#1530 The Pillars of Polarization and Persuasion (Transcript)

Air Date 12/6/2022

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JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: Just a reminder that we have collected into one place all of our favorite ways that you can help support the show while doing any holiday shopping this year, including real books, audio books, various apparel and merch, not just our stuff, and of course, gift memberships. Find that all at bestofleft.com/holiday. We appreciate the support. Again, that's bestoftheleft.com slash holiday.

And now, welcome to this episode of the award-winning Best of the Left Podcast, in which we should take a look at some of the factors driving hyper-partisanship in the US right now, along with multiple arguments to not give up on the power of persuasion.

But first, just a quick reminder that we can now accept text messages. This is new in addition to voicemails and emails. It's the same number we've always had, but you can now text us a message through standard SMS find us on WhatsApp, and the Signal messaging app. So save our number and when the mood strikes, send us your questions and comments through the method of your choice. The number [00:01:00] is (202) 999-3991, and again, it's good for voicemails, text, WhatsApp and Signal messages.

And now, onto the show. Clips today are from the NPR Politics Podcast, Ideas from the CBC, How to Be a Better Human, Front Burner, and The Truth of the Matter, with an additional members-only clip from The Future of Everything. And stay tuned to the end where I'll explain why it struck me as important to clarify the impacts of hyper-partisanship right now.

What If We Don't Need To 'Fix' Polarization? - The NPR Politics Podcast - Air Date 3-20-21

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Your book starts with a story you tell about the Eagles and the Rattlers. This was an experiment done in 1954 where a social psychologist took two very similar, by design, groups of fifth grade boys, split them up into two teams, and then observed them. So let's start by talking about what happened and why it's relevant to us talking about polarization in politics.

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: The important thing is that [00:02:00] when they started out, they put these boys into two different camps and didn't tell them about the other camp, even though it was just a little ways down the road.

So they had a week to get to know each other within their own individual group. They named themselves the Rattlers and the Eagles, and they bonded as a group. And then after the first week, the experimenters told the boys that there was another camp of boys just down the road, and the boys immediately wanted to start a competition against that other team of boys.

They immediately started calling them "pigs" and "bums" and "dirty shirts", which is apparently an insult back then. They engaged in these competitions for a week, and by week three they were raiding each other's camps. They were throwing rocks at each other. They were getting into fist fights. It became so dangerous that the experimenters decided to separate them physically because they were worried about the safety of the boys. So just within three weeks, they had started this war between these [00:03:00] boys who really had very little differences between them.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: It's such a wildly simple experiment with such a wildly simple result that we barely even have to explain how this applies to politics. We clearly have Democrat/Republican so heavily fighting each other these days. But one thing that I was curious about when I read that story was, okay, we do have these two teams right now that are angry at each other, and this story implies that it's just human nature. You see yourself in a group, you're angry at the out group, you wanna fight them or something to that effect.

But why is it that Democrat and Republican, or liberal and conservative, are inspire that right now? Because clearly not every group membership does. I live in DC, I'm a DC resident. I have no particular animosity to people in Maryland or people in Virginia. So why does Party do this to us?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: So that's a really interesting question, and party doesn't always do it to us in exactly the way that it's happening [00:04:00] right now. I think one interesting way to think about it is to imagine that all the rattlers were Catholic and all of the Eagles were Protestant, or all of the Rattlers were White and all of the eagles were Black. You can imagine that those battles between them would've been much more intense than they even were, even though they're fighting over essentially a trophy that's exactly the same trophy. They're fighting over the exact same prize, but if we added in this additional social element, then we would have a much stronger battle over the same exact thing.

That's how I'm thinking about parties, is that gradually over the last 50 years, the parties have become much more socially distinct from each other. And that maps onto our party divide, this racial, religious, cultural, geographic divide that makes every single battle more intense.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: So one of the big points of your book is about this change in how we are sorted, in how we have increasingly lost what you call cross-cutting identities, [00:05:00] and our parties have become very much internally alike. Tell me more about that. How did that happen and how much has it changed?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: In this period after, let's say the Civil Rights Act, when people were deciding which party to be in, moving around, we had a lot of people who, they might be Democrats or Republicans, but they might run into people who were in the other party, in the grocery store, or at church, or in their bowling leagues or neighborhood clubs. And so it was a lot easier to humanize and understand people on the other, in the other party, as basically well intentioned human beings who had families and lives, and maybe you disagreed about politics, but they still have the country's best interest at heart, and you can get along with them.

Gradually, over time, as the parties became more sorted, what happened was that those connections to people in the other party started to disappear. Those are called cross-cutting identities, and so as we lose the number of [00:06:00] cross-cutting identities between the parties, it becomes easier for Democrats and Republicans to think of each other as enemies rather than as just people they disagree with.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Why is it though, that that increased sorting has led to more partisan animosity? What is the link between white evangelicals being Republican, agnostics being Democratic. What's the link between that and people being angry at each other?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: Right. So there is a psychological story to tell, which is the sort of social psychology of group identities, and what social psychologists have found is that our own self-esteem is linked to the status of the groups that we belong to. When our group is in competition for status with another group, we start paying attention and becoming more active. We become more emotionally responsive to winning and losing. We become more biased against the other group.

Now, American Partisan Politics is arranged so that we have regular competitions for status. Those are elections, and they happen at least every two years. [00:07:00] We often hear also legislation being framed as either a win or a loss for one of the two parties, and so if our party was not connected to these other identities and our party lost, we would feel sad, but we would still have the rest of all of these other identities keeping us feeling like we're still okay as individuals. But if all of these other really important identities are linked to the status of our party, then all of a sudden when the party loses, it feels like all of those other groups also lose, and that is a devastating psychological feeling.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Liliana, your book came out well before the 2020 election, so once you watched that election, how did you see your research manifest in it, and did it surprise you at all?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: I mean, no. I was actually really concerned about things getting very dangerous around the 2020 election, because the Trump presidency, it really leaned into the divides between Democrats and Republicans and the [00:08:00] racial divide and even religious divide in the US, and Trump's presidency in particular took something that had been an implicit racial connection between party and racial conflict, that's what dog whistles were for, right? We were implicitly talking about race when we weren't, but we weren't explicitly talking about race. And Trump's presidency just took it all out into the open and made racial conflict a really explicit part of his partisanship.

