A Better Question: Dialogue Across the Red/Blue Divide

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Election Day: when we cast our voice on matters of public concern and celebrate democracy . It’s also a time we are repelled by partisan bickering and the lack of civil conversation in politics, without knowing how to shift the dynamic. We exist in a world so starkly polarized that there are few models of dialogue between liberals and conservatives, and a void of nuance, uncertainty, or voices more centrist on the ideological spectrum. Instead, we overwhelmed by the extremes talking (loudly) past or over one another and refusing to acknowledge one another’s humanity, let alone consider collaboration or collective responsibility.

This trend is most visible (and perhaps most dire) in our civic spaces, from acrimonious policy debates in Congress that quickly devolve into mischaracterizations or to the petty partisan bickering of presidential candidates. But we also often experience the red/blue tension closer to home: we’ve all sat through at least one dinner where differences in political leanings have been a source of discord. Many people have an important relationship that has been frayed by painful conversations about political differences or constrained due to fear of divisiveness. With the belief that the changing the culture of political polarization could start at home, with everyday conversations and relationships, Public Conversations Project Founding Associate Maggie Herzig published Reaching Out Across the Red Blue Divide, One Person at a Time in 2009. 

Strengthening democracy doesn't just happen in the public sphere, but through individual choices, relationships, and communities. As the guide states, “you can let media pundits and campaign strategists tell you that polarization is inevitable and hopeless. Or you can consider taking a collaborative journey with someone who is important to you, neither paralyzed with fear of the rough waters, nor unprepared for predictable strong currents.” That starts with a new conversation framed by better questions than “how can you think that way?” Here are some better questions to open a conversation across political differences to invite genuine understanding, rather than recrimination and stereotypes.

  • What hopes and concerns do you bring to this conversation?
  • What values do you hold that lead you to want to reach across the red-blue divide? Where or how did you learn those values?
  • What is at the heart of your political leanings (e.g., what concerns or values underlie them) and what would you be willing to share about your life experiences that might convey what those things mean to you?
  • Within your general perspective on the issue(s), do you experience any dilemmas or mixed feelings, or are there gray areas in your thinking?
  • In what ways have you felt out of step with the party or advocacy groups you generally support, or in what ways do those groups not fully reflect what’s important to you?
  • During divisive political debates, are there ways that your values and perspectives are stereotyped by the “other side”? If so, what is it about who you are and what you care about that makes those stereotypes especially frustrating or painful?
  • Are there some stereotypes of your own party that you feel are somewhat deserved— even if they are not fully true—given the rhetoric used in political debates?

As a bonus, Maggie shared some insights she’s gleaned since the guide was published and offers her hope for the future.

1. What inspired you to write the guide at this particular time?

The guide was written in November 2004 at the time of the presidential election (Bush-Kerry). (It was slightly revised in 2006.) Both years, we were motivated by the dilemma many people faced when they gathered with family and others on Thanksgiving, typically across different political views and across 2 or 3 generations: To talk or not to talk about politics. And if political talk was inevitable, how could it occur in a spirit of dialogue? We wanted to offer a mini-guide that could easily be shared with a conversational partner, a guide that not only suggested some opening questions but also conveyed the importance the preparatory phase: reflecting on one's own readiness to try a different kind of conversation, inviting the other to reflect on their readiness, finding a time and place, and, if sufficient interest and motivation exist, deciding together on communication agreements and some opening questions.

2. Have you seen any strides in fostering this more civil, curious dialogue across the aisle?

I'd like to say I see less polarization in politics. I think the forces that drive the media and electoral politics make change very difficult. But I do think that the typical citizen is more aware of these forces. For some, that awareness might lead to cynicism; for others I'd like to think it inspires rebellion against a culture of division and derision of the political "other."

3. Where in particular do you see a need for it today (either issues or something like Congress, etc.)?

When relationships clearly matter, e.g., in families, communities, organizations and places of worship, reaching across divides with self-awareness, care and curiosity are acts of preservation of those bonds. The work of preserving and deepening relationships can happen in groups or in one-on-one conversations, thus our desire to provide guides for both settings.

4. Is there anything you would add to the guide or change, based on shifts you’ve noticed in our political climate?

I think the guide has stood the test of time but there's always room for more questions! Here are a few ideas. So many controversial issues remain controversial because there are important considerations on both sides of a dilemma, like issues related to privacy and security, the role and size of government, and foreign policy. I like to ask questions that invite people to speak to both sides of a dilemma even if they customarily speak to only one side. For example:

  • What would most concern you about increased American involvement in countering ISIS? What would most concern you about curtailing American involvement in countering ISIS?
  • What most pleases you about the past decade in American public life?
  • Where have you seen progress, if only in "baby steps"? What most concerns or distresses you about the past decade in American public life? What trends would you like to see reversed?
  • What makes you feel proud/grateful to be an American? What embarrasses you or makes you uncomfortable about being an American?

- See more at: http://www.publicconversations.org/blog/better-question-dialogue-across-political-differences#sthash.rsUi0kSS.dpuf