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Partisan Frenzy Rules Washington, but Does it Have to Rule Americans?


To connect across difference is the only thing that will save us from rule by the privileged few.

Recently, my Facebook page featured a post by a Republican acquaintance listing reasons why Democrats are the morally degenerate enemies of America. He’s the neighbor of a relative of mine—a passionate Democrat of the sort who posts campaign signs in her yard. This is the same neighbor he treats to fresh lettuces from his garden and cherishes for her plucky personality.

How can the doting neighbor and the bitter partisan be the same person?

According to social scientists, very easily. Humans have a knack for holding contradictory attitudes and shifting seamlessly among them. Social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett and others have studied the way people make judgments and form perceptions, finding that we are guided by an array of mental and emotional forces that apply depending on context and situation. Most of this is beyond our conscious awareness.

When we post on social media, we are guided by one set of forces, different from those at play when we meet a neighbor face-to-face. In one context, we are focused on what divides us, in the other on what we share.

The conventional wisdom media insists that the country is degenerating hopelessly into warring factions: blue v. red; white working class v. people of color; centrists v. insurgents; left v. right; millennials v. boomers; men v. women. While pundits proclaim America broken, we tend to forget something expressed by the poet Maya Angelou: “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

Feeling is First

Berkeley sociologist Arlie Hochschild found evidence for this human flexibility while doing research in Louisiana bayou country. A lifelong blue-stater, she wanted to know what motivated red-state voters to reject federal solutions to serious problems that dogged their communities, a phenomenon she calls the “Great Paradox.” How, for example, could a voter be drawn to Big Oil-supported candidates when the companies that fund them turned their beloved bayous into toxic waste dumps, destroyed jobs in fishing and tourism, and drained public coffers? Why vote for what hurts you?

Unsatisfied with popular answers, she headed down to southwestern Louisiana, near the Gulf of Mexico, where from 2011 to 2016 Hochschild interviewed several dozen white, Christian, middle-aged and older people from both blue collar and white collar backgrounds, 40 of whom were Tea Party supporters. At their kitchen tables and workplaces, she learned from them what media accounts often miss.

Instead of intolerant bigots, she found people who treated her with friendly, often bemused, curiosity. Rather than caring little for the less fortunate or the environment, those she spoke to wanted good jobs, clean water, and to help those in need. They set a high store on community, fairness, resilience, and hard work—values much of the country would share.

Not that there weren’t any differences. These Louisianans tended to define community as the home and the church instead of the public square that means so much to San Franciscans. They expressed disdain for the government the way Bay Area hipsters scorn consumerism. For many, making sure that their kids attend a good church was more important than earning a spot at a fancy school. They felt pride to be rooted in a thick, stable community of relatives, co-parishioners, and friends. To them the cosmopolitan life seemed precarious and alienated.

They pointed to the failures in the public sector more readily than abuses in the private sector. When these right-leaning people thought about economic unfairness, they focused their attention down the class ladder (between the middle class and the poor), rather than up (between the top and the rest) as people on the left tend to do. “Ironically,” Hochschild notes, “both call for an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”

Southwestern Louisianans also carried what Hochschild calls a “deep story” of their American experience that was distinct from other regions. A deep story, as she defines it, is an emotion-driven inner narrative that informs how we see the world and ourselves. For the people she got to know, that story often involved a sense of shame, betrayal, and having been cast aside.

Emotional self-interest, Hochschild found, can be a stronger motivating factor than economic self-interest. One woman told the sociologist that she liked Rush Limbaugh because he defends her from the insults of liberals. “Oh, liberals think that Bible-believing Southerners are ignorant, backward, rednecks, losers,” the woman said. “They think we’re racist, sexist, homophobic, and maybe fat.”

People naturally seek release from unpleasant emotions. Charismatic leaders who understand deep stories can offer that release. That’s why, Hochschild observes, Donald Trump acts as an “antidepressant” at rallies in a region routinely mocked by coastal city-dwellers.

In a place where the shameful history of the plantation system hovers, a Big Oil executive who promises dazzling new facilities and high-dollar jobs delivers a feeling of pride restored, of future prosperity. On the contrary, being told that they should rely on government money to alleviate problems caused by such developments triggers a sense of shame in people.

No matter what our politics, human beings seek fairness, security, and dignity. We yearn for status in our own eyes and in those of our community. We are creatures who yearn for comfort when we are hurt and someone to blame when we are angry. Most of the time we want to help our neighbors and to show kindness to strangers. We want love, whether we were the supporters of Hillary Clinton who raised “Love Trumps Hate” signs in the 2016 campaign or Trump backers who swam in the “sea of love” the president described at his inauguration.

And none of us likes it when we are told we are feeling the wrong feelings.