And America as a country has never really dealt very well with our legacy of racial violence and prejudice, and so when we map our racial divide onto our partisan divide, it actually creates a huge risk of violence, partisan violence, because we can effectively use the parties as proxies for our racial conflict, which is still can be seen as quite violent. So I was actually concerned, and I'm working on a new book project right now looking at partisan violence in American politics, [00:09:00] and I've been working on this since 2017, and collecting data this whole time also, where levels of approval of violence in the American electorate are... 20% of Americans are willing to say it's at least a little bit justified to engage in violence against people in the other party.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Perhaps we're in a worse place than a lot of us realize. Do you think that's fair?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: Yeah. I think that we're at this point where because our party, our partisanship has really become so racialized, and there's good research out there that shows that when you make people think about party they immediately also think about race, and when you make them think about race, they immediately think about party. So these two concepts are really strongly linked in people's minds. And in fact, we're seeing what political scientist Michael Tesler calls a racial spillover effect, where issue positions, policies that are not racialized have become racialized. So you can predict people's opinion on healthcare or gun control based on their level of racial resentment, which was not the case prior to the Obama administration, really. [00:10:00]

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Wow. So if that's a new development, do we know what caused it? You just mentioned the Obama administration. Was it having a non-white president, did that play into this?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: Yeah. It did have an effect. What Tesler's work says is, it clarified for people who especially were low information voters, people who really did not pay attention to politics or the news at all, for those people simply seeing the face of the president taught them something about what it means to be a Democrat, and allowed them to connect their partisanship to their own race in a way that they hadn't necessarily done before. Maybe they were a union family, or maybe their parents had been Democrats and they just didn't really think about it. But that presidency clarified for basically everyone what the Democratic Party looked like.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN - HOST, THE NPR POLITICS PODCAST: Questions that our listeners often have, they had this in the Facebook group, they've asked us this at podcast shows before is, "all right, how do we fix it?" let's start at the micro level, the person to person level. Is it that what we all need more cross-cutting identities? We need to just [00:11:00] talk to more people that are different from ? . And as one person doing that, does that make much of a difference?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: Yeah. The first way to think about it that, that I've been thinking about it is, maybe it's not a problem we need to solve. If we were to just hypothetically imagine that the United States has a reckoning with our legacy of racial violence and an entire political party that's supporting new policies that actually create a true multiracial democracy. If that ever were to happen, what would we imagine would be the next thing? I would imagine that we would see a huge backlash from the forces of white supremacy. That's what would be inevitably the response. I can't imagine any way we would have this reckoning without that response. And so that may be where we are right now, right? This might actually be the bumpy part of the road on the way to a full multiracial democracy that we're gonna have to drive over in order to get there. There's no way to drive a smooth [00:12:00] path from here to a fully representative multiracial democracy. It's just not gonna be smooth. So the best case scenario is that we're in that rough part of the road right now, and the question is are the wheels gonna stay on the car to get us to the smooth part later?

Getting Past Polarization: Anand Giridharadas - Ideas - Air Date 11-23-22

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: We are still, around the world and certainly in the United States, perhaps the leading edge of this, unfortunately, in a real crisis in which pro-democracy, pro-freedom forces are struggling to outcompete anti-democratic, deceptive, sometimes fascistic, forces in a battle for hearts and minds. And so I felt very good after those results, but I still feel that there is a tremendous amount of work to do to build pro-democracy movements that can durably beat back the menace of deception, wannabe tyranny, xenophobia, and these other dark forces.

NAHLAH AYED - HOST, IDEAS: So it's still a shade kind of under [00:13:00] cautiously optimistic.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Cautiously optimistic, and the work is long. This is a generational project. We are in a generational mess that democracy in so many different places with different histories, different issues, has gotten so close to obliteration and it's gonna be the work of a generation to put democracy back onto any kind of safe footing.

NAHLAH AYED - HOST, IDEAS: Your book is about persuasion, and I was curious what, how much you think persuasion actually had, or was a factor in the success of the Democrats this time around?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Look, persuasion is always what is happening in politics. But the problem is, the problem with which my book begins, is that many of us have given up on persuasion in this moment of rising polarization around the world. We participate in what I call in the book the Great Write-Off, you know, uh, that person will never change because they voted that way once, that person will never change because they belong to this group, and their interest in protecting the power and [00:14:00] privileges of that group will mean they will never change. Now, I have participated, I see nods in the audience, I have participated in the culture of the Write-Off as much as all of you nodders, and the people who are not nodding because you're trying to pretend it's not you. Also, um, I think we've all participated in the culture of the Write-Off in this time. In some ways it's the culture of the age of polarization.

The problem with it is, it's A) empirically false. It is not true that people don't change. A whole lot of 2021's anti-vaxxers are now fully vaccinated. A whole bunch of people who hated gay folks in the 1990s, now have no problem with them and vote for gay candidates and people who advance pro-gay policies. A bunch of people who have supported Donald Trump or other kind of authoritarian movements around the world have since changed their mind and voted against those movements. So persuasion is always going on and when we turn our back on the [00:15:00] idea of persuasion, out of our despair, out of our fatalism, out of our depression at what's happening, we kind of leave the terrain open to the worst actors.

Here's the problem, the worst actors always believe in persuasion. Right? You know, I mean, there would be no Fox News if they didn't believe in persuasion. They think everyone's in play. Really! I mean this very seriously, like there's a reason they play looping videos of people crossing the border and this and, I mean, they believe that a new fearful person is born every second. Right? They believe a new racist is born every second. They believe that they can constantly draw people in to their dystopian view of the world in which everyone alien and other is a threat.

NAHLAH AYED - HOST, IDEAS: But you're not prescribing that we have another Fox News on the other side?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: No. I'm suggesting that if the most dangerous movements of our time believe in persuasion and conversion and the most righteous and inclusive movements of our time get this kind of French philosopher shrug about, ugh, they'll [00:16:00] never change, we are sleep walking our way into tyranny and into regimes of disinformation. And so I really, with this book, desperately want the pro-democracy side to reclaim persuasion. And I wrote the book because I didn't have the answers to how we do that. I spent a lot of time with people, organizers, activists, politicians, cognitive scientists, a cult deprogrammer, because that's where we are now, and others who I think hold certain insights about how we can reach people, even when it seems so hard, how we can pull back those relatives, those voters, those coworkers who we seem to have lost to the far side.

NAHLAH AYED - HOST, IDEAS: Looking from this end, and of course we can't say that this doesn't happen here in Canada as well, but many Americans can't agree on some very basic facts. What evidence do you think was most compelling in persuading you that opinions can be changed?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think a lot of these [00:17:00] persuaders that I'm writing about have a different mental model of people on the other side from them on issues than most of us have, certainly than I have, than a lot of people I see have. Their basic mental model is people are confused. People are, as Beyonce says on her new album, contradicted. People are conflicted. People are torn. Not, not everybody, right? I think most of these people I write about in the book would say, in most of our democracies, there's kind of a hardcore 20% on the left and a hardcore 20% on the right. What distinguishes those two twenties is not the strength of their opinions or the pungency of their opinions, it's how thought-through their opinions are. You're not gonna chat them out of their opinion on immigration at a bar in a night. Those two 20%. They've watched the movies, they've read the books, they've done the homework. There's some roots under that.

