Why we’re so divided, and what we can do about it?

In a recent post, after trying to engage in a polite way with Republicans and Trump supporters, I concluded it was a difficult prospect, because many are, for lack of a better word, assholes.

But I want to be clear: I don’t believe, nor did I state in the piece, that all Republicans are assholes; rather, what I argued was that people who are assholes tend to be Republicans (and perhaps they would say that elitist uppity degree-earning dicks tend to be liberals—touche).

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Now as my critics were quick to point out, some of this was probably my fault, and I can’t disagree—though I swear I really did try to be polite as possible. But in terms of achieving what I set out to accomplish, which was to cultivate a productive dialogue between people who fundamentally disagree on politics, I most certainly failed. And unlike Donald Trump, I’m willing to take responsibility for my failures.

But it got me thinking: we have this notion that one of the primary things we should do as citizens in a democracy is try to convince others, especially those who disagree with us, to come join our side/team/party.

And while this probably should be true, it’s wrong insofar as it has little to no effect on the outcome of our elections. And there are two reasons for this:

1) A huge proportion of eligible voters don’t vote. In fact, either major party would be much better off if they could influence say even 10% of non-voters to register and cast a ballot for them on election day—especially Democrats (who tend to win with larger turnout). But more importantly:

2) It’s said we’re polarized as a nation, and that’s true, but it’s more honest and accurate to say there’s a group of people who function with the belief that reality matters—science, experts, data, observable facts—and then there’s a group of people to whom identity matters, and much of that identity is built on rejecting reality, especially when it contradicts political ideology (secular rationalism vs. xenophobic nationalism).

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Yes, the former tend to be liberal and the latter tend to be conservative. Obviously I’m painting with a broad brush here and there are exceptions, but consider the current positions of these groups on the following: climate change, the economy, and race.

On climate change, it’s really simple: liberals accept that it’s happening and believe we ought to do something about it. Conservatives either reject the notion that climate change exists, or else suggest it’s not human caused and/or there’s nothing we can, or should do about it, both of which are at odds with the consensus of scientists and experts who study our climate, as well as policy makers who’ve proven there are steps we can take that will make a difference.

On the economy, conservatives are again at odds with what economic data and expert analysis suggests, which is that cutting taxes and regulations on the wealthy and large corporations has a very minor stimulative effect on the economy—or more simply put: trickle-down, supply-side economics don’t work. Contrast this with the liberal position: tax the rich at higher rates in order to expand education, invest in infrastructure, and provide economic support for healthcare and other social programs, all of which has been shown to have a both stabilizing and highly stimulative effect on the economy (for example, every dollar we spend on Food Stamps generates almost two dollars of economic activity).

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Finally on race, we see conservatives lining up behind the police every time there’s a questionable shooting and conflating the actions of rioters or criminals who happen to be black with groups they have nothing to do with, like Black Lives Matter. With liberals it’s just the opposite, as they direct outrage at the police for killing unarmed civilians while pointing to systemic racism as the cause. And again, we find the liberal position aligned with the fact that there most certainly is an implicit bias toward African Americans and people of color by law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and it bears out in any number of statistics, whether we look at arrests, sentencing, traffic stops, etc.

But to be fair, while the statistics are in every case on the side of the liberal position, conservatives don’t hold to theirs because they’re simply racist or ignorant—they hold to it because it’s what their tribe believes. So they can remain unified.

And this is why so many people believe it’s useless to talk to our political opposition: because they never listen and they never will. Right? But the simple truth of why we fail is that the argument we’re making doesn’t matter to the other side.

For example, a conservative can make all the anecdotal and personal and regional arguments about politics he wants, but as a liberal, I’m not going to be convinced to change my political views unless he cites verifiable facts, data, and expert analysis in support of his argument. Conservatives can’t do that, because frankly, the facts aren’t on their side, and when you point that out, they’ll employ nearly every logical fallacy they can think of to distract you from the fact they don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

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On the other hand, as a liberal, I can’t convince conservatives to change their minds by citing verifiable facts, data, and expert analysis in my argument, because conservatives don’t give a shit about that stuff. It’s about what they feel in their gut—about who they are and the beliefs held by their community and social circle.

Which is in why we find ourselves so divided. The 2016 Presidential Election is a perfect example.

