What tangled, partisan knots we tie

Regardless of whether one views modern American society as a shameful proto-fascist era or a long-awaited return to our founding greatness, the one thing we all seem to be able to agree upon is the unfortunate reality that compromise, consensus and common ground are harder to come across. We can agree that it is tough to find agreement.

This perceived intensified political polarization, it turns out, is not simply a construction of the mind or a convenient excuse for the times. Interdisciplinary research in PLoS ONE, a peer-reviewed open access scientific journal published by the Public Library of Science, statistically modeled partisanship in the U.S. House of Representatives by analyzing roll call votes. The findings of the paper, titled “The Rise of Partisanship and Super-Cooperators in the U.S. House of Representatives,” confirm our layman observations: political partisanship in this decade is the most extreme it has been in over 50 years, and it appears to be worsening at an increasing rate. The statistical analysis of roll call votes also revealed a positive correlation between partisanship and a failure to pass legislation. This makes intuitive sense, as compromise has been central to passing legislation throughout U.S. history.

This study and its findings are not unique. Pew Research Center political scientists Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal go as far as to claim that polarization in Congress is now the worst it has been since the end of Reconstruction. Reconstruction ended in the 1870s.

A whole host of research across disciplines reveals similar conclusions. Americans are segregating themselves politically and it is bringing the operations of our democracy to a grinding halt. At this point hopefully most of us can accept this reality. It’s not fake news. Without needing to necessarily argue about the causes, I hope we can all say this: we have a problem.

While investigating the causes of this polarization is essential to understanding how we got here, I don’t actually think attempting to attribute fault in daily conversation brings us any closer to a solution. What I do think is that we each have a responsibility to desegregate ourselves politically and re-engage in the civil discourse we have largely disengaged from.

Often advice for effectively fostering civil discourse emphasizes the importance of havings facts-based viewpoints and arguments. On March 23 of this year, Trinity’s own partisan organizations, Tigers for Liberty (TFL) and Trinity Progressives (TProg), co-hosted Political Discourse 101, a dialogue on how to foster “civil discussions in the age of political partisanship.” The session began with six tips to help attendees have constructive conversations presented by TFL’s Jonah Wendt and TProg’s Maddie Kennedy. The first was “Know your facts.”

Yet there’s substantial evidence that facts are not effective at persuading individuals to change their beliefs. Research from political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler at the University of Michigan casts the “know your facts” approach in a particularly grim light. They found that facts were failing to reduce misperceptions among the targeted ideological group. Worse yet, facts refuting misinformed beliefs often functioned to make people within the group more certain their misinformed beliefs were correct. This phenomenon is known as the Backfire Effect. As it turns out, the Backfire Effect is especially potent when it comes to shaping beliefs on highly partisan issues, like immigration or gun control. Political scientist Emily Thorson of Boston College has arrived at similar findings: exposure to negative political information about a candidate continues to shape individuals’ attitudes about that candidate even after the information has been discredited, even when the misinformation is immediately discredited. She calls these effects “belief echoes.” It’s concerning that things we might think are effective methods of correcting ignorance or misinformation, like fact-checking, might actually have the opposite effect. Well-meaning “know your facts” civil dialogue might actually increase polarization. Holy threat-to-a-healthy-functioning-democracy, Batman.

I’ve devised an analogy drawing from my childhood time spent learning and studying knots at summer camp to try and visualize how this might be happening. Imagine someone’s belief system, everything from their favorite flavor of ice cream to their perspective on Obama’s birthplace, as a knot tied in rope.  For some this knot is tied loosely. Imagine that this type of belief system is open to change “” being untied and re-tied in a new way. For some, this knot is multiple knots on top of one another, held rigid for decades. Imagine that this type of belief system is resistant to change “” it’s hard to untie in the first place, much less retie it due to the kinks from being held in place for so long. For some, their knot is somewhere in between.

If you know anything about knots, you realize that in order to untie them you need to first examine the knot. Identify what type it is and if it’s unfamiliar to you, take time to observe its loops and twists before pulling on it. Find the parts of it that are familiar to you, and start there.  Beginning by wildly yanking on it with no respect for its present form will often result in the opposite effect: the knot will become tighter, harder to change. Perhaps it is the case that hurling facts that fly in the face of someone’s entire world view equates to this willy-nilly rope yanking. In attempting to change someone’s belief system, you’ve simply solidified it more by failing to first understand it, by failing to find common ground first and work outwards from there.

To a certain extent, I believe this is part of our nationwide problem. Instead of taking the time to deeply listen to one another and understand both what we believe and why we believe it, we jump straight to trying to change each other’s minds. The result? We come away from it more sure that we’ll never agree. All we’ve done is tighten each other’s opposing belief system, lessening our chances at compromise. Whether you accomplish this by trying to “know your facts” rather than implement more well-rounded persuasive tools or by being too tightly tied yourself, you’re contributing to the problem. We all are.

Here’s part of my knot: undoing the heightened polarization of contemporary American political discourse begins with taking the time to accurately understand one another’s beliefs. This is why I attended Milo Yiannopoulos and sat through the whole thing. This is why I attended Dinesh D’Souza and sat through the whole thing. I am trying to spend the time and listen so that I can understand the particular ways in which these conservative thinkers are tying up the knots of the people around me. Before I can convince my neighbor that immigrants aren’t all criminals, I need to understand what arguments have persuaded them into that belief.

This is why I support Trinity in allowing for conservative speakers, however controversial and non-intellectual in the traditional sense they may be. There is education to be had in even witnessing arguments that seem to be based in a reality separate from your own. How can we expect to “resist” the far-right agenda if we don’t understand the methods in which it is motivated and propagated? Even if those methods frustrate you, anger you or upset you, it is your duty as an informed citizen of this democracy to do your best to understand them so you may do your best to change them through civil dialogue and lawful political action.

So what can you do? Moving forward, research and knots aside, I offer three suggestions. First, become aware of your belief system as not universally default. Second, routinely expose yourself to opposing belief systems. Third, be aware that facts are not always the ultimate tools of persuasion (i.e. finding common ground and making someone feel heard matter too). While we live in intensely divided times, it is not inevitable that we continue on this path indefinitely. The route back to a compromising Congress and a healthy civil discourse is possible, but we must recognize it requires virtually all of us to make significant changes in the ways we engage and don’t engage with one another as well as the ways in which we consume and disseminate information. I can’t promise that it’s going to be comfortable or easy, but I wholeheartedly believe it’s absolutely necessary.