Now, if you go do average voter interviews in the street, people are much more all over the place. I hate socialism and they better not [00:18:00] take away my universal healthcare, just like, people are just like, it's kind of funny, but it's also like people are conflicted. People have differing moral commitments. People, you know, grew up in the Cold War and were told socialism's bad, but they have a knee injury and they like the Canadian healthcare system, right?

Just, like, people live real complicated lives and embody those complexities, that kind of 60% of people in the middle, and the 60% of folks in the middle, these persuaders I write about, they are obsessed with how these 60% of people in the middle, they may say they're in a party, but they can be toggled into a pretty right wing view of the world or a pretty left wing view of the world on a given issue depending on the atmosphere, depending on who the candidate is in front of them, depending on whether inflation is 2% or 20%, depending on whether things feel abundant in their town or scarce, depending on whether every time they close their eyes and open them, their town feels like unrecognizable from a demographic point of view, or it feels pretty stable. All these things that just [00:19:00] affect people's very visceral sense of, Am I okay? Am I safe? Am I whole? Is my family okay? Like just that the basic human thing of like, Am I okay? All the factors that impinge on that sense of safety really, really affect that thing. So when Fox News or its equivalent shows people images of caravans on the border, ferrying undocumented immigrants across the southern border, that's 60% of people in the middle can really be toggled into a very fear-based right-wing narrative on the border. Then they, all of them are not gonna move, but a significant fraction of them will suddenly adopt that frame.

However, if you remember this issue where the Trump administration was separating children from parents on the border, that had the opposite effect. Suddenly a bunch of people in that 60% group who do not support open borders in general, who are not immigration doves in general, but when that happened, a whole bunch of those people were like, this is not [00:20:00] who we are.

Suddenly something had happened where those people were open to a, a set of arguments around immigration that were really different from before. So the persuaders I write about in this book with that fundamental view of people as contradicted, as Beyonce says, then set out to think about how do I encircle voters with so much chatter about how what we wanna do, our side of things, is normal, that they essentially think that's the way the world is.

It's not about persuading that group in the middle by diluting things, by moderating things, by compromising things away, so that you're offering them, you know, a halfway measure on everything. It's actually thinking about them as people who are almost like buying pants. Like when you buy pants, you don't do an analysis of, like, what is the weather like? What is the thickness of the fabric that would be appropriate for this weather? Like, for this much money, this many days of use. That's not how anyone buys pants. You buy pants by sort of intuitively thinking to [00:21:00] yourself like, what are we doing these days on pants? Like, what are people doing? Are we doing, like, I know Gen Z is not doing skinny jeans anymore. Is it only Gen Z that's not doing it? Are we all supposed to not do skinny anymore? Are we cuffing? Are we not cuffing? Right? That's how people buy pants. Like a visceral sense of like, what are we all doing? Like what's everybody else doing? And I think what a lot of the persuaders I'm writing by this book basically argue is that for that 60% of the middle they are choosing where they land on politics in ways that are much more similar to pant selection than we may realize.

How to fix our polarized conversations (with Robb Willer) -How to Be a Better Human - Air Date 2-1-21

ROBB WILLER: Moral reframing involves articulating a political position that you're advocating for in terms of, not your own values necessarily, but the moral values of the audience or the person that you're communicating. And so this often means making really different arguments than the ones we hear most often and maybe really different arguments than the ones that resonate the most with you. So, for example, if you're a [00:22:00] liberal, your first instinct in advocating for positions like immigration reform or same-sex marriage might be to make those, you know, appeals in terms of values like equality and fairness and social justice. However we find in our research that if you're communicating with a conservative, you would likely be more persuasive if you could somehow articulate your issue position in terms of values that resonate more with conservatives, like religious values or patriotism or respect for tradition and so on. Those kinds of arguments tend to be more persuasive. And they also, you'll notice as you make them like, Oh, I haven't heard that argument, because the people that hold these positions don't have those values usually.

CHRIS DUFFY - HOST, HOW TO BE A BETTER HUMAN: So, obviously polarization and social change, these are incredibly topical issues right now. What made you want to start studying them in the first place? Cuz I assume you started before these were the hot button issues that they are.

ROBB WILLER: I'm a pretty pragmatic political person who's very concerned [00:23:00] with achieving what I think of as as political progress in my lifetime. And if you have that orientation, that you would like to see some sort of progress as you define it, then you have to be concerned about polarization because you can't pass significant legislation around, you know, inequality, immigration, climate change, whatever it is, without going through the problem of polarization.

And so that, I think, is why polarization as a political barrier is something that pretty much everybody of any political stripe has in common now, that they gotta find a way around this problem if they're gonna achieve their political goals.

CHRIS DUFFY - HOST, HOW TO BE A BETTER HUMAN: There are two things that I think are so interesting about your research here on this specific issue. I think the first one is that the idea that so often when we're trying to convince people who disagree with us, we go about it by saying the things that convinced us, even though we already believe something different than the person we're trying to convince.

ROBB WILLER: Yeah, and I think the idea of reiterating your own [00:24:00] reason for holding a political position, it's not crazy for very new political issues like, I don't know, regulations on self-driving cars or something, where everybody hasn't heard all the arguments yet, we're still figuring the whole thing out. But for something like abortion or economic inequality or gun control, people have heard the arguments, have likely heard the arguments, that you were persuaded by or not persuaded by for that matter. And if you're gonna expand the base of support for your position, you're going to probably benefit from conceiving of some new arguments that are uniquely persuasive among the people that haven't already joined your side.

CHRIS DUFFY - HOST, HOW TO BE A BETTER HUMAN: Yeah. That, and that's the second thing that I think is so fascinating about this, is that the way that you put it is it's almost like we so often instead of trying to convince people to support the issue, uh, often we're trying to convince people to change who they are and what they care about. The fact that you have such hard numbers in your research of like, you can actually get people to, by talking about what they care [00:25:00] about, you can get them to change what they support on this substantive issue.

A lot of your research takes the morals of liberals and the morals of conservatives. I don't think about morals as kind of lining up with like a political party, but you found that people who identify as conservative and people who identify as liberal tend to have different moral values that really speak to them the most strongly. Moral reframing is taking those morals that speak more strongly to the opposing group and using them to make your issue. Can you give us an example of a conservative argument made to appeal to liberals and a liberal argument made to appeal to conservatives?

