how to build consensus in politics, from a cognitive psychologists’ standpoint

While it seems we can't even talk to anyone on the other side of the political divide, psychology offers a roadmap for a productive conversation with almost anyone.

got human vs walker

Yesterday, we touched on how a political party’s concerns are probably not your concerns, and that they’re essentially machines to win elections and funnel money to those they support. Prior to that, we talked about some of the damage done by hyper-partisan media to the work in building consensus and adapting to rapid change. Now, let’s bring these things together with a dash of science courtesy of a cognitive psychologist interested in bridging the political and cultural divides. His advice can be boiled down to a simple rule: find what you have in common before talking politics. People are more likely to listen to different opinions from someone to whom they can relate than someone they’re told is everything they oppose personified. Seems like an obvious strategy, right? So why is it so rare to see it in action?

Well, the media is in no small part complicit in it. Political coverage usually focuses on the horse race aspect of elections and pays little more than some lip service to people’s actual concerns, so a staunchly pro-life voter won’t get to hear a pro-choice voter explaining that her preference would be to use an abortion as a last resort and find a commonality in the moral pause that the procedure gives them. Partisan echo chambers exacerbate the problem with both their lies and fact-free rants, and the “othering” of political opponents, portraying them as existential threats. They effectively train their followers to take a position supported by another party not at as one opinion this person happens to share with the opposition, but as shorthand for “I am everything you hate in the guise of a human being” and trigger talking points fights one could as well copy and paste to save the effort.

With that said, there are and always will be differences of opinion that will pose an existential threat to the group on the other side. Pretending that it’s never the case and we can meet in the middle on all issues is simply what’s known as the nirvana fallacy. Someone who believes that same sex marriage needs to be illegal and trans people must be assigned genders and forced to remain in them or risk prosecution is in fact an existential threat to gay and trans people. But what’s the likelihood the person holding this view ever met and interacted with gay and trans people for an extended period of time, or found any common interest with them? Almost every ex-bigot cites getting to know the people they were supposed to hate and seeing depth to them as individuals, not targets, as the reason why they abandoned their bigotry. It’s awfully hard to persecute people you know as people, not statistics.

Now, this may be my controversial thought of the day, but I would guess that this is why people in those dense urban cores and diverse neighborhoods will vote for more liberal candidates. They’re surrounded by different people from diverse backgrounds every day, and now just can’t stomach the anti-everyone-who-isn’t-a-middle-aged-white-Christian-male rhetoric, which now pushed a lot of people out of the Republican Party in recent years. Imagine going to the polls to “put the queers and libtards back where they belong” to pull the lever in favor of laws punishing the really nice left-leaning couple who goes to your church and whose kids play with yours, or your gay neighbor who lent you a lawnmower when yours broke down, or the immigrant in your office working hard to give her family a better life than they had in their country of birth. You know the people who will be negatively affected by name.

You might still do it, but it will give you pause. At some point, you’ll at least want to ask why these people’s beliefs are so different and change some of yours and theirs as well. Today, consensus-building is a dirty word while the right convulses from the temper tantrums of its most vocal and most radical members, and their obvious and blatant hatred towards the left is calcifying the liberals’ paeans to compromise as well. But we need to stop treating any political disagreement as a personal affront and stop using all those handy, but ultimately biased talking points of very questionable factuality. We need to be able to explain our beliefs in our own words and start with finding the things we share rather than on which we disagree. And most importantly, as any psychologist will tell you, we need to treat our disagreements as healthy because most of the time, they are. It’s the partisan machines that turn what should be normal, healthy debate, and weaponize it into culture wars where we exist as pawns to help them win an election.

# politics // 2016 election / cognitive science / psychology


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