Climbing Over the Empathy Wall

Hochschild’s 2016 book, “Strangers in Their Own Land,” is the account of a struggle to scale what she calls the “empathy wall”—the mental and emotional blocks which prevent us from seeing through the eyes of others. Part of the challenge involves understanding the ways in which we are connected.

We need each other, but we often don’t see each other. Hochschild notes that blue coastal cities need red state resources, but are too distanced from what it takes to procure them. Liberals from New York might be happy to use great quantities of oil to fuel their jet-setting lives, but they don’t have to live with the pollution caused by the production of this oil: Louisianans do. Blue-staters, she finds, could do with understanding more about what community means to people in other parts of the country, while red-staters could benefit from reaching out to a larger world.

Climbing the empathy wall is challenging, but the reward is hope. On both sides, Hochschild observes, people “wrongly imagine that empathy with the ‘other’ side brings an end to clearheaded analysis when, in truth, it’s on the other side of that bridge that the most important analysis can begin.”

The sociologist found that on issue after issue, differences are real, but not immutable. Possibilities for practical cooperation become apparent once people start talking to one another. One deeply conservative woman who stressed the dignity of work expressed an idea that would have sounded right to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Dealers: “If there aren’t jobs around,” she said, “well, get people working on highways…” To such a person, solutions in the form of jobs programs or training have a stronger chance of sounding palatable than other remedies.

In an interview with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, Hochschild said that she found strong interest in renewable energy among Louisianans. However, talk tended to shut down when the suggestion of government investment came up. On a fishing trip with one of her Louisiana friends (she calls them friends in the book), a surprising path of connection came up through a discussion of fairness, namely, how it didn’t seem fair that California enjoyed relatively clean air and water and Louisiana suffered with pollution. It was the social self, not the economic self that mattered in the conversation. Once the idea of fairness was extended into the issue of pollution, people were able to shift out their default political framework.

Evidence for What Binds Us

Poll after poll reflects Americans’ common values and concerns.

Most want people to have a safety net: A 2017 survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that only 12% support cuts to Medicaid, while a 2016 Public Policy Polling survey found that the majority of Americans want to expand Social Security, regardless of age, race, gender, or party affiliation. Most want more economic fairness: A 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed that three quarters think the rich should pay more taxes, while a Pew survey the same year revealed that 62 percent are deeply troubled that “some corporations” don’t pay their share. Pew also reported in 2017 that a substantial majority sees economic inequality as either a very big or moderately big problem.

Americans care about nature: In 2018, Gallup showed that most want the government to do more to protect the environment. Even the most polarizing issues reveal commonalities: A 2016 Pew survey found that 69% do not want Roe v. Wade overturned.

Surveys also reveal shared frustrations, particularly when it comes to institutions. In 2017, Pew reported that only 18% of Americans say they can trust the government in Washington. 2018 polling data demonstrate that only 14 percent have a “great deal” of confidence in banks. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed that Americans have limited faith in big business, the presidency, the political parties and the media. A dismal 13% were found to trust the Democratic Party, and even fewer, 10%, had faith in the GOP. Congress elicited trust among just 8% of people. We may claim strong tribal affiliations to political parties, but we are frequently exasperated and annoyed by those tribes.

Hochschild points out that even in what is commonly considered the hopeless factional realm of Congress, members across the aisle have been able to come to agreement on issues like the need to reduce the prison population—something that might have sounded impossible in the recent past. She notes that one strategy to getting past partisan blocks is what she calls a “symbol stretch”—identifying cherished symbols, like freedom or patriotism, and expanding them in such a way that you include the listener. She gives an example of one Louisiana man concerned about pollution giving a talk to conservative businessmen who expressed little interest environmental matters but deep concerns about freedom—the freedom to invest and freedom to get rich. By describing a fisherman as lacking the freedom to procure uncontaminated fish, he gained the audience’s attention.

Hochschild observes that we all live in bubbles, and that it is imperative to get out of them. Change the situation and the context and you change how people respond to matters that are not as settled as they appear. She points to efforts like Bridge Alliance, a coalition of more than 90 organizations across the country committed to figuring out how to revitalize democratic practice—an effort that requires people with different perspectives and backgrounds meeting each other, speaking to each other, and activating the processes that encourage human beings to explore what they have in common.

In the current climate, Americans across the political spectrum feel alienated from a system that fails to represent what most of us want. People intuitively understand what research by political scientists like Ben Page and Thomas Ferguson have revealed: that the system has been taken over by a privileged few and grows more rife with exploitation and unfairness.

On the left and the right, Americans have become strangers in their own land. Perhaps the most radical thing we can do is to remember our shared fate and seize the possibilities of our flexible human perspectives. That’s the last thing the enemies of democracy want to see happen.

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