ROBB WILLER: So, for example, one thing we tested was whether conservatives could advocate more effectively for their positions if they articulated those positions in liberal value terms. And so one example was we looked at whether arguments for, uh, high levels of military spending, a classically conservative political position, would resonate more with liberals if they were articulated in terms of the [00:26:00] values of equality of opportunity and social justice and fairness. And so we tested a new argument for high levels of military spending that really emphasized the role of the military as an institution in the U.S. that can provide an opportunity for upward mobility for the poor and minorities, a place where they can achieve on a more level playing field than outside of the institution. And, you know, emphasize, you know, some significant points where in, in American history, where the military was a vehicle of equal opportunities such as, you know, the racial integration of the military that happened before a lot of other American institutions. And we found that when liberals read that argument, they tended to support high levels of military spending more because they read the military as resonating with their values more than before they read their argument.

CHRIS DUFFY - HOST, HOW TO BE A BETTER HUMAN: And then the opposing side, right? So, someone who comes at it like me with liberal politics, how can I put some of the arguments of things that I care about in terms that will be compelling to a conservative?

ROBB WILLER: Yeah, so one example that we [00:27:00] studied along those lines was same-sex marriage, and we were interested in whether, uh, a more persuasive argument for same-sex marriage could be made for, more persuasive among conservatives, if same-sex marriage was framed as consistent with conservative values. And specifically, we sought to connect same-sex marriage to the value of group loyalty and in particular patriotism. And so we presented conservatives with a new sort of same-sex marriage argument and that said things like, Gay Americans are proud, patriotic Americans who work hard and contribute to the economy in our society. And they wanna buy homes and raise kids in this society, same as everyone else does. And, you know, they deserve the same rights as all other Americans. And we found that that sort of an argument was more persuasive to conservatives than an argument in terms of equality and fairness and social justice.

CHRIS DUFFY - HOST, HOW TO BE A BETTER HUMAN: This seems like you've kind of identified a way where it seems like how could we ever agree on these things? And potentially there's actually much more overlap in terms of what we would care about and agree on. [00:28:00]

ROBB WILLER: And here would be my case for considering moral reframing everyday life. I'll make two points on this.

One would be that the United States is like an unbelievably demographically and culturally and politically diverse place. You know, as a country we have, you know, substantial ethnic diversity. We have huge levels of socioeconomic class differences. We have regional differences that matter a lot. We're, you know, riven with polarization. There's, you know, political polarization. So there's these huge differences we're trying to communicate across in the U.S. more so than most contexts. And if we're gonna say that we need to agree on this thing for the exact same reasons. We are definitely gonna limit what level of consensus you can build to, how big of a majority you can have.

I think that if you really wanna succeed politically, there's gonna have to be some comfort with agreeing with someone for somewhat different reasons, you know. Which, I mean, great problem to have given our levels of polarization. I would love for my political positions to be supported [00:29:00] by 60-70% of the American population and be really politically viable, even if half those folks have a different reason than the other half of the folks for holding the position.

So that would be my sort of pragmatic case for moral reframing. And then my principle case, well, you know, I generally think more reframing is as virtuous as the end that you put it to. I do think that there is something respectful about taking the time to try to connect the thing that you're trying to convince somebody of to the things they care most deeply about.

 I do think there is something respectful about saying, Okay, you're coming to this conversation with these commitments. I'm gonna dedicate some mental energy to how the thing I'm telling you you ought to consider believing in connects to the things you care most deeply about.

Can persuasion bridge the political divide? - Front Burner - Air Date 11-25-22

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: Another theme and very related idea in the book touches on how the right is at times doing a better job of persuading than the left. And this feels, as you were saying, very relevant in America, but also [00:30:00] elsewhere as we see the ascendance of the right, especially in Europe recently. So what is it that you think the right broadly is doing better than the left when it comes to growing their movements?

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think when I studied these organizers and activists and others, and I would say in particular, this is a book about organizers, right? There's a kind of, these are people outside the national limelight who are doing deep work in communities to try to build a bigger coalition for multiracial democracy. And I studied what they do that maybe the rest of us are not doing such a great job of. To run down a quick list, in this day and age, being able to command attention is incredibly hard in a fragmented media age, and incredibly important, right? It doesn't matter how great your policy ideas are if you don't have a politics of attention and a theory of attention. This is an area where the right runs laps around the left in the United States, and I would argue not only in the United States.

Second, a lot of these organizers [00:31:00] talk about "meaning making," which is not just asking for voters for votes every four years, or not just asking them to donate money, but really being with voters through a 24/7, 365 process of making sense of the world. Jobs go away to China. Are you explaining to them why that's happening and talking them through it? Men are being asked to abandon old toxic ways of being a man and behaving these new ways. Are you walking with men and explaining to them why this is happening? White people are being asked to grapple with race and think about race and account for whiteness in a way that their parents and grandparents never were. Are you helping them process that, or are you just leaving meaning making to the far right?

Meeting voters where they are is another thing I learned from these organizers. Again, the right is often just great at " come as you are into our movement" and the political left sometimes has barriers to entry. If you don't know the right terms, if you don't understand this, if you don't understand that you don't speak in the right way, you may feel unwelcome.

I would say picking fights is another part of this [00:32:00] playbook. The right is very good at scapegoating and it does it with deception often. The left is sometimes bad at picking generative fights, picking fights against billionaires who divide in order to conquer, picking fights against insurance company executives who deny three-year-olds the healthcare they need. Those are righteous fights worth picking that help educate and move people.

And I would also say telling a story, the better story, understands narrative, it understands emotion, it understands the importance of patriotic appeal, and the political left has often left that terrain to the right.

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: Another thing you write about is that it's just more fun. Like a way, right? There's more joy in some of these messages.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Yeah. I don't mean to -- I think of myself as a relatively serious person who thinks about politics in a relatively serious way, and studied the history of political thought in college and grad school.

But I think at the end of the day, my basic political advice to anybody is that you should be throwing a more [00:33:00] fun party than the other people. I think at the end of the day, a lot of voters are standing outside two house parties, deciding which one has better music, better drinks, more fun people, and I think we need a political left that isn't just describing problems, isn't just narrating problems, isn't just telling people that the world is gonna end because of climate and all these things, but that it's just thrilling. Fun. Edifying. Easy going. Chill. Like easy to join.

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: I heard you on a recent podcast, I think it was Climate One, and you talked about that in the context of climate, instead of always talking about how we're doomed, that we could talk about all the cool stuff that could change our lives because of this transition.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I think climate is like the most interesting application of exactly this. Think about what stories you associate with all the discourse about climate, like since you've been conscious, and I would say for most of us, that discourse has been like things that are gonna be taken away [00:34:00] from you or things you can't do, or things that are bad that you're doing, or the whole vibe of climate change in general is this terrible thing's happening and you're gonna have to sacrifice and have an austere existence in order to save the planet.