Conservatives don’t understand why or how people could support Hillary: after all, she’s responsible for Benghazi and should be in jail, and everyone they know agrees. Plus she’s a Clinton, a woman, and a Democrat. Bad, suspect, and worse. Donald Trump may be an asshole, goes the thinking, but he’s THEIR asshole. And he holds conventional Republican positions: lower taxes, anti-abortion, less regulation, screw the environment, government sucks, guns for everyone, etc. Plus, on the policies conservatives don’t like about conventional Republican policy—cuts to Medicare and Social Security—he differed, saying he’d protect them (though day-by-day that’s looking like more of a lie).

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For liberals it was just the opposite: Donald Trump is objectively and measurably an awful human being and not all that good of a businessman. He’s said things about certain groups of people that are horrific and absurd. And no one who’s well respected from either party was willing to endorse him. Given the evidence then, it’s safe to assume he’s a conman and a buffoon. Plus, Clinton was well-qualified for the job and had a fairly good record in government. How could anyone morally or logically vote for Trump?

But again, for conservatives it was because he was THEIR guy—loyalty to their identity literally Trumped (forgive the bad pun) the evidence that correctly predicted Donald Trump would turn out to be a fucking bum (so far, so bad).

So there are two takeaways from this:

  1. It’s extremely difficult to convince conservatives to change their political beliefs, because in doing so, we’re not simply asking them to support different, more effective policies. As they see it, we’re asking them to abandon their personal and social identity (and I’m sure they’d say it’s the reverse).
  2. If we’re going to convince Republicans of anything, it has to be on the basis of identity—not facts, statistics, experts. Because the unfortunate truth is that shit just doesn’t matter to them.

But how does one do that? How do we get conservatives to either abandon part of their identity or realize that their identity isn’t aligned with how their party actually governs?

I’m not sure I have the answer, and as my attempt so far to interact with Republicans in a kinder, gentler way led me to conclude that a whole lot of them are just stupid assholes, bullies, or losers, I can’t say as I hold on to a lot of hope it can be done.

However, as I mentioned earlier, this doesn’t really matter in terms of winning elections. If Democrats want to win, they need to focus on registering the near 50% of eligible voters who didn’t vote in the last election and finding effective ways to makes sure they actually get to the polls and cast a ballot.

That being said, for those determined to try persuading Republicans to see the light, here are a few strategies you might consider:

  • Don’t focus on facts and fact checking—it won’t work. Remember, they don’t matter all that much to Republicans, and besides, they have their own alternative facts supplied by Right Wing Media, and surprise, surprise, they stand in stark contrast with the actual truth.
  • Use counterfactuals and hypotheticals. For example: how would Republicans respond if Hillary Clinton had won the electoral college by a thin margin in three states, lost the popular vote by more than 3 million, and been aided by Russian hacking and last minute meddling by the FBI? What would they say if Clinton had then attacked all of our intelligence agencies, lied about the popular vote, and forced her surrogates to go out and lie about the crowd size at her inauguration? The point is to call out their bias. When you do this, they’ll say: Obama! Clinton! But force them to acknowledge that neither of those people are President and Donald Trump is. Hypotheticals are also useful: how would you feel if Donald Trump starts a war with Iran? What if Republican tax cuts lead to a massive increase in the debt and deficit?
  • Call them on their values. Beliefs, values, and ethics are extremely important to conservatives. So call them on it. Does the federal debt and deficit matter? Does corruption matter? How do you feel about all the Goldman Sachs employees now working for the Trump administration? How do you feel about the botched operation in Yemen? No matter how they answer these questions, they’re walking into a trap, because they either have to separate themselves from Trump and the Republican Party, or they have to admit their hypocrisy.
  • Attack the mind trap that is conservative media. Conservatives regularly reject what’s reported in the mainstream “liberal” media, basically because it doesn’t comport with what they’re told by Fox, Limbaugh, and the rest of the screamers. But don’t call them out on the facts—call them out on the process. If Donald Trump had an affair while in office, do you think Fox would report it objectively, or call for him to be impeached as they did with Bill Clinton? Do you know who Betsy DeVos is—is she qualified to be Secretary of Education? Do you know that Republicans passed a bill that said financial advisors don’t have to act in their client’s best interests? Indeed, if Republicans pass legislation that will hurt ordinary Americans, do you trust the Conservative Media to report on it objectively? In other words, if you reject every piece of information that you don’t like or agree with, how can you know what’s true and what isn’t?—?is it possible for people to be right 100% of the time?

In other words, ask questions. Conservative Americans believe they’re right about politics for very righteous and moral reasons, but the people they support are neither righteous nor moral. My best guess is that’s how we break through.

But who knows. Maybe they’re just a bunch of assholes like I said.

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About The Author: Jay Scott

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