January 13, 2021

To Save America, Argue More

People shouldn’t retreat into their own echo chambers but engage with disagreement.

America has become a powder keg, more divided than at any time in decades. That is evidenced by the violent protests at the Capitol last week by a group of angry Trump supporters and by the months of riots and civil unrest in Democrat-run cities following the death of George Floyd.

These riots are a huge red flag, a warning that something is deeply fractured in our country. Americans are becoming increasingly insular, polarized, and tribal, and that is a very bad sign for the future of our republic. We must reverse that trend, but the solution is counterintuitive.

Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, the religious and secular … must argue more.

Not the condescending, hateful, and often personal attacks that social media exchanges often devolve into but rather a vigorous, passionate, and respectful exchange of differing opinions. As American Enterprise Institute’s (AEI) Daniel Cox recently noted, “At its heart, political disagreement is actually critical to a democracy, so when we’re able to have these kinds of disagreements with people we know and trust, like family, we should.”

The key there is “know and trust.” We are unlikely to convert a stranger whose views we suddenly begin criticizing on Facebook. However, we will be more likely to consider an opposing viewpoint, and they ours, when it comes from family or friends.

The current level of tribalism and political insularity is toxic and unsustainable. It is destructive to the fabric of a free and open society, and we must proactively seek out and endeavor to understand those with opposing viewpoints. If we don’t, our nation will devolve into warring, balkanized factions.

In a recent survey on social networks conducted by AEI’s Survey Center on American Life, 55% of Democrats and 53% of Republicans reported “having no one in their immediate social circle who had opposing political views.” In another survey by YouGov, the number of Democrats reporting they have no friends with very different political views more than doubled from 10% in 2016 to 24% in 2020. Republicans stayed roughly the same: 10% in 2016 to 12% in 2020.

It should be no surprise that we usually marry those and surround ourselves with friends who share our general beliefs, backgrounds, and religions. Indeed, it would create more conflict in families if spouses held polar opposite views on what beliefs and values should be instilled in their children.

And it’s also true that having these political debates can be stressful, but it is nevertheless important to rebuilding social cohesion and trust and respect for those who don’t share our viewpoints. Debate brings about an exchange of ideas and helps us to better understand those with whom we are debating.

In the process, we come to see their values and motivations, and in many cases we discover that our political opponents are also decent people who want what is best for themselves, their families, and society in general. They just have different ideas on how to achieve those goals.

And once we see our political opponents as fellow human beings, rather than as enemies with nefarious motives, we open the door to achieving common understanding. (We also undermine the power of those who actually are enemies with nefarious motives.) It doesn’t mean we’ll always convert them, or they us. Indeed, we may walk away from the debate even more resolute in our positions.

But at least there is a chance both parties walk away thinking better of the other.

That is what happened at the University of Chicago, where 500 registered voters from very diverse backgrounds were brought together to discuss politics for four days. Researchers discovered that, after extensive exposure to other viewpoints, and the opportunity to share their own, the number of participants who said they thought “American democracy worked well” doubled to 60%, and participants expressed much more favorable views of their political opponents.

As Cox notes, “The irony here is that by studiously avoiding political disagreement, the potential for political conflict often becomes much worse. We become less able to understand our political opponents or empathize with their positions. Instead, we are more inclined to believe their ideas are not just wrong-headed but dangerous. This is bad for our democracy, creating an environment where many Americans are primed to accept misinformation and conspiracy theories.”

And therein lies the danger in our current situation.

The social media giants and Big Tech have taken it upon themselves, under the guise of public safety, to suppress or silence the voices of tens of millions of Americans, including the president of the United States.

A recent poll found that 39% of Americans believe that the recent election was rigged, including 17% of Democrats and 31% of independents. They then see the same media and social media that blocked stories of Joe Biden family corruption in the weeks before the election now blocking President Trump and thousands of conservative groups from speaking on their platforms.

Rather than being able to separate fact from fiction through a national public debate, distrust in the media and our national institutions grows as voices are silenced. More debate and more conversation would go a long way toward defusing our national powder keg.

But if the polarization continues, and if one side is routinely silenced, then outbreaks of violence like we saw at the Capitol last week, while condemnable and tragic, will not be surprising.

So for the sake of our country, argue.

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