Overcoming political polarization… but not through facts

Ethan Zuckerman has posted a beautiful piece that stitches together many of the ideas we deal with in How To Win and the Center for Artistic Activism. I can’t recommend it enough:

Overcoming political polarization… but not through facts

It ties together polarization, confirmation bias, the media, David Simon and The Wire, and the need for addressing values and narrative before facts.

I’ll post it here for the sake of archiving:

Overcoming political polarization… but not through facts

by Ethan Zuckerman

A recent New York Times poll suggests that Americans are in a dark mood. 70% of people think the country is moving in the wrong direction, a number not seen since the peak of the Great Recession two years ago. Their frustration may stem from higher gas prices or continued unemployment, but at least some commentators believe that a key factor is popular frustration with a dysfunctional government that doesn’t seem able to address the issues the US is facing.

The near-shutdown of the US government a few weeks back helps illustrate the dysfunction. Web pioneer Philip Greenspun tries to put the fight over $38 billion in spending in perspective by dividing budget numbers by 100 million. With a little mathematical analogizing, the nation’s $3.82 trillion federal budget and $1.65 trillion debt turns into a family income of $21,700, annual spending of $38,200 and credit card debt increasing by $16,500 annually. At this scale, the debate over “the largest domestic spending cut in US history” turns into a spat over a $380 cable bill when, perhaps, we should be worrying about defaulting on the mortgage. (Or, perhaps, we should realize that Greenspun’s metaphor, useful for understanding scale, might not serve us well in considering debt and spending. Americans go deep into debt to purchase houses. Is our overspending analogous to a mortgage? The analogy would be more apt if we were spending on infrastructure or education, rather than on social security and medicare.)

Fareed Zakaria, often one of the more thoughtful commentators on America’s role in the world, offers little encouragement in a recent essay in Time. Titled “Are America’s Best Days Behind Us“, Zakaria warns that the US is starting to look a bit like Britain after World War II, suffering from a sclerosis tied to success. Content with our position in the world, he warns, we may have lost sight of the fact that other nations are investing more heavily in infrastructure, education and research and development, and that our comfortable economic leadership may be rapidly receding into the past. He observes that the US government is spending $4 on the elderly (who vote) for every $1 spent on those under 18 (who don’t), and wonders whether we’ve moved from attempting to win the future to protecting the past, a stance that’s likely to be futile in the long run.

Zakaria pins the blame squarely on our political culture, specifically on an allergy to compromise that apparently affects both Republicans and Democrats. Solutions to America’s problems involve raising taxes and cutting benefits, making government more efficient and investing in future-oriented programs, building infrastructure and sponsoring research and development. Our political discourse has become highly polarized, perhaps not to an unprecedented level (it’s wise to remember that our political history has a rich tradition of using duels to settle political disputes!), but to a degree that makes many of us uncomfortable and unwilling to engage in debates with those we disagree with. Attempts to discuss improving the tone of politics in the wake of the shooting of Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords foundered, in part, because they were deemed to be partisan. Accused (unfairly, I think) of having provoked the shooting by placing a crosshairs over Giffords district in her campaign literature (an unwise and unkind, if unfortunately common, political tactic), Sarah Palin declared that criticism of her political incivility was a “blood libel”… a term so emotionally charged for many Jewish Americans that she helped further polarize political debate. We can’t talk about polarization because that conversation is, you guessed it, highly polarized.

Brooke Gladstone, co-host of the indispensable radio show On the Media, introduced her listeners to a useful set of ideas for understanding why polarization makes political discourse so difficult. Trying to tackle the question, “Does NPR have a liberal bias?’, she invoked media theorist Daniel Hallin. In 1986, Hallin introduced the idea that we can understand journalistic ideas in terms of three “spheres”, widely recognized, though rarely articulated. The “sphere of consensus” includes ideas that are so widely agreed upon that they are generally uncontroversial. As Brooke puts it, “Democracy is good, slavery is bad, all men are created equal. Here truths are self-evident and journalists don’t feel the need to be objective.” Then there’s the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, issues we are used to arguing over, like taxation policy, abortion, gun control and capitol punishment, where reasonable people can disagree, and where journalists generally focus their attention. Finally, there’s the “sphere of deviance”, where ideas are deemed unworthy of a hearing. Brooke offers the “pro-pedophilia” position as an example of the deviant sphere, but we might term a discussion that questioned the wisdom of democracy or the fairness of capitalism as deviant within most American media discourse. (NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen has a very thoughtful exegesis of Hallin’s spheres, if you find the idea as compelling as I do.)