Okay, that's certainly one way of framing it and I think, I've spoken to a lot of young climate change, young of color climate change activists would say. This was also messaging that appealed to affluent white liberals who were leading the movement in the sixties and seventies and eighties, who had comfortable lives and therefore almost like fetishized sacrifice. For a lot of communities, a climate message centered on things we're gonna take away from you, or the fact that we're all gonna have to sacrifice, is not a very winning message. And it's not the only true thing to say about climate, right? Climate, as Bill McKinnon wrote in a great piece the other day, there's gonna be blimps, like we're gonna have blimps again because we're gonna have to do blimps to do cargo and other forms of transport. How come we're not telling people about blimps? The blimps are gonna be fun. Like why are we not drawing the [00:35:00] blimps?

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: Really, I would love to ride in a blimp!

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Right? So like you're gonna be able to. How come we haven't talked about the fact that in the United States, where there is so much ingrained physical infrastructure built along racist lines, that climate change is the first and perhaps only real opportunity we're ever gonna have politically to do racial repair and get public transit to Detroit, to an overwhelmingly black city in Detroit, in a way that without something like climate, there would never be political will to get transit in a place like Detroit. Why aren't we telling people that this is an incredible opportunity to pull together and build awesome things and have a healthier relationship to each other, to the planet, to our own history?

It is a choice to frame climate as a Debbie Downer, and I think some of the most interesting young climate activists are really in the midst of a rethinking about how to frame this as a thrill.

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: One of the organizers that you speak to in the book, Alicia Garza, a longtime civil rights activist, really [00:36:00] impressive person, labor activist. She was one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. She's really critical of something she describes as "purism" that can come with social justice work that she finds counterproductive. And you talk to actually a bunch of organizers who say similar things. Talk to me about what Garza is talking about.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: I started the book with three activists, including Alicia, who are deeply steeped in their movements and incredibly credible in progressive and radical spaces, saying, look, our spaces are devoted to an agenda that is arguably the most kind of inclusive, broadly recognizing of humanity in the history of movements. What Alicia and others warn is that these movements for radical inclusion can, at a tactical level, feel quite exclusionary to people. It doesn't mean it's always their fault. Some of this is ginned up and manufactured by the far right. Some of it is self-inflicted [00:37:00] wounds. But there is a problem of a political left that is so militant about fighting for these things -- which it should be -- that militancy spills over into unkindness towards people who don't entirely get it, but might wanna be in your movement. And what Alicia says to me in the book is, look, when non-radical people are joining your radical movement, that's actually when you know you're winning. You should not turn your nose up at your own cause or at other people when they come on board with you.

JAYME POISSON - HOST, FRONT BURNER: There are a lot of examples in your book that you go through, like a sexual assault survivor working to change the thinking of rapists, bridging those gaps, doing that outreach. It often requires the very people who are victims of the problem to be the ones extending that olive branch. Obviously, maybe a lot of people aren't gonna wanna subject themselves to that.

ANAND GIRIDHARADAS: Yeah, I think most people probably should not. I'm not sure that I personally [00:38:00] wanna do some of the work that I describe in the book. As Loretta Ross, one of those other great activists, says to me, do the work that works for you.

So I wanna really underscore this point because I'm glad you've raised it. I think one of the terms that has come into to use now to describe what you just did is emotional labor, the idea that people of color would have to talk white people through racism, or that women would've to talk men through their kind of discomfort living in an egalitarian world, or so on and so forth. And I think there's no right to ask that of anyone. The people I'm writing about in the book all say very clearly, no one has to do this work. Most people will not want to do this work. And they are right to stay away.

However, some minority of us, who are the people I'm writing about in the book, want to do this work. And I would further go out on a limb as to say, I think some of us are going to need to do what we shouldn't have to do if our countries are to be whole. And let me underscore why. I think we don't fully appreciate sometimes [00:39:00] that a lot of the incredible social progress that has been made in Canada, in the United States, in other places in recent decades: the progress of women, the demographic changes and progress in civil rights, progress of black people and people of color, indigenous people, the psychological displacements of globalization, of manufacturing moving to China, of changes in technology, the economy, the structure of how opportunity and how people get ahead, rising inequality.

If you add up all these things we have lived through, they are big structural shifts, but they're also huge psychological shifts. If you think about the ways in which white people conceive of themselves -- which white person living today, how many of your parents and grandparents, 30 or 60 years ago, were thinking about their whiteness? Very few, I can assure you. That's a big change. Like it's gonna take work to walk people through the [00:40:00] psychological transitions of the age, the displacement of the age.

And basically I would argue the right understands deeply what I just said. The right understands that the first fact of politics right now is that it's an age of fear, anxiety, and people basically, many people feeling like I don't know who I am in the new world that's coming. That could be because of technology. That could be because of trade. That could be because of race. It could be because of all of the above. And that feeling of I don't know who I am in the world that's coming, is the most dangerous feeling in politics. The right gets it.

And I basically want the left, I want the pro-democracy side of things in the United States and elsewhere, to match and outcompete the right at understanding that people are living these fears and anxieties, and almost building a politics on top of that basic emotional and psychological understanding of people.

Why We’re So Polarized - The Truth of the Matter - Air Date 10-25-21

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: The traditional view of polarization a few decades ago was that it meant that [00:41:00] Democrats and Republicans severely disagreed with each other about the role of government and what policies the government should enact, and that was the prevailing view for a long time. But then in the 90s and early 2000s, it became pretty clear that Americans aren't actually very polarized in their policy preferences, but instead they seemed to really dislike one another. So that was a puzzle that I was really interested in exploring. How is it that people can generally hold common policy preferences, but on a political level, still hate one another?

So my research basically uses theories from social psychology and intergroup conflict, which, in psychology there's plenty of reasons that groups hate each other without disagreeing about taxes. So there's all kinds of theories that can be used from psychology, so I brought those into the study of why Democrats and Republicans would have this sense of animosity. And what I ultimately found is that, first of all, [00:42:00] partisanship has become very strong identity of its own, and people tend to defend the status of the groups with which they identify. So, people prefer to beat the other group, to be victorious over the other group rather than have the greater good of everybody.

And then the second thing that happened is that a bunch of other social identities moved into alignment with partisanship. So over the last few decades, the process started in the 1960s as a response to civil rights legislation, which alienated white southern Democrats who gradually moved outta the Democratic party over a generation. By now they're all Republicans. So we have basically at this point a Republican party that's largely white and Christian and rural, and Democratic party that's more urban, educated, racially diverse, religiously diverse. And so the separation of those identities from each other along partisan lines, really increased the potency of those partisan identities so that [00:43:00] every time there's an election —elections are regularly scheduled status competitions, and before we had all these identities linked to our party, it was just a status competition between the parties, and so it didn't matter that much.

But once the status competition is linked to all these other central identities like race and religion, those elections become really dire, and the outcome feels much more important on an individual, psychological level for people, and so they become much more defensive of their party and they become much more invested in the outcome of the election. And they also think of the other party's rule as illegitimate and un-American because it's nothing like them. So that's how we got to this point.

