We hear a lot in the media about polarization, partisanship, and tribalism. We constantly hear reports of voters being put off by the discord and wanting everyone to stop the division and just work together. It’s even gotten to the point that we hear Democratic candidates thinking they need to be the champions of reaching across the aisle.
What we all need to understand is that the first three are not the same things, and that misguided and mis-crafted appeals to disaffected and swing voters can turn off Democratic stalwarts and make them less enthusiastic about volunteering and donating.
So, how are they different, and what is it that is really turning off voters?
Polarization is defined as “division into two sharply contrasting groups or sets of opinions or beliefs.” All it means is that there are two extremes of opinion with little common ground between them. Rancor is not necessarily part of the division.
Partisanship is “strong and sometimes blind adherence to a particular party, faction, cause, or person.” This is equivalent to a person saying they believe something because their party supports it, rather than deciding to identify with a party because it supports their values and policy positions.
Tribalism is “the behavior and attitudes that stem from strong loyalty to one’s own tribe or social group.” It’s similar to factionalism in politics, but in usage often implies a much more primitive, visceral loyalty to the group.
So we can have polarization and tribalism without partisanship. Tribalism can occur within a single political party (yeah, I know some of you are thinking “duh!”). And partisan loyalty isn’t necessarily bad as long as it isn’t extreme or blind. Part of the essential concept of political parties is having not only a common set of ideas and goals, but also the essential political bargain of “I’ll support your issue if you support mine.”
It’s also important to realize that a significant part of this is fueled by a media narrative that thinks conflict is needed to deliver eyeballs to paying advertisers (Faux News for example, but if you pay attention to how Rachel Maddow builds up a story going into a commercial break to keep you engaged for when she comes back, it’s not just the right wing).
So what’s a candidate or activist to do? I offer an observation by a respected consultant, and a bit of what seems to me to be one of those life lessons most of us should have learned in Kindergarten.
The observation – “The right wing doesn’t hate us for our values. They hate us because they think we’re weak.” We don’t stand up enough for our values, and that makes us look weak. They have no respect for weakness.
Life lessons – Disagree without being disagreeable. Attack the idea, but don’t attack the person holding it – as in “That’s a stupid idea” not “You’re stupid.” You can even find fault with someone else’s conduct (particularly a politician) without necessarily calling them bad or evil. (The one exception I would make is that of the President, since he or she is a leader is not just an executive but sets the example for an entire nation.)
There are many more ways to say it, but they all come down to what Roberts Rules of Order mandates for debate – be civil, respectful, and don’t challenge another person’s motives.
In application, we don’t compromise on the core values and positions of the Democratic platform. We find ways to appeal to common values as a way of finding compromise on policy goals, and softening opposition. Examples:
- We won’t compromise on a woman’s reproductive rights. We may seek common ground on reducing abortions by preventing unwanted pregnancies.
- We won’t compromise on social and economic justice. We may seek common ground on ways to achieve it that ease concerns that government policy unduly favors one group of disadvantaged people over another.
- We won’t compromise on reversing climate change. We may seek common ground that minimizes economic impacts to some sectors as we wean ourselves off fossil fuels.
In addition to approaches like these, we can be vigorous in things like pointing out that Republican tax policies favor the rich at the expense of the poor, without calling them all greedy SOBs. We don’t talk about their motives unless they themselves say publicly what they are – and there are ample examples of that.
Democrats are generally too much in their heads, talking policy instead of what is in their hearts. The bulk of the research shows that people respond much more to appeals to their values and identities than they do to ideas alone. We need to learn to talk that way to people if we’re going to work our way out of the current mess.
And for the few who are so absorbed in their tribalism that they won’t even recognize your humanity when you try to talk values with them, move on to someone else. We just have to outvote them.