The issue we face in a highly polarized media environment is that we’re no longer in agreement on the boundaries of these spheres. Hallin, interviewed by Gladstone, notes that when he offered the three sphere model, he believed there was a single set of spheres journalists agreed upon. The argument was about whether the boundaries of the spheres were set in the right places, or whether they limited legitimate debate. (One major utility of Hallin’s tool as a critical method, Rosen points out, is that anyone whose views are found within the sphere of deviance will invariably perceive the press as an enemy, as their views can’t get a hearing.)

Now we face multiple, conflicting sets of spheres. In one, the question of whether President Obama was born in the United States is within the sphere of legitimate controversy; in another, that question is in the sphere of deviance. Those who see the question as deviant are offended that the press would legitimate these ideas by giving them attention and coverage; those who see the question as a legitimate controversy are upset it receives so little attention and coverage. It’s hard to discuss a question of bias when observers are using sufficiently different definitions of consensus, deviance and controversy. NPR’s coverage may be primarily focused on the sphere of legitimate consensus for some fraction of listeners, and well into the sphere of deviance for others.

It’s worth noting that one tactic for social change involves working to shift these spheres. Perhaps to embrace the radical notions we need consider to escape Zakaria’s sclerosis, we need to shift the boundaries of the sphere of legitimate controversy and entertain notions that might have been revolutionary and deviant. But the divergence of spheres into two or more conflicting sets can make political debate frustrating. When we argue about Obama’s citizenship, one side presents what they perceive to be the relevant facts, while the other is frustrated the debate is even taking place.

I work with a number of progressive organizations that seek change in the US and around the world on topics like media reform, human rights, alternatives to incarceration and improved education. Faced with misinformation about issues they care about, either through poor reporting or the distortions of political opponents, most organizations conclude that what’s needed is more facts. The solution might be better reporting (Pro Publica), impartial factchecking (Factcheck.org) or the naming and shaming of those who knowingly spread falsehoods (Media Matters for America). While I strongly support the first two (and think the third works better when it’s less partisan and more funny), I don’t think facts will fix the problems we face from polarization.

A 2008 study by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press found that a belief that global warming was caused by human activity was closely correlated to political affiliation: 58% of Democrats believed human activity was causing global warming while only 27% of Republicans did. Democrats with more education were more likely to connect climate change to human activity – 75% of Democrats with college degrees see a connection, while only 52% of Democrats with less education do. The opposite is true with Republicans – the Pew report states, “Only 19% of Republican college graduates say that there is solid evidence that the earth is warming and it is caused by human activity, while 31% of Republicans with less education say the same.”

In general, more education – and, presumably, a better set of intellectual tools to seek out facts – correlates to a stronger belief in human factors leading to climate change. But once we separate survey respondents by ideology, the picture is more complicated. More education – more facts, perhaps – leads to polarization, not to persuasion. (I found this finding very helpful in understanding one of the most fascinating and baffling stories I’ve recently heard on This American Life. Wondering whether exposure to scientific research, carefully explained, could change the mind of a climate change skeptic, Ira Glass arranged a radio conversation between Dr. Roberta Johnson, the Executive Director of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, and a very smart teenage Glenn Beck fan. At the end of twenty minutes of what sounded to me like very persuasive arguments, the young woman explained that she wasn’t convinced – she wanted to hear both sides of the controversy, not the “argument” the earth science teacher was offering.)

A truly excellent article by Chris Mooney titled “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe in Science” offers some hope for deciphering this conundrum. Offering a tour of research in neuroscience and cognitive science, Mooney makes the case that our reasoning is heavily rooted in emotion and in our values. Phenomena like confirmation bias (a tendency to overweight information that agrees with our preconceptions) and disconfirmation bias (the tendency to discount information we disagree with) contribute to a pattern of “motivated reasoning”, where our emotions distort and shape our “rational” thinking. Mooney suggests that there’s deep neurological reasons for this behavior – we literally have a hair-trigger “fight or flight” reaction to types of information that challenge our belief systems.

As a result, confronting a highly polarized argument with facts frequently backfires. Presented with more information, Democrats find more reasons to support a conclusion that climate change has human causes, while Republicans find reasons to believe the opposite. (To Mooney’s credit, he doesn’t present climate change as his sole example of motivated reasoning, implicitly making a case that Republicans are more susceptible than Democrats – he uses the discredited autism/vaccines link as an example of a case of motivated reasoning that appears to disproportionately affect people on the left.)