ANDREW SCHWARTZ - HOST, THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: So we're really, as you're describing it, it's my team versus your team. It's no longer, "I'm gonna go to the election booth, I'm gonna go to the poll, and I'm gonna pull lever because, I want my taxes lowered or because I want more government programs or because I want a boost in funding and education." people are now [00:44:00] going, because it's really my team versus your team, and my team is people who are just like me and your team is the other. Is that really where we are?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: Yeah, to a large extent. Even now, on average, if you look at in the American national Election studies, which is a giant study of Americans, that's done every four years, if you just look at the average positions on really salient issues—abortion, immigration, healthcare, gun control, and taxes—you actually see that even Republicans on average across all those positions are to the left of center, and Democrats are further to the left. But on average, on a policy-based level, America is a left-leaning country. But if you ask people whether they're liberal or conservative, the majority of people say they're conservative. So that means there's a whole bunch of people who say they're conservative, identify as conservative, and hold moderate to progressive policy attitudes.

ANDREW SCHWARTZ - HOST, THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: So wait. The majority of the people in America say they're conservative, but the [00:45:00] Republican party doesn't get as many votes in presidential elections as the Democratic Party. So how does that all square?

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: It's more that the, when people say America is like a conservative nation or a right leaning nation, that's what they're talking about is the number of people who call themselves conservative. The problem with the term conservative is that it means different things to different people. So you can be a conservative fiscally in your own family. You can be conservative religiously. You can think of being conservative in a lot of the ways that are not political, so when we ask people that question, sometimes they answer it in a nonpolitical way, but we don't have a way of knowing that, in terms of the way we measure it. So we end up with this mismatch between people who identify as conservative and people who are politically, actually politically, conservative on policies.

And so when politicians look at the electorate and see all these self-identified conservatives, they think, " Okay, great. We've got all these self-identified conservatives. That's what the country wants," not understanding that it doesn't actually translate perfectly into policy preferences. And [00:46:00] even if popular policies are enacted, it's still really hard to get people who are strongly identified with their party to vote for the other party. They would have to be either extraordinarily pleased with what's happening in their own life and give credit to the government for doing it, or they would have to be extraordinarily displeased, for instance, after the great recession in George w Bush's second term.

So there is some reaction to outcomes, to governmental outcomes, but it really requires gigantic shifts. And even now it's unclear. Approval of Trump, we had a global pandemic and an economic crisis at the same time, and his approval ratings didn't really change. It seems like as we go forward, it becomes stickier and stickier and stickier. Who people vote for is just a predetermined choice kind of regardless of what's going on, and there's some people that are not paying as much attention, that are slightly more persuadable, but the people who identify as partisans really think that the people in the other party [00:47:00] are, we've measured this, are downright evil. We've said those words and people agree with that statement.

ANDREW SCHWARTZ - HOST, THE TRUTH OF THE MATTER: Well, one of the things I've noticed is that, maybe for the first time in this last couple election cycles, Americans truly identify with one party like it's become their identity. It's no part of their life, it's their identity itself. And I've noticed that even adult friend groups, people who used to mix who are both Republicans and Democrats, they don't really mix anymore after the Trump years.

One group will say, well, my identity is aligned with Trump and the other group will say, I'm a Democrat, and then they really can't mix and mingle at cocktail parties anymore. They can't dinner together. Have you seen evidence of this? In my world, there's lots of people who really don't have a lot to say to each other anymore here in Washington after the Trump years.

DR. LILLIANNA MASON: So first of all, what you're observing is a real thing that's been happening, and [00:48:00] those ways of coming across people who are not in your party via other group identities... There used to be a time when Democrats and Republicans went to the same church, for instance, or their kids went to the same school cuz they lived in the same neighborhood. Those are called, we call them cross-cutting identities. It just gives people a chance to see people in the other party from a different perspective that's very humanizing, that allows you to be generous with your interpretations of their behaviors and their thoughts. And it's exactly those types of cross-cutting identities that have been disappearing from American society.

And so that's part of this long trend that has culminated with the Trump administration, but really I think part of it also happened during the Obama administration, not because of anything Obama did, but just simply by the fact that he was a Black president. What his presidency did was really clarify for people who had not been paying attention before, what a Democrat looks like. And along with partisan news helped to show people this is us and that's them. These are our people, those are their people. The Tea Party was very much a [00:49:00] response to that.

And then having established that new alignment, what the Trump presidency did was really cement, especially, the racial divide between the parties. And what you're talking about in terms of having uncomfortable cocktail parties or Thanksgiving dinners, I think one thing to make clear is, first of all, it's largely a white person thing. The divide that's happened has been between white Democrats and white Republicans, because the African American community is extraordinarily Democratic. Hispanics are less so, but still highly democratic. And so this is this really deep rift, and the main cause of it is white Democrats who believe that systemic racism is real and is a problem that we need to address, and white Republicans who don't believe that that's the case. And so the really central rift between white Democrats and white Republicans is about whether or not this country has gone far enough in moving towards a multi-ethnic egalitarian democracy or whether we should go backwards.

And that's [00:50:00] a really difficult conversation to have because it really is like pulling on the same rope. It's very hard to find a compromise place in "should we go backwards or should we go forwards?" There's nowhere to compromise on that, and so that type of conversation is really hard to have. It's very loaded. Just the word racist is almost forbidden in polite conversation, for good reason. Not talking about racism protects racism. increasingly it becomes this really loaded conversation that is impossible to come to a compromise on or to find common ground on, and most people wanna avoid even having that conversation at all.

Underlying a lot of these really uncomfortable interactions that we're seeing is that the reason they're uncomfortable is because we're talking about really essential things about American democracy and equality, and those things, no one's gonna compromise on those.

An innovative polling model can move us past political polarization - The Future of Everything - Air Date 6-24-22

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: You have proposed this idea of deliberative democracy, and that it can be very important and valuable in addressing [00:51:00] all the divides that separate people, small divides, big divides. So I guess to start out with, what is your conception of deliberative democracy?

JAMES FISHKIN: The point of democracy is to make some connection between what we often refer to as the will of the people, and then what's actually done.

But everybody's trying to manipulate the public will, and provide half truths, disinformation, carefully market-tested sound bites, sometimes just made up stuff, spread on social media.

So, the first challenge is, can we assess what the people really would think about an issue if they thought about it and could weigh the competing arguments?

So, that's what deliberative democracy is about, and we've developed a practical method for implementing it, both with representative samples, stratified random samples of the public, and then also we have a technology for scaling the deliberation. So [00:52:00] the deliberative polling, as I call it, or the work on deliberative democracy, has two aims: it's to restore the deliberative process, the thinking process with good information to a very formation of the will of the people. And secondly, we've discovered that this has dramatic effects on extreme partisan polarization, indeed all of our divisions. Basically because people are getting their information in their filter bubbles, they're hearing one side of the argument or their chosen media source, and they have no idea what people on the other side are thinking.

