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Bipartisanship in the age of Covid-19

Photo by Joshua Sukoff on Unsplash

By Josh Entsminger

The Covid-19 crisis has further exposed the political polarisation that has gripped the US for decades. This has been exacerbated by the recent protests over systemic, racial injustice from police brutality and the institutions which enable it.

With old struggles and new realities being exposed, understanding the nature and future of polarisation is more important than ever.

One organisation dedicated to expanding this understanding is the Healthy Democracy Coalition (HDC), a national network of philanthropists and political entrepreneurs who represent interests from across the political spectrum. I had the privilege of attended a summit hosted by the HDC to hear insights from political leaders representing diverse views. I was motivated to attend, as hearing about the event raised concerns about the extent to which my own political beliefs had gone unchallenged, as well those of my peers.

At the summit, I heard from dozens of speakers from across the political aisle. I listened to appeals to history, to emotion, to data, to the limits of data. I listened to the lessons and thinking of political specialists of all kinds. And I walked away with several important lessons about the dynamics of bipartisanship and strategies for closing political divides.

1. Too often, we make un-nuanced assumptions about why someone takes a political stance

People on both sides of the political aisle tend to make assumptions about the intentions of other people who take a stance on an issue. These assumptions shape how we belief the debates play out, as well as the image in our head about what changing another’s mind looks like under such antagonisms.

We should beware when we begin to feel comfortable in debates less because of our confidence in the quality of our beliefs than the deep sense that another’s beliefs and ideology, whether consistent or not, will inevitably fail. Indeed, vindication is one of the least discussed but most powerful forces shaping polarisation. Ideology hides the opportunities for real agreement and finding common interests.

2. Sharing experiences builds bipartisan trust

In a short talk, former Ambassador Tony Hall offered a direct lesson: to build bipartisan trust, people from both sides of the political spectrum need to share experiences. If you want to work with someone, you have to first build a relationship with them. For him, this relationship came from trips with other representatives overseas spending days with one another experiencing the same moments and aches, empathising in turn.

The issue at stake is how effectively we can engage with the principle of charity — a trust that in an argument, despite differences, the other side is arguing from a position of trying to achieve good (albeit their version). Not all debates, nor all problems, can sustain this principle equally. Even if the ends differ, the intention can build ground for trust and, when it works, compromise. A reality building the eternal zig zag of democracies.

3. People need to meet on neutral ground

Organisations like the HDC offer a neutral space where people with conflicting political views can meet. In these spaces, we can recognise the humanity in others. We don’t simply see each other’s frustrations, aches, and acknowledged failures at self-expression — we build the means to intuitively empathise with the broader range of beliefs and experiences that shape our ideas.

The best things that emerge are often not in the talks but in the post-event conversations in the hallways in between talks. As a general rule, imagination should not be trusted to inform political institutions — what is needed real empathy for lived experiences, an empathy that is equally dangerous for potentially entrenching our positions as for risking an intuitive realisation that demands ideological change.

Perhaps more importantly, these spaces can increase our willingness, even if slightly, to be proven wrong in our beliefs. An increase of willingness that happens when conversations and relationships are carefully mediated so that our commitment in the moment is not simply to our own position but to the standard of conversation between two people when they feel comfortable having their beliefs in the open. Perhaps what we risk is not so much our beliefs, but the image of our past selves ­– the sense of truth and confidence we feel in our claims and the sense of whether our integrity is at risk if we change.

4. It takes a village to change minds

What does it take to convince another person to change their views? It is not mass media, which by definition does not speak to us as individuals but as members of a group associated with particular attitudes, areas, assumptions, hopes, fears, and ideas. Nor is it merely the sharing of empathy driving imagery — for while images of suffering and violence can drive empathetic responses, it can reinforce the idea that empathy is deserved only with such violence. Rather, minds are changed from within their respective communities more than the direct debates among them.

We persuade others not as individuals, but as networks of small groups and large communities continuously interacting. What such debates and conversations aim to do is convince some individuals to serve as the ‘boundary crossers’ — political tricksters cutting at the ideological stitching which holds conflicting ideas together. Division in our political institutions belies the existence of and capacity to see common interests and understanding across the US. As in the abiding tradition of Audre Lorde: there is no hierarchy of oppression. The realisation that the systematic oppression of one group may undermine the liberty of all demands continual reflection.

Stopping the vicious circle of polarisation

Government responses to Covid-19 reveal the obstacles standing in the way of broad bipartisanship. Part of the issue is the vicious circle of polarisation: polarisation among political representatives drives polarisation among the broader public. And polarisation in the public reinforces the same dynamic among representatives, which then extends into various sub-communities and relationships. At each stage change can happen, and at each stage we have experienced more division — in the media we receive, in the narratives formed, in the community dynamics which shape what narratives we feel are worthwhile.

A democracy without the possibility of mutual persuasion is no longer a democracy. This is not to say all issues are subject to the same kinds of debate nor that debate can resolve all tensions and contradictions. Rather, it is to say that if we cannot agree over how to debate and how to convince one another, and are unwilling to have our own beliefs changed, then we have failed ourselves and future generations. We need a better standard for disagreement to allow organisations such as the HDC to guide us forward by making sure we remain part of one another’s networks and spend time together (even if at a distance).

As HDC founder Jonah Wittkamper said, “The politics of pluralism will soon overshadow the politics of division.”

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