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A Change is Gonna ComeHow to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America$

Brian F. Harrison

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780190939557

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190939557.001.0001

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With All Due Respect

With All Due Respect

The Importance of Disagreement

(p.1) 1 With All Due Respect
A Change is Gonna Come

Brian F. Harrison

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 1 details the psychology and science behind disagreement and attitude entrenchment. It opens with a broad discussion of why divergent views are important for democratic ideals and governance. It underscores the contemporary degree of American public intolerance of difference, one that lacks the motivation (and perhaps the skills) to talk about politics with those with whom it disagrees. Public opinion scholarship shows that on average, public preferences, even on some of the most contentious and hot-button issues, generally do not change quickly over time. There has been uncharacteristic change on attitudes toward LGBT people and rights in a short period of time, however; based on communication strategies and tactics focusing on shared identities, these changes give hope to what seems like immovable political groupthink. The chapter closes with the roadmap of the book so we can all use to start to talk politics with each other like grown-ups again.

Keywords:   political disagreement, attitude change, LGBT rights, changing minds, deliberative democracy, marriage equality

“God, it’s so &@#&*$ disgusting. Have you heard?”

My head perked up from my drab, gray cubicle amid the sea of identically drab, gray cubicles.

It wasn’t the diction I was accustomed to hearing at work.

“Sorry, what?” I asked, chiming into the conversation.

“McGreevey. Governor of New Jersey? He’s a &@$* homo.”

It was August 2004 and I was working as a White House appointee to the Department of Homeland Security. After months and months (and months) of interviews and background checks, I was honored to be working alongside some incredibly talented, smart, hard-working people. But I was also a safe haven for others to express views they assumed I held. After all, I was a political appointee in a Republican administration.

“No, I hadn’t heard. That’s crazy!”

“Yeah, but he’s resigning, at least. Can you imagine?”

I’ll spare you the particulars of the ensuing conversation (which included additional less-than-superlative insights about gay men) but suffice it to say, no. I definitely couldn’t imagine what it was like being publicly outed and being forced to quit your job. The conversation harkened back to one of my last interviews before I was formally hired, maybe 9 months prior to McGreevey’s intensely (p.2) personal press conference. The meeting was with a representative from the White House Office of Presidential Personnel, a congenial woman with a modest Southern drawl who peppered me with questions about my politics, ideology, family, friends, and what I did with my free time. I answered politely and succinctly, not offering too much information. There really wasn’t all that much to offer; by most standards, I was a humdrum 23-year-old. She smiled knowingly and shuffled her papers, standing up halfway before remarking that she almost forgot her final question, the one that has stuck in my mind after all these years.

After a deep sigh, she leaned forward in her chair to look me squarely in my eyes. “Is there anything about your personal life that would be embarrassing to the President?”

Of course not! Like I said, I thought I was pretty boring. I was also naive: I had no idea what she was really asking me. At least, what I think she was asking me. No, what I know she was asking me. Looking back, if times were different, if I were more brazen or belligerent or brave, I would have said, “Yes, I suppose there is. I am gay. The President would probably find that embarrassing. I, however, do not.”

I don’t share the story to disparage anyone, necessarily. My experience at Homeland Security was, on balance, an excellent one, and I am not absolutely painting all of its employees, Republican or otherwise, with one narrow-minded brush. This particular employee is certainly not a representative sample of the smart, dedicated, and open-minded colleagues from whom I felt very privileged to learn during my first post-college job. It was, however, my first encounter (but certainly not the last) with implicit homophobia, saying nothing about the more explicit ones—but we won’t get into that right now. Nearly every lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) person I have ever met has had some version of this experience, many far worse than those I have had.

What struck me the most was the crystal-clear implication that because I was different in this way, I was a potential liability . . . to (p.3) the President of the United States, no less. Wow. I had no idea how much power I wielded.

Fast forward more than 15 years and here I am, with a PhD in political science, conducting research, teaching, and writing on the politics of difference. As much change as there has been in terms of appreciation for diversity and open-mindedness in the American experience since those conversations in 2004, many things have stayed the same. In some respects, I would argue that they have gotten worse.

Collectively, we’re better than we have ever been at antagonizing people who are different than we are and disregarding their contributions, thoughts, and opinions, particularly toward politics. Get your head out of your @*&. Snowflake. You’re an idiot. Stupid liberal. Ignorant conservative. Insults abound wherever political discourse happens. It’s become cool to hurl a clever, disparaging epithet to dismiss a divergent belief or opinion, to cast people who live and think differently than we do as stupid and ignorant to “reality,” whatever that means. They are poorly educated, they are narrow-minded, and they aren’t to be trusted. They are everything wrong with the world. They are stupid, naive sheep who can’t think for themselves. They, they, they.

Calling people names might feel good for a moment but it simply doesn’t do anyone any good because it turns people off from genuine engagement. Besides, we live in a world where we are most likely to speak with, interact with, and even live near people who share our beliefs. It has become so easy to live a life blissfully devoid of any political contradiction because we can simply like, Tweet, and share what we find agreeable while we hide, unfollow, and block what we don’t. We’ve become a culture that simply doesn’t know how to handle political difference and it begs the question: How can deliberative democracy survive if we aren’t able to speak with people with whom we disagree?

There is nothing wrong with disagreement. We’re not conditioned to always think the same way about every issue, every (p.4) policy, every politician, every topic. In fact, you could argue that divergence is part of our country’s DNA. James Madison wrote in Federalist #10, “The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society.” In Federalist #34, Alexander Hamilton wrote “ . . . that to model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquillity, is to calculate on the weaker springs of the human character.”1 It’s OK to have differences of opinion. The Framers of our Constitution anticipated disagreement when thinking through our political institutions and processes, knowing it’s human nature to advocate for different positions. What matters most is how we disagree and what stems from it.

