Could Facebook provide an antidote to political polarization?

Is it so hard to listen and speak respectfully to people you disagree with?

Jeff Rasley
23 July 2017

Credit: Flickr/Michael Mandiberg. Some rights reserved.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.” Abraham Lincoln  

When a gunman opened fire on a Republican congressional baseball team practicing on a suburban Virginia field on June 14 2017, national attention was once again focused on the dangerous level of political polarization in the USA. The attack wounded Louisiana Representative Steve Scalise and four other people, but the outrage quickly passed as shock jocks, social media and even some political leaders returned to their divisive rhetoric.

Polarization in America is not a myth—it’s been trending upwards for decades. As academics Alan Abramowitz and Kyle Saunders have shown:

“Since the 1970s, ideological polarization has increased dramatically among the mass public in the United States...There are now large differences in outlook between Democrats and Republicans, between red state voters and blue state voters, and between religious voters and secular voters. These divisions are not confined to a small minority of activists—they involve a large segment of the public and the deepest divisions are found among the most interested, informed, and active citizens.”

Many of us thought that Barack Obama was an inspiring figure, and that, as the first African-American President, he would unite the nation and reverse this trend. It didn’t turn out that way, and now an even more polarizing figure sits in the White House—President Donald J. Trump.

According to Stanford University’s Matthew Gentzkow , 2016 was:

“the year Republican primary voters applauded proposals to build fences on the border and to ban Muslims…the year that the leading Democrat in New Hampshire polls was a self-proclaimed socialist who favored 90 percent top tax rates and a $15 per hour national minimum wage…the year we all decided once and for all that those on the other side of the political divide didn’t just have different priorities, didn’t just hold different opinions, but were out to destroy the country and everything it stands for. Americans in 2016 are more politically divided than ever before.”

The finality of the election result provided no antidote to the passions inflamed by the angry rhetoric of the presidential campaign. Facebook lit up with even greater vehemence after Trump’s election, and then again at his inauguration. By hurling insults and ridicule at right-wingers, my left-wing friends released their fury over Trump’s election and took their revenge for the assaults against Obama that my right-wing friends had posted during his presidency.

Social media did not provide a forum for healing through meaningful conversations about where we go from here. It wasn’t used as a medium to develop greater understanding between partisans on opposite sides of the political divide. It wasn’t even used very much as a platform for strategizing about how to respond to the surprising election of a neophyte politician as President whose party now controls both houses of Congress.

Post-election, Facebook was just another place for disappointed Democrats to howl their rage at their political foes and for Republicans to express their glee. Is there any way out of this impasse?

In the Winter 2017 issue of The American Scholar, sociologist Amitai Etzioni urged his fellow liberals and progressives “who wish for a less reactionary America” to engage with, rather than despise, those who voted for Trump, in the hope that some bridges might yet be built. Clearly, many of those voters won’t be attracted to any new variant of progressive thinking, but respect for their fellow human beings and political prudence suggests that all of them should be approached as if they could be.

The question is not only whether a new progressive movement can appeal to the less extreme elements of Trump’s constituencies, but also whether progressives can understand the legitimate anger and frustration that many Trump voters felt and still feel, in the hope of creating a more workable, just, and peaceable society that is founded on some sense of common ground.

Is it really that hard to listen and speak respectfully to people you disagree with politically? Etzioni’s admonition is the same advice given by Robert Fulghum in his popular book series from the 1990s, All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten: even the best and brightest can regress into angry children misbehaving on the playground, absent the emotional maturity required to engage in adult conversations across ideological and other lines.

“It’s obvious that Trump voters are racists, bigots, and brain-washed religious fanatics who will never listen to facts, reason or measured attempts to understand that they're haters. They’re fanatics who have abdicated all rights to be treated with respect and courtesy. You can't negotiate with fanatics. You either fight them on their dirty, ugly Trumpian turf or you die.”

This was a comment posted by a Facebook friend after Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, but you could easily find the mirror image of this diatribe among Trump supporters about the Democrats. It’s the kind of stuff that is all over social media. It’s convenient and emotionally cathartic. Feel like adding yet more fuel to the fire? You certainly can and you won't be alone, but first ask yourself whether that’s the highest or best use of your time. 

Myself? I decided to try something different. Beginning a month after Trump’s inauguration, I invited my friends (both pro- and anti-Trump) to participate in discussions on Facebook about current political issues. My only request was that contributors did not attack each other personally, though they were free to criticize any political figure.

Sixty-three people participated in the initial discussion threads and more joined in as time went on: blue and white collar, Baby Boomers and Millennials, high school grads and PhDs, urban and rural, and from many different states. Several started their own discussion forums. Nasty and angry remarks were posted about Trump, Clinton, and other politicians, but the request to avoid personal attacks was honored.

Topics ranged from US policy in Syria, to relations with Russia, to abortion. To me, these conversations were proof that it’s possible to use social media for more than insulting those who oppose you, or huddling with like-minded friends so that you're never challenged by reasonable views that are different from your own. That’s important, because most of us agree that growth comes from exposure to new and different information, interpretations, analyses and conclusions.

Therefore, shrinking opportunities for this kind of conversation feed through into further polarization and disenchantment with democracy, at a time when—as successive World Values Surveys have shown—there’s increasing cynicism about the value of political participation. Millennials are the most disillusioned generation about democracy since polling data began to be compiled, with 26 per cent saying that “free and fair elections” are unimportant.

This declining commitment to democratic values is related to an increased feeling of powerlessness and anger among many Americans, which manifested during and after the 2016 election. The inclination is to lash out rather than to produce rational arguments in support of what our parties and candidates really stand for. Both the Trump and Clinton campaigns were run along these lines, and too many of us have followed their leads.

Further ‘fight and flight’ responses will deepen the cynicism, pessimism and complacency about democracy even further. So as a small step forward, how about using your own Facebook page to hash out disagreements and possibly find some common ground on important issues, instead of just bashing your political opponents? Through civil conversation we could at least develop a better understanding of what divides us and why. That would lower the temperature of the body politic so that more moderate and pragmatic voices could be heard.

After we’ve vetted our own opinions and arguments, we’ll have a firmer grasp of the relevant facts and a better understanding of the issues. That, in turn, should help to move us past the point of discussion and on to encouraging activism by calling out politicians who behave undemocratically, and by marching, demonstrating, calling legislators, signing petitions, and voting for candidates who represent a different form of politics.

Or, of course, we can continue to do the opposite by feeding our primitive impulses and lashing out on social media before ducking back into our own filter bubbles. The toxic polarization of the time of Trump will get even worse, but at least we’ll feel safe and secure inside our silos.

Jeff Rasley's new book is Polarized! The Case for Civility in the Time of Trump: An experiment in civil discourse on Facebook.


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