And so when people deliberate together in randomly selected groups, let's say of 500, but then in small groups of ten, they open up and listen to each other over a period of time, and they have a better chance to understand the competing arguments. Now there's a lot that going into the design to make [00:53:00] sure that it doesn't blow up.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: Exactly. I wanted to ask you, how do you set these up so that you can achieve balance and deliberation and not just a bunch of a big food fight?

JAMES FISHKIN: Yes. Food fights are tasty to some people, but they're not the aim for us. What we've discovered is that moderated small group discussion with a prepared agenda of vetted balanced materials where you get the best arguments on either side on a policy proposal, and people are incentivized to listen to each other and take their turns and then have a civil discussion, over a period of time, usually a weekend, people arrive at doing that. It blows up for a few people, but for most people there are some astonishing changes of opinion that result. And there are also some lasting effects as people encounter others who are very different from themselves who have different [00:54:00] perspectives, and they see the merit in what other people are trying to do.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: Now even in your introduction comments, you mentioned groups of 10 and groups of 500, and it seems to me that that might be a very different dynamic. So does it really scale that well when it's at -- are these in person?

JAMES FISHKIN: Well, first of all, the groups of 500 are decomposed into groups of 10 or 12.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: Ah.

JAMES FISHKIN: So they alternate small group and plenary sessions. The small groups are in manageable sizes, 10 or 12 people, and then we gather them together where the key questions that people have worked on that they need answers to on the issue are then posed to panels of competing experts who representing the different points of view in plenary sessions where they're all together.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: Gotcha.

JAMES FISHKIN: And we do this both face to face and online. And lately we've been doing it online with our new technology developed here at Stanford, with Ashish Goel in Management, Science and Engineering, and his [00:55:00] Crowdsourced Democracy team and we've co-created an automated moderator system where these are done in video-based small group discussions where we don't even need a moderator; we facilitate the groups moderating themselves. And it works. And it's that technology of the automated moderator that we are now proposing to use to scale to much larger numbers of participants, but it's also made applying deliberative polls much cheaper. It's cut the cost tremendously. And we are now doing them at a much faster pace around the world.

The Chilean project we did than went to Peru. We just did a national Peruvian one and we did Hong Kong and we did Tokyo. And it works in any language. And we're about to do it in Norway.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: Okay. So wait, wait, but this sounds great. So before we go to the automation, I wanna make sure that we have a really clear idea. So it sounds like you have to do a lot of homework to find the balanced viewpoints that need to be [00:56:00] represented. But at the very core, how do you even decide that a question needs to be considered? So you're mentioning these countries. So maybe give me a couple of examples of tough questions where this kind of process was the right answer.

JAMES FISHKIN: Oh my goodness. We have 115 cases in 34 countries. And many of them are very notable, both for the public will formation and for the depolarization. And we've done these both, as I say, both face to face and online. So the deliberate polling has a long history now because we've been doing it with various collaborators since 1994. So it brought wind power to Texas where Texas at the beginning was last in the amount of wind power among the 50 states. By the time we finished it was first. And we did it with the Public Utility Commission, with all the utilities in Texas where they had to consult the public. And if they just had public [00:57:00] meetings, they'd get lobbyists. If they did polls, the public didn't have the information to assess the trade-offs. If they did focus groups, they're too small to be representative. So they did eight deliberate polls with us, and we also broadcast on each of the local public television stations in the areas.

But the bottom line was this was a question that was ripe for decision. And so we considered coal and natural gas and wind power and conservation, that is demand side management. And what the public went for was they were willing to pay a bit more on their monthly bills if they could subsidize wind power. Also subsidized demand side management. And that was actually implemented. So in that case, the agenda came from decision makers who faced a requirement that the public somehow be consulted. And instead of just getting noise or instead of just getting dominated by the lobbyists, or the intense groups, [00:58:00] everybody agreed it would be a good idea to consult the public by using social science to get a good sample, and then by allowing an agenda for deliberation where we get an advisory group that represented all the options, and they had to vet materials for discussion.

And so it's basically that pattern that has replicated itself in all kinds of contexts: in Australia and in Denmark before referendums where there's a national referendum. We don't choose the topic, but the topic is already on the agenda. But this allows the media and now the government to create an informed and representative viewpoint. And indeed those things end up getting broadcast by television.

So we did one years ago in Denmark on whether they should join the Eurozone. And then ever since there have been six additional deliberations commissioned by the Parliament on issues that they wanted to hear from the public about, usually when there was gonna be a [00:59:00] referendum, and they wanted to convene a national sample. So my colleague Casper Willa Hanson from University of Copenhagen has led those after we did the first one with them, but they're on the deliberate polling model.

So those are cases where there's an issue on the agenda. So we didn't select the issue, but we convened the process.

RUSS ALTMAN - HOST, THE FUTURE OF EVERYTHING: So listen, this sounds great. And so, a few points emerge very important. First of all, you don't go into these with an answer in mind, like this is not a question of convincing people of a certain position. You really are going in saying, what's the sense of the public? The second thing is it sounds like this is open to everyone. This is not just a panel of experts, but that you include the public and as part of it, you inform them and then allow them to deliberate.

So one of my questions before we get to the automated online version is, I'm sure that part of the success of this when it's in person is people see each other as people, and they are able to put their selves in the shoes of others. And I was wondering how strong [01:00:00] is that element of it in terms of just seeing that the other person is a reasonable person who's just trying to like understand the world and get by? And is that an important element of it, the in-person aspect?

No, no, the opportunity to see the people you're talking to and learn to listen to them is an important aspect. But during the COVID period, we've been doing these online. We did one in Britain on Brexit issues or post-Brexit issues using Zoom.

But now that we have the national sample, but now that we have the automated moderator, we applied that in Chile. Chile was in turmoil. And the issues were the pension system and the healthcare system. So we did something called the Chile 400. It was actually 500 because so many more people showed up, is sponsored by the Chilean Senate and widely covered by CNN and all the press. And it was an entire weekend of deliberation. And to our amazement, at the end of the deliberation [01:01:00] online on our platform where everybody in each small group could see each other the whole time, they bonded so strongly that they were crying at the end, that they had to stop and planning reunions.

So I think the bonding of the small groups works online well, just as it would face-to-face, and it saves a ton of money.

Final comments on hyper-partisanship in the ballot box

JAY TOMLINSON - HOST, BEST OF THE LEFT: We've just heard clips today starting with the NPR Politics Podcast, comparing our current partisanship to the hyper-competitiveness of the two boys camp experiment. Ideas spoke with Anand Giridharadas about the need for persuasion to ward off the forces of anti-democracy and fascism. How To Be a Better Human discussed moral reframing of arguments. Front Burner also spoke with Anand Giridharadas about how there are real reasons for anxiety over massive societal change and if we give up on persuasion, we leave it up to the far right to help people make meaning of the change we're experiencing. And The Truth of the Matter looked [01:02:00] at how the realignment of racism into partisanship solidified the political rift we're now living through.