While Mooney’s analysis (which I have to assume is the precursor to a book on this topic, which I suspect will be excellent) offers deep links into the scientific literature to understand the dimensions and implications of motivated reasoning, he doesn’t offer much detail for the activist seeking to persuade an opponent, or a citizen simply hoping for more civil, reasoned debate. But the closing words of his article offer a possible path forward: “You don’t lead with the facts in order to convince. You lead with the values — so as to give the facts a fighting chance.”

It’s possible to read this advice from Mooney as an invitation to pick up a well-thumbed copy of George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant.” Lakoff is right to point out that Republicans have often been better than Democrats at presenting their ideas in a way that appeals to moral frames. But his works focus so heavily on the language used rather than the underlying values that it’s easy to oversimplify his idea to a game of choosing the right words to persuade a different audience. When progressive activists try to go down this path, they study the language of right-wing punditry and conclude that we need our own media, including blowhard radio hosts and a left-wing Fox News. This strategy hasn’t worked very well – these outlets don’t mobilize the progressive base, nor do they convince opponents. (And they make most most progressives feel slightly icky.)

Taking the challenge Mooney presents of leading with values to give the facts a chance requires more than sprinkling business-friendly or family values fairy dust on progressive policies in the hopes that they’ll suddenly appear palatable. It requires the much harder work of understanding the values a conservative voter brings to the table and finding common ground between our issues and their values. It may mean seeking common ground on energy policy by exploring the ways in which wind turbines help farmers in the mountain West create an alternative revenue stream for their ranches, or seeking a reexamination of mandatory drug sentences laws based on a desire to cut state spending by trimming prison budgets.

Richard Cizik’s vision of “creation care“, a vision of environmentalism rooted in scriptural interpretation is more than a frame designed to persuade Evangelical Christians to take green issues seriously. Creation care isn’t “spin” created by a progressive thinktank designed to broaden the green movement’s base. It’s the result of the long, complex process of an influential Evangelical thinker wrestling with the factual evidence that suggests a human role in climate change and biblical injunctions to humans to act as stewards of God’s creation. And because Reverend Cizik is deeply rooted in the evangelical community, he’s able to find common ground, shared values and, eventually, new language that a secular environmentalist would have trouble utilizing in a way that didn’t ring false.

If the path that leads from polarization towards common ground is rooted in understanding values as well as facts, we’ve got a challenge – how do we start listening to the needs, wants and aspirations of people who view the world differently?

I think David Simon, the creator of the remarkable TV drama The Wire may have an answer. In an interview with Bill Moyers, he talks about the frustration he felt as a reporter with the Baltimore Sun, trying to get readers – and fellow newspaper writers – to understand how damaging the “war on drugs” was to their city. “And I would think, ‘Man, it’s just such an uphill struggle to do this with facts.’ When you tell a story with characters, people jump out of their seats, and part of that’s the delivery system of television.”

The power of The Wire, a series with Dickensian intricacy and an emotional punch that makes it both hard to watch and hard to stop watching, doesn’t come from seeing ourselves in the characters on the screen. I’m as committed to the notion of a universal recognition of humanity as the next progressive (or next Evangelical, for that matter), but that’s not what makes Omar Little, the gay stick-up man who only robs drug dealers so unforgettable. He’s a rich, textured character, carefully crafted, with aspirations, dreams and values which we likely don’t share, but which Simon allows us to understand. Simon’s story helps us understand that many people believe that the US is creating a new caste system through a failed war on drugs… and that they may have a point.

As with questions of framing, narrative is harder than it looks. The Wire is being taught at prestigious US universities not just because it brings complex narrative to contemporary social issues. David Simon is a genius – the folks at the MacArthur Foundation say so – and most attempts to marry narrative and social criticism aren’t nearly as compelling. That’s a reason to study and learn from his success, not to reject the power of the method.

We can stumble in other ways with narrative, especially when we blur reality and fiction, as Greg Mortenson’s recent fall from grace suggests. Mortenson’s apparent need to embellish his actual good deeds with compelling storylines is a reminder that narratives are so powerful, we can reshape our memories through the stories we tell about what we’ve seen and done. And while an audience is willing to accept that a well-crafted fiction may more compelling that the reporting of facts, we’re unwilling to forgive the blurring of the two genres.

Is America on the wrong track? Are things getting better or worse? Has our political culture become so toxic that compromise is no longer possible? These aren’t questions we can answer through marshaling collections of facts. They’re questions that force us to tell stories about our values, to listen to the stories our fellow citizens are telling, and to seek the elusive common ground that allows us to have a functional society.