Political tensions in the United States are at an all-time high.
A recent poll found that 84 percent of Trump supporters see Democrats as representing a “clear and present threat to American democracy.” Eighty percent Biden supporters said the same about Republicans.
As David French aptly puts it, “The combination of malice and misinformation is driving American polarization to a fever pitch.”
What can we do to bring tensions down a notch, while still advocating for the political ideas we cherish?
As a coach who’s spent two decades working with folks on every side of the political spectrum, and a former political op-ed writer who managed to maintain close relationships with family and friends who thought his views on government were insane, we have three ideas.
1) Cultivate Self-Awareness
We all like to think we’re open-minded on every single issue. We see ourselves as dispassionate seekers of truth, who are completely open to a rational critique of our cherished beliefs.
The truth is more complex. As social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points out in his book The Righteous Mind, we tend to choose our political beliefs emotionally and then try to justify them logically. Haidt uses the metaphor of an elephant and a rider: the elephant chooses which way to lean (for instance, supporting gun control) for emotional reasons, and then the rider is tasked with justifying that leaning using logic and evidence.
The key is that the rider isn’t looking for the truth; they’re looking for evidence to support the elephant’s decisions. Their arguments are post-hoc justifications, similar to how a president’s press secretary reflexively defends his actions.
This explains why you’ve probably been in arguments with people who clung to their beliefs even after you rebutted their logical claims. For most people, the beliefs sway the evidence they see; not vice versa.
As Drew Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University and author of The Political Brain, puts it, “The last thing to do is to try to argue someone out of a belief when they’re strongly committed to it emotionally, because what makes it so strong is the emotion attached to it, not the facts or arguments that support it.”
Reaching a place where our elephant no longer leans toward any political camp, and we’re free to dispassionately evaluate every issue on its merits, probably isn’t realistic for most of us. Instead, what we can do is recognize where our elephant is open to being persuaded and where it isn’t.
For instance, if you work for a pro-gun-control advocacy group, you’re probably not going to be persuaded by anti-gun-control arguments no matter how they’re made. Your elephant isn’t going to lean in a direction that puts your job in jeopardy. That’s fine. But you’ll be doing yourself–and the people you talk politics with–a big favor if you admit that up front, and the same is true if you’re on the other side of the debate
By leading with the honesty and humility to own your own biases, you can encourage your political opponents to lower their walls in turn. That can diffuse tensions on all sides and turn a potentially rancorous political disagreement into a genuine discussion.
2) Remember: Hurting People Hurt People
Most of us have found ourselves in political firefights on social media. When Julian was a political commentator, he got called a sociopath, a moron, and a corporate shill with the blood of children on his hands.
When we’re attacked online, our first instinct is to fight back. But what if we responded, not with anger, but with pity? What if we saw the folks telling us to die on Reddit, not as a mob we need to beat back, but as people in intense pain who are looking for an outlet?
In an article in Psychology Today, Dr. Grant Hilary Brenner wrote, “While trolls—to use a dehumanizing term—may be more likely to be manipulative, sadistic, and psychopathic, they may also be suffering, feeling lonely and isolated with no clear socially acceptable outlets.” (emphasis ours)
Or to put it another way: yelling at strangers online is not the mark of a person who is living their best life.
This doesn’t mean we should excuse folks online who flame us. But cultivating a sense of their underlying pain can help us respond with empathy or even pity–rather than feeling like we need to fight fire with fire.
When we’re discussing politics, it can be helpful to put the conversation into context.
Even if you could change your friend or family member’s mind on an issue, the odds of that mattering in an election are unbelievably minute. In the 2020 presidential election, even the closest swing state (Georgia) was decided by a margin of almost 12,000 votes. That means that even if you could push your liberal aunt into voting for Trump instead of Biden, it wouldn’t actually make a difference.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t vote. Rather, you can breathe a sigh of relief knowing that the fate of the world does not hinge on your ability to convince your aunt that gun control doesn’t work.
What could you realistically achieve in a conversation with a family member who disagrees with you? You could build a shared respect for each others’ beliefs. You could bond over points of commonality and your shared love for people and country. You could use the conversation to bring you a little bit closer, and create a moment of genuine connection in both of your lives.
That’s worth a lot more than yet another conversation that gets both of your backs up.
To Fix the World, We Must Fix Ourselves
When strife between partisans is so intense that large numbers of Republicans and Democrats say political violence might be justified, it’s easy to get dismayed.
Tamping down the political flames starts with each of us. We must cultivate personal responsibility for how we talk to each other about politics. We must develop the humility to admit our own biases and a genuine empathy for our fellow humans.
To fix the blindness of a nation, it might help if we all take a hard look at the log in our own eye.