Trevor Stone (flwyd) wrote,
Trevor Stone

On Partisanship and Othering

Today, November 3rd, 2020, is Election Day. It is one of the sacred days of the American calendar, when the people choose our next set of leaders. It is the day we begin to learn what our fellow citizens think, and whether enough of them think like us that our favored candidate will take the reins next year.

With 21st Century media and social science we already know a lot about what our fellow citizens think. We know that about 45% of Americans approve of Donald Trump’s performance and a little more than half of Americans disapprove. We know that in almost every presidential race without a major third-party candidate, at least 40% of voters cast their ballot for the losing candidate. Both Democratic and Republican candidates have received donations from millions of Americans, and all told around $14 billion has been spent to influence the election, nearly $100 per voter. All of which is to say that, regardless of who wins, tens of millions of Americans will have voted for someone else. And while we often talk about red states and blue states, very few states are forecast to cast less than one third of ballots for either Biden or Trump. No matter where you live, you’re probably not too far from a pocket of support for a different party.

Over the past several decades, American political partisanship has increased dramatically. With the ease of moving, we’ve geographically clustered ourselves into areas of partisanship—your neighbors today are more likely to share your political views than neighbors fifty years ago. This also means most Congressional races are decided in the primaries more so than in the general election, leading to an increasingly polarized congress. With an abundance of media choices, Americans can choose to get their news from publishers whose partisan lean matches their own—and publishers can tailor their news to match the partisan lean of their target demographic. This has led to a country in which the same event has wildly different interpretations on the left and the right (even within mainstream partisan groups), and in which there’s often disagreement about basic facts, depending on media diet. This is good business for media companies, producing a loyal audience and reliable advertising, but it’s bad for democracy.

This intense partisanship has led to a country in which people have a very distorted view of the people on “the other side.” Fear and outrage are more effective tools than nuance and curiosity for attracting media eyeballs and motivating campaign contributions, so our partisan information sources send us a steady diet of stories about all the bad ideas and negative personality traits of politicians from the other side of the aisle. Depending on your social and media world you might think that Democrats are out to destroy America… or that Republicans are trying to do it. This partisan animus then naturally extends to either party’s voters. Some folks on the right view any vote for Joe Biden as support for socialism (despite his primary defeat of the socialist candidate) while folks on the left have turned “Trump supporter” into shorthand for a violent, racist, anti-intellectual stereotype (despite Trump’s 2016 performance of 20% of votes from people of color and 40% of college graduates). The result is a sort of negative partisanship: people often vote against candidates, parties, and perceived ideologies rather than voting because they’re inspired by positive traits. We may not love the person we’re voting for, but at least he’s not like that other guy, and we’ll keep those terrible people out of power.

Is it possible that nearly half of all Americans are stupid, evil, or want to destroy America? No. If a person says or does something that doesn’t make sense to you, there’s a good chance they’re just operating with a different internal logic and a worldview than yours. When we let members of our own partisan tribe tell us about members of the other tribe, to define them by negative characteristics and differences from our tribe, it’s known as “othering,” a form of discrimination. And with the geographic and demographic partisan alignment over the last 40 years, this political othering builds on othering based on race, education, and the urban/rural divide. Left unchecked, othering and discrimination tends to escalate, which is dangerous ina democracy. We’ve learned that one of the most important ways to address othering is to let people tell their own story, to share their own experience. One of the most radical things you can do in the time of hyperpartisanship is to listen to people on “the other side.”

Humans live complex lives, and there are many factors that can lead to electoral support. Our moral values are expressed in different ways, with some people resonating more with candidates who display values of care or fairness, others resonating with loyalty or purity. Some voters resonate with candidate personalities. Some voters decide based on policy support. Some vote based on party loyalty, or are influenced by leaders in their own identity groups. Any successful presidential campaign represents an alliance of voters who made up their mind in different ways. Some voters resonate with candidates in both parties, or are torn between the policies of one candidate and the personal character of another. Some don’t find a home in either major party, and are coaxed into voting for the lesser perceived evil[1]. When we reduce all of a candidate’s voters to a single mental category we miss the opportunity to understand the rich viewpoints and experiences that came together for this moment in electoral time. Some of the “other team’s” voters differ from us in many measures, but we might find a lot in common with other voters: they share many of our values, they share our group identities, but there was that one thing that led them to check box A instead of B. But we won’t find that connection if we approach them from a place of prejudgment and if we don’t listen when they tell their story.

Even in highly partisan places and in organizations with a significant ideological lean, a significant number of people vote for the party that’s not locally dominant. Donald Trump got around 10% of the vote in famously Democratic cities like San Francisco, Boston, and Baltimore while Hillary Clinton captured 10 to 20% of the vote in most small rural counties. So even if your town, your company, or your religious community feel like places where everyone agrees on politics, they’re probably not. But it’s likely that folks with the minority position try to keep a low profile: they voted based on their values, but if they speak up about it they risk being othered, excluded, or harassed, all of which make us feel horrible.

There’s a lot at stake in today’s election, and emotions are running high. Folks who voted for winning candidates might feel elated or relieved. Folks whose candidate didn’t make the bar might feel shock, despair, anger, or fear. As the vote is counted this week we need to be aware that our colleagues and neighbors may feel very differently than we do. And what we say about their candidate or their political party may feel like an attack on their tribe or on them personally. So please be considerate as the democratic process evolves. Empathize with your colleagues. Listen to your neighbors. Respect that they made a reasonable decision, based on their own values and priorities. Recognize that we’re all in this together: democracy depends on people’s ability to collaborate despite disagreements. And above all, be excellent to each other.

[1] Duverger’s law finds that an electoral system like America’s tends to produce a two-party system with limited choices.

I welcome comments on this piece. I regret that it is but a first draft, yet its value would be reduced if I waited a week to share a more perfect version. Thank you for reading, and take care of yourself.

This entry was originally posted at – comment over there.

Tags: america, election, othering, partisan, politic

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