American politics has entered what is likely the most polarized era in its history (1). According to Pew Research’s studies, about 85% of Americans feel that in recent times, political discourse in the United States has gotten less substantive and less reliant on facts. This has led to the current trend in which people are increasingly unlikely to engage in discourse with people on the other side of the political spectrum (2). It’s widely agreed upon that civil discourse is an essential aspect of the American democratic process, so the diminishing number of these conversations raises a cause for concern (3). How can we revive productive discourse in such a polarized and hateful American political climate? To address the root of the problem,we need to practice empathetic listening.
Let us first examine an issue with our current political climate. People simply don’t listen to one another. They commonly don’t give the “other side” a chance, and ignore any argument that the opposition puts forth that challenges how they feel. The result is unproductive conversations because people do not listen when the facts presented challenge their beliefs.
Americans are increasingly voting with their feelings and their lived experience rather than basing their votes off of objective facts. Russell Hochschild touches on this when she introduces the concept of a “deep story” in her book Strangers in their Own Land, referring to those lived experiences that dictate voting preferences far more than basic facts (4). Telling someone that their deep story is simply wrong because of some faraway study or fact will not change their opinions (5). Appealing to logic and fact doesn’t change the way people feel.
This issue is apparent throughout society, even in classroom settings where discourse is the main goal. I’ve experienced this tension many times, as I imagine many others have. Instead of actively listening to the other sides’ ideas, we form judgments and focus on our own replies. People engaging in the debate often ridicule the other side and even laugh at the opposition’s “illogical” and “ridiculous” views. Unfortunately, even if some of the views are not fact-based, these belittling comments don’t help solve the problem. Instead, this further divides people by triggering a psychological response that makes one less receptive to opposing ideas (6). This has led to a recent trend where people direct their hatred less at the political elites making harmful policy decisions and more at the ordinary citizens who vote for the opposite party (7). This compounds, leading to even less discourse and more polarization, because when people hate one another, they are even less likely to actually listen to the other present a view that contradicts their one.
The hatred felt toward the other side translates into a lack of trust, which further threatens American democracy. People often bring “facts” they’ve heard to an argument, and as mentioned before, when these facts challenge opinions, the opinions typically don’t budge. The result is that objective facts seem to lose their objectivity, and suddenly our unproductive discourse is enabling the misinformation battle that America sees today. Polarized voters look to the news sources that confirm their existing opinions and don’t stop to question their sources, which pushes the public’s views farther and farther apart. We can’t hope that people will correct this trend on their own, since people have been shown to prioritize their partisan interests over the “civic duty” to preserve democracy (8). Facts lose to deep stories every time, and the heart trumps the head when it comes to discourse. So what do we do about it?
People on both sides of the political spectrum recognize the issue of mistrust in basic facts and the lack of political discourse, and they feel that they have ideas that can help solve this problem (9). In order for those ideas to come to fruition, we must listen to one another, engaging in productive discourse ourselves, and the result could be a revival of civil political discourse. The solution is to promote empathy. When people understand one another and see each other as human, it’s harder for them to automatically disregard opposition opinions.
While it’s unclear if empathy and listening to those with differing opinions is scalable to address this country-wide issue, listening to the other side has been shown to be key in conflict resolution and helps reduce interpersonal dislike (10). Empathetic treatment is essential in trying to remediate the unfriendly polarization that characterizes today’s political climate, and we can try to make empathy more common in a number of ways.
First, promoting amicable relationships between people is possible by simply having people interact with one another. Multiple studies have shown that simply having contact with a “social outgroup” that one disagrees with shifts sentiments to be more understanding and open (11). This is true regardless of the quality or quantity of the “contact” that a member of the “in-group” has with the supposed outgroup; the attitudes towards the outgroup were improved (12). This reduction of hate that these studies observed is essential to American politics, as it undermines polarization and encourages people to understand one another. If this happens, political discourse can occur.
Additionally, society can promote this kind of productive interaction by teaching children the importance of civil discourse from a young age. Teaching conflict resolution in schools has been shown to have positive outcomes; following training, students are more likely to resolve their problems among themselves rather than resulting in fighting (13). This carries beyond the classroom into other aspects of life, and may even help with political conversations later in life. While it’s not a foolproof solution to shift the way our society engages in political discourse, teaching conflict resolution is a relevant tool we can use to minimize polarization by combating it from a young age.
From teaching conflict resolution to encouraging more inter-party exposure, increasing empathetic tendencies at the interpersonal level can fight the polarization we see in society far better than throwing facts at the opposition. Our society is characterized by people who vote because they feel a certain way, rather than because facts tell them to. People are going to keep voting with their hearts, and this isn’t going to change. However, we can recognize that and seek to alleviate the stresses it puts on democracy. To enact positive and productive change , we must seek to empathize with one another.
- Yang, J. L. (2020, September 8). Are we more divided now than ever before? The New York Times. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/books/review/republic-of-wrath-james-a-morone.html.
- Pew Research Center. (2021, April 12). Public highly critical of state of political discourse in the U.S. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/06/19/public-highly-critical-of-state-of-political-discourse-in-the-u-s/.
- Meyers, R., & Taber, C. (2020, October 29). Civic discourse essential to our democracy. Retrieved May 2, 2022, from https://www.k-state.edu/today/announcement/?id=69966.
- Hochschild, A. R. (2018). Chapters 1, 9, and 15. In Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. essay, The New Press.
- Challenger, M. (2021, February 24). Why insulting people’s intelligence is incompatible with Open debate. New Scientist. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24933230-100-why-insulting-peoples-intelligence-is-incompatible-with-open-debate/.
- Cramer, K. J. (2016). Chapter 1. In The politics of resentment: Rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker. essay, University of Chicago Press.
- Svolik, M. W. (2019). Polarization Versus Democracy. Journal of Democracy 30(3): pp 20-32.
- Rainie, L., Keeter, S., & Perrin, A. (2021, July 27). Trust and distrust in America. Pew Research Center – U.S. Politics & Policy. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/.
- LumenLearning. (2016, September 29). Communication in the real world: An introduction to communication studies. 6.2 Conflict and Interpersonal Communication | Communication in the Real World: An Introduction to Communication Studies. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-realworldcomm/chapter/6-2-conflict-and-interpersonal-communication/.
- Benjamin R. Warner & Astrid Villamil (2017) A test of imagined contact as a means to improve cross-partisan feelings and reduce attribution of malevolence and acceptance of political violence, Communication Monographs, 84:4, 447-465, DOI: 10.1080/03637751.2017.1336779.
- Wojcieszak, M. A. (2016, December 1). I saw you in the news: Mediated and direct intergroup contact improves outgroup attitudes, Journal of Communication. DeepDyve. Retrieved May 3, 2022, from https://www.deepdyve.com/lp/wiley/i-saw-you-in-the-news-mediated-and-direct-intergroup-contact-improve-z0x5gDupFw.
- Türk, F. (2017). Evaluation of the effects of Conflict Resolution, peace education and peer mediation: A meta-analysis study. International Education Studies, 11(1), 25. https://doi.org/10.5539/ies.v11n1p25.