That's what everybody heard, but members also heard a bonus clip from The Future of Everything, highlighting a new and innovative way of doing in-depth polling, involving group discussions and expert input to help break down baked-in divisions. To hear that and have all of our bonus content delivered seamlessly to the new members-only podcast feed that you'll receive, sign up to support the show at bestoftheleft.com/support or shoot me an email requesting a financial hardship membership, because we don't let a lack of funds stand in the way of hearing more information.

And finally, I just wanted to add a thought or two about what actually inspired today's topic, because I wanted to help people understand the dynamics of hyper-partisanship in the wake of our recent election. You may have noticed that there was an election in the U.S. a few weeks ago, and, uh, and this episode is getting published actually as the final runoff [01:03:00] election to decide the last remaining Senate seat, which is happening in Georgia, that's all happening at the same time as the show is going out. And there's been a lot of conversation over the last few weeks across the political spectrum about the quality, let's say, of candidates that Republicans put up this year as a way of explaining why they didn't do better in the midterms than historical trends indicated they should have. The mainstream press and even some Republicans willing to stand up against Trumpism have been saying that many of the Trump-backed candidates dragged the whole party down because they were terrible. Which is true. And on the left commentators have been echoing that same sentiment, but with an added degree of disdain for individual Republican voters at the same time. And this has been particularly true with the Georgia election in which the Democrat, Raphael Warnock is running [01:04:00] against the Trump-backed ex-football player, Herschel Walker, who Dave Chappelle referred to on Saturday Night Live as "observably stupid", which was the funniest thing that he said during his monologue.

And it's true. He is profoundly and obviously unfit to run for the Senate and anything anyone wants to say about him or his qualifications or his intelligence is perfectly fair game. However, where commentators often go next is to the Republican voters who voted for candidates like Dr. Oz or Kari Lake or Herschel Walker, and ask a somewhat rhetorical, but definitely demeaning question, that's, you know, something along the lines of How can these people possibly cast their votes for such an unqualified candidate? And this question frustrates me because the left is supposed to be the side that [01:05:00] understands systemic and structural forces. How can a left wing commentator claim to understand the power dynamics of structural racism and patriarchy that work beyond individual feelings and biases, but then turn to the election process and be seemingly totally flummoxed by how voters could possibly vote for candidates based on systemic rather than personal reasons, or not even understand that that's the dynamics at question? Meaning, a vote for someone like Herschel Walker isn't necessarily a personal endorsement of him, his character, and his qualifications. It might be all that, but it's just as likely to be a vote for Republicanism, regardless of the candidate, and nothing more. And if you're still incredulous about that reasoning, all you have to do is think about it in reverse and ask yourself, how bad would a Democratic candidate have to [01:06:00] be for you to not prefer them over a Republican?

So there's a Democrat running for the Senate. They may very well be the tie-breaking vote in any number of issues. They support abortion rights, universal healthcare, taxing the rich, fighting climate change, you know, the whole slate. But they also publicly proclaimed that they suck their thumb, sleep in a plastic race car bed with plastic sheets, and only eat Pop-Tarts because they believe that all other food has microchips in it to spy on people.

Somehow they got through the primary election and now voters are stuck with them. And what are you gonna do? Are you gonna vote for the Republican who opposes everything you believe in? Or are you gonna vote for the Democrat who sleeps in a plastic race car bed and believes in conspiracy theories, but will vote the way you want them to vote on all the important issues?

The point is that in an age of hyper-partisanship, most votes are decided based on structural logic, not individual preference. [01:07:00] In previous era, when it mattered a little bit less which party was in power, because they were so much more ideologically similar, there was a greater chance that voters would actually switch their votes between the parties based on how they felt about individual candidates.

Now that the parties are extremely different from one another, we don't have that same latitude as voters to oppose an individual candidate who actually supports our policy preferences but is otherwise objectionable. Because the other side is always going to be worse. And this is the same no matter which side you're coming from.

As a sort of side note to this, which also kind of proves the rule is voting when the office is not part of a larger body. So a house member is a part of the House of Representatives. A senator is part of the Senate, a state legislator is part of the state legislature. And so all of those races aren't just individual, but are part of trying to build a [01:08:00] majority in the larger political body they're part of.

But there are some offices like governorships, which are much more singular, and so those races end up being a bit different. That's how states that reliably vote for Democratic presidents and senators like New York and Massachusetts and Maryland often actually end up with Republican governors. Because governorships aren't part of a larger political body, where getting a majority of seats can make a huge difference in policy making, voters are more free to vote based on the individual candidates in the race and less on party affiliation. So, that's sort of the exception, but it also kind of proves the rule for the other races.

So, back to the left wing commentator being shocked and appalled at the Republican voters disgracing themselves by supporting candidates so manifestly unfit for office, as many of the ones who ran this year were. You're not helping. What you're doing is actually [01:09:00] somewhat dehumanizing and, in my view, you are not highlighting anything about Republican voters, though you think you are. You're only highlighting your own ignorance of the systemic forces at play, which, as I said, is particularly embarrassing for someone on the left.

Now, of course, those systemic forces basically amount to the formation of a political cult and should be criticized and fought with as much strength as we can muster. But it's not the individual Republican voters who are the problem because they're only doing what is rational within their own context because they believe just as strongly in the rightness of their ideas as we do in ours.

And just to be clear, this isn't only something left wing commentators have been saying. The right has been making the exact same argument in reverse. One of the main talking points, particularly in Pennsylvania after the Democratic candidate for Senate, John Federman had a stroke, they started immediately saying that he was basically brain dead and that it would be ridiculous to vote for him, [01:10:00] to which I thought, setting aside the noxious and wrong idea that suffering a stroke actually makes a person mentally incapacitated, I thought, I would absolutely vote for a Democrat who was mentally incapacitated, in a coma even, over a Republican, if I had to. No question about it. There is nothing irrational about that, from my position, because I exist in a society that is entrenched in a hyperpartisan political system. And so with very few exceptions, votes are made based on systemic forces, like party affiliation, far more or entirely as opposed to individual candidates and individual merits. That's just how the system works and everyone should understand that. So, go ahead and criticize the candidates and the systemic forces that create the kind of election dynamics where people end up voting for manifestly unqualified candidates. Yes, [01:11:00] absolutely. That's what we are doing here. But give the individuals a break. They're all trapped in the same system that we are.

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  • Jay Tomlinson
    published this page in Transcripts 2022-12-06 21:25:02 -0500
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