How to bridge the political divide at the holiday dinner table

November 23, 2016

Professor Andy Hoffman shows there are some areas of common ground despite deep political divisions.

We are a divided nation; that is an understatement. What’s more, we increasingly hear we are living in our own “bubble” or echo chamber that differing views cannot penetrate. To correct the problem, many are calling for people to reach out, to talk and above all, to listen. That is all well and good, but what are we supposed to talk about? We can’t hope to listen without a topic for finding common ground.

In my view, there are (at least) two prominent issues in this election that can serve as a bridge across our political divides. The first is that the political and economic system needs fixing because it favors those with special status or access. The second is that income inequality is reaching an intolerable level.

Might these two topics help mend the unpleasant Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners that many Americans are dreading? Instead of avoiding that unpleasantness, it may be a time to embrace it.

Period of flux

There is an opportunity before us right now. While unpleasant, we live in a period of flux when beliefs can shift. This is how social change happens – in fits and spurts – something I’ve studied in looking at how culture shapes public debates around climate change.

American physicist and historian Thomas Kuhn first described this process as moving between periods of stability and periods of chaos. In the former, one set of beliefs dominates all other beliefs as the “paradigm.” But, periods of flux begin when tumultuous events upset this paradigm and a chaotic search for a new paradigm begins. Social scientists call this process of rapid social change “punctuated equilibrium.” The key is to push for change when things are most chaotic.

Any corporate change agent knows that is easiest to push for change when things are at their worst. As Winston Churchill famously said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” Try thinking about that over your Thanksgiving dinner.

We all live in worlds of our own design

Our country has broken into deeply divided tribes: left versus right, urban versus rural, the coasts versus the middle. We have become suspicious of each other, questioning motives before considering ideas.

Facts, it seems, have become less important than the political and ideological affiliation of their source. We seem to consider evidence only when it is accepted or, ideally, presented by those who represent our tribe and we dismiss information that is advocated by sources that represent groups whose values we reject.

This divide is ever deeper today because of social media, a relatively new force in our society. Social media has “democratized knowledge” because the gatekeepers for determining the quality of information have been taken down. But social media also creates the conditions for what has been termed fake news to run rampant.

Web-based media sites, and increasingly social media services Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, allow us to find information to support any position we seek to hold and find a community of people that will share those positions – a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. As a result, the internet doesn’t always make us more informed, but it often makes us more certain. We self-create what Eli Pariser calls our “filter bubbles.”

In one vivid illustration of this phenomenon, a research study of 250,000 tweets during the six weeks leading up to the 2010 U.S. congressional midterm elections found that liberal and conservative populations primarily retweeted only politically similar tweets.

To engage is to not to acquiesce

A study by the Pew Research Center found that “49 percent of Republicans say they’re outright afraid of the Democratic Party, with 55 percent of Democrats saying they fear the GOP.” This part of the cultural divide is self-reinforcing: we fear the other so we don’t engage; we don’t engage so we fear the other even more.

To break this loop, we need to do what columnist Thomas Friedman calls “principled engagement.” While some may choose to sit on the sidelines or hope that one side or the other fails, there is too much at stake. Others may choose to stand resolute in their defiance of engagement, and in doing so, stake the “radical flank” and provide a constructive tension in the debates to come.

But some can choose to build bridges, accepting the mere act of engagement does not mean an acceptance, endorsement or even that we like the other side. It is merely a recognition that we have common concerns and interests. Standing in the middle of warring tribes is not easy as it invites attacks from both sides, but someone has to try by finding common ground.

Where can we start the conversation?

While not all experts agree that we have an income inequality problem, the numbers are sobering and, more importantly, many voters on both the left and right believe what they tell us.

Overall, between 1979 and 2013 the share of income earned by the U.S.’ richest 1 percent increased from 10 percent to 20.1 percent of the total economic pie. Between 2009 and 2013 the top 1 percent of U.S. earners captured 85.1 percent of total income growth. Within the 37-member Organization of Economically Developed Countries, the U.S. trails only Turkey, Mexico and Chile when it comes to inequality.

This is the source of the disgust and disaffection that many American voters feel – a vein that both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders tapped into. At its core, it represents a distrust of our political and economic institutions. Some direct their ire at government, some at the corporate sector, and both hold great disdain for the seemingly corrupt relationship between the two.

So, what should you talk about over your holiday dinner? Well to begin, if there is absolutely no hope of common ground, stay away from politics and talk about football.

But if there is an opportunity to build bridges, maybe the topics of common concern to start the conversation include: the need to invest in upgrading our highways, bridges and transportation infrastructure; the corrupting influence of money in politics and possibilities for campaign finance reform; the practice of influence peddling and the proposal for time limitations on when government officials can become lobbyists; programs to increase opportunities for upward mobility like making college education more affordable; or programs to help ease the burden that workers feel when they are displaced by technology, automation, globalization or policy shifts. It may not be easy or pleasant at first, but it’s at least a start. And maybe you’ll be surprised.

One positive outcome of this election is that everyone seems to be engaged (even though a large percentage of Americans didn’t vote). We just need to find the right way to engage. In my religious tradition, it is said, “blessed are the peacemakers.” Whether or not you share my tradition, I think we can agree that we need more peacemakers.

Healing the country won’t come from Washington. It will come from each of us at our family dinner table, local Kiwanis Club, town hall, workplace and sports league. It will come from each of us as we work to open up our own individual bubbles and remember, in the words of the recently departed Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring; Forget your perfect offering; There is a crack in everything; That’s how the light gets in.”

This Ross Thought in Action article was originally published on The Conversation. Andy Hoffman will present at the next Positive Links Speaker Series on December 6, 2016.