Perspective in Politics: Can we fix polarization?

Photo Credits: SHEREEN LEE / AGGIE

SHEREEN LEE / AGGIE

Appealing to diverse moral values is vital to uniting people

Polarization in politics affects not just discussions in Washington and Sacramento, but also those at the dinner tables of ordinary families. It seems common for people of differing opinions to speak right past one another when they talk. When opinions voiced are based in values different than our own, we’re unlikely to attempt to understand their underlying principles.

Researchers Robb Willer and Matthew Feinberg have tried to study the basis of polarization, focusing on the messages used by politicians to spread their viewpoints. Willer and Feinberg’s research is concentrated on understanding the principles upon which our opinions are based, which is is key to solving the problem of polarization. They advocate for a “moral reframing” of politicians’ arguments as a way to create a type of politics in which people of differing values can come to agree on the same issues.

Willer and Feinberg found that politicians were much more able to sway people who held different opinions on a certain topic if they appealed to that target audience’s moral values. For their tests, they had liberals and conservatives craft a message to convince people on the other end of the spectrum. Liberals usually tried to appeal to their own moral values of equality and fairness, even when trying to sway conservatives who were against gay marriage. This proves that, since people assume that others hold principles similar to their own, the target audience may not be swayed. They may not be thrilled by the underlying values in the argument and may not change their minds as a result.

In other tests, they found that conservatives were much more willing to support greater environmental protections if moral values of purity and care were utilized. This would mean using language such as “beautiful,” “disgusting,” “harmful” and “destructive” when talking about the environment. It is, therefore, entirely possible to convince Democrats and Republicans to support positions held by the other party, as long as the right language is chosen to make the argument.

The research is not just talking about politicians and their rhetoric, but regular conversations as well. If an argument’s underlying values appeal to your target audience, they’re much more likely to agree on any subject. Willer is clear that it’s hard enough without polarization to get people to abandon their own moral values and agree. In this current political environment, people feel the need to stand firm in their beliefs and not concede whatsoever.

We must understand that polarization makes political debate unnecessarily alienating  and unproductive. There are no quick solutions, given the bickering between Democrats and Republicans, not to mention the ever-divergent perspectives in different parts of the country.

Slowly but surely, though, a culture of compromise can be built. This compromise would be based upon agreeable issues that hold widespread support. To bring people together, politicians must utilize moral values that appeal to people in both the left and right wings of politics. This will not make politicians unprincipled, especially considering that politicians make U-turns on policy all the time.

What is being encouraged here is not flip-flopping, but rather adopting a strong stance on an issue while selectively picking language that appeals to a diverse range of viewpoints. Politicians utilizing this inclusive rhetoric remain firm in their positions but are simply adopting more diverse arguments that are supported by a large range of principles.

There is one issue that Republicans and Democrats can get behind: closing tax loopholes. Democrats want to close tax loopholes because they mainly benefit wealthy people and large companies, while Republicans want them closed to pay for tax cuts. Democrats can appeal to liberal principles of fairness and equality, as closing loopholes will make sure that more people pay their fair share in taxes. Republicans can appeal to conservative principles of smaller, more limited government, as cutting taxes allows people to exercise economic liberty with their untaxed money.

If the two parties can find topics that they agree on, then there’s no concession on principles. This is a compromise in which people can maintain their own values while also accepting and promoting other values that support the same position.

This heightened sense of bipartisanship will eventually trickle down to everyday discussion, in which regular people will see the benefit of getting more people to agree if they appeal to a diverse set of supporting principles. This, however, can only be done if politicians utilize these methods to unify public opinion. In doing so, the culture of politics will change for the better, making it less divisive and less partisan than it is now.

 

 

Written by: Justin Chau — jtchau@ucdavis.edu

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