H. (2017), Fake News, Echo Chambers and Filter Bubbles: Underresearched and Overhyped, The Conversation, 5 May: https://theconversation.com/fake-news-echo-chambers-and-filter-bubbles-underresearched-and-overhyped-76688

Engen, D. (2018), ‘We’re all Americans. Let’s be civil, please.’, Your Say section of USA Today, 2 July: page 5A.

Wise, J. (2018), ‘Poll: More Voters Blame Trump than Dems for Lack of Civility’, The Hill, 3 July: http://thehill.com/homenews/395371-poll-more-voters-blame-trump-than-dems-for-lack-of-civility

Wonderful Student Team on Study of Whiteboards at MSU

I am working with two of my masters students on a study of the issues that arose over whiteboards in the dormitories at MSU. The students presented their conclusions yesterday, and today they finish their paper. I’ll then work with their paper to develop a working paper that we might blog or disseminate in various ways. It was a fascinating and fun project is several ways. It was for a course on media and information policy, so this led us to quickly see the whiteboard as a media for communication and information. It is simple – everyone understands it, but it raises many of the same issues that are raised by social media and the Internet on college campuses. It also fits into the rising debate over speech on college campuses. Can’t wait to share our findings, which I believe to demonstrate the value of research in contrast to journalistic coverage of events such as the whiteboard controversy at MSU. It also really does speak to the issues of freedom of communication and civility in the university context.

Most importantly, it was a delight working with Irem Gokce Yildirim, an international student from Turkey, and Bingzhe Li, an international student from China, on this study of communication on an American campus. This is the kind of experience that makes teaching so enjoyable and rewarding.

[We are all laughing about my clumsy efforts to take this with my selfie stick.]

Irem, Bill, and Bingzhe

American Political Discourse: The Collapse of Civility and Commonsense Negotiating Strategies

Two aspects of contemporary political discourse in America seem to undermine the aims of all stakeholders. These aspects are apparent on social media, orchestrated campaigns, such as via email platforms, and on most major media with the one extraordinary exception of public broadcasting.

UnknownThe first is civility. Too often, all parties in political debate are increasingly lacking civility. Too often, individuals seem to believe that they need to be remarkably rude, shocking, or exaggerated in their insults and claims about one another in order to be heard. This person is a fascist, liar, bully, and so on. There is quite the opposite of the wisdom embedded in many traditions, such as of the British parliament, for example, to refer to others in Parliament as one’s Honorable Friend, or Right Honorable Friend. Vulgar name-calling and insults are the stock and trade of our politicians and increasingly our highest-paid media pundits. It may be the media equivalent of click-bait, but it is absolutely poisonous to a negotiation.

The second is an absence of minimal commonsense. In politics, a rational political actor wants to achieve some policy objective, such as a vote or other decision. This is not necessarily the art of making a deal, but it does require some art of negotiation. If people thought one minute about politics being a process of negotiation, they should try to avoid putting the party they are negotiating with on the defensive. Calling someone a traitor, liar, or another derogatory name is a good way to start a fight, not a negotiation.

Perhaps the aim is to get attention, rather than achieve any policy objective. But if policy change is a goal, I have long subscribed the sage advice of Roger Fisher, Will Ury, and Bruce Patton’s popular book, entitled Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), such as the need to separate people from the problem. For instance, one might focus on how we get out of this box, rather than Bill says we should do x, and Nancy says we should do y. American politics is almost exclusively focused on the Republicans want to do x, and so the Democrats want to do y, or vice versa. Completely the wrong strategy. My work on the role of modeling public policy decisions found that this was the secret ingredient of successful modeling – contestants became focused on the assumptions underpinning the model, rather than the policy preferences of the contestants (Dutton, W., and Kraemer, K. (1985) Modeling as Negotiating. Norwood NJ: Ablex). But one cannot focus on the problem when the lack of civility leads everyone to become mired in the mud fights among the contestants. They need to put their gloves ‘on’ in the political arena.

I don’t know if it is possible to reform the processes underpinning policy gridlock in the United States. It is becoming obvious that a change of political party fortunes has not made a difference. However,  a good start would be to focus on the very basics – how contestants talk to and about one another. Without a more civilized discourse, the art of negotiation and politics will be lost in a growing obsession with getting attention.