Deliberative democracy is built on the premise that we will disagree at some point but that through speaking to each other about things we think are important, we can eventually reach a consensus. Lately, though, it’s becoming too easy to retreat into our thought bunkers, to only engage with people who think the same way we do and to demonize those who don’t. Overall, it feels increasingly difficult to talk about politics at all. It didn’t start with the 45th president, of course, but political attitudes seem to be hardening, with little to no room for discussion or dissent. Insults are thrown, feelings are hurt, and family and friends, at best, decide to avoid political discussions altogether. At worst, arguments cause social groups to break apart. At the same time, the stakes of our politics couldn’t be higher and some policies urgently need to be addressed: healthcare, climate change, women’s rights, crumbling infrastructure, decreasing quality of public education, and the ever-present threat of gun violence and terrorism, to name just a few.

Many of our grandparents told us to avoid talking politics in polite company. With all due respect, though, that folksy wisdom no longer applies: something has to change and we need to find a way to talk. The trouble is, it’s often difficult to figure out what to say and how to say it, and people don’t often want to hear what we (p.5) want to say. Public opinion, on average, doesn’t move very quickly over time and there are psychological and practical reasons why that’s the case. In fact, it might not be such a bad thing that we don’t change our minds all the time. More on that later.

There are always exceptions to any rule, however. One of the most contentious sets of political and social issues in contemporary America surrounds the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. It is also one of most perplexing. While on average, public opinion doesn’t typically move quickly, even on prickly political issues of the day, we have seen unprecedented change in opinions on issues like same-sex marriage in a short period of time. There are many reasons for that change and one of the most powerful is also one of the most simple: supportive people from many different social and identity groups were willing to talk about their contentious and sometimes uncomfortable opinions, engaging in everyday conversations that got people who may not have previously contemplated LGBT rights thinking outside their political box. The unprecedented attitude change toward marriage equality and LGBT rights is not only a compelling social science phenomenon, it’s a potential roadmap for how to talk about other contentious political and social issues.

We all have more than one identity at any given time; for example, I am a son, father, husband, brother, uncle, professor, writer, member of the LGBT community, college sports fan, musician, white person, cisgender man . . . and the list could go on. Identities become more relevant or prominent depending on the situation. If I’m dropping my kids off at school and I’m surrounded by kids and fellow parents, being a dad is probably forefront in my thinking. When I’m at an NFL game cheering for whatever team I like best, I’m probably thinking like a sports fan (or a fan of that particular team). Not only do we hold many different identities and sometimes conflicting identities simultaneously but also they manifest themselves differently based on the situation.

(p.6) In that vein, it is almost always possible to find something in common we share with a person, even if it’s seemingly unimportant as being a resident of the same place or a fan of the same sports team. Research suggests that a relatively simple sense of in-group commonality can have deep and meaningful repercussions: group members who feel connected to a group are powerfully motivated to demonstrate bias in favor of that group in a variety of ways, a phenomenon that is magnified when more than one identity membership is involved.2 While that bias isn’t always a productive and positive force, it certainly can be if utilized in the right way.

Appealing to what we have in common can be incredibly powerful in moving opinion and it’s something we should continue to do in our conversations with others about politics. The goal of this book is to take that concept one step further: to offer practical suggestions for what to say and how based on proven persuasive techniques and insights from political psychology. Sometimes people aren’t going to be persuaded by what you say. They may not even listen. You have no control over that. What you can control, however, is how you engage in discussion. The best you can do is think through your political conversations and do all you can to be heard. LGBT rights provide the perfect exemplars for how communication can be crafted to bridge differing perspectives. In the chapters that follow, I offer concrete suggestions for how people can engage with each other on important political and social questions including LGBT rights but also others like immigration and healthcare. Further, I offer practical strategies and suggestions for what to say based on what has worked in moving opinion in the past. Ultimately, the goal is not to simply “be nice to each other” but to encourage all of us to remember how to talk to each other in ways that are most likely to be effective and productive.

Before we can get there, though, we need to first reflect on the ways contemporary culture allows us to self-select into cognitively agreeable situations and information and we’ll also unpack the social science theories that help explain the pervasive “us vs. them” behavior. Our default position is often defensive: to ignore, to (p.7) discount, and possibly to name-call those who disagree with us. It’s time, however, to stop simply retreating into the safety of existing beliefs and becoming further entrenched for the sake of “winning.”

Democracy and Disagreement

One of the hallmarks of a deliberative democracy is an open exchange of ideas, even if they run counter to one’s own. A threat to genuine political deliberation and debate should be deeply troubling for those who believe there is value to robust political discussion and meaningful, deep reflection on the important issues of the day. Political theorists suggest that a stable democracy needs to foster the rights of opposition, not limit them; some go so far to argue that turbulence may indeed be a necessary facet of any society that considers itself to be democratic.3 Democracy, deliberation, and issue competition go hand-in-hand and we all benefit from an open marketplace of ideas in the American political arena.

John Stuart Mill argues that we arrive at sound policy through a free marketplace of ideas, one that allows for “wrong opinions and practices” to “gradually yield to fact and argument.”4 Deliberation and discussion allow us to think through things and, potentially, to conclude that our attitudes are wrong. At the very least, we might acknowledge that there are other valid opinions out there, even if our minds aren’t completely changed. Without this free exchange of thinking, without genuine dialogue and an unabated public forum of ideas, we will see nothing but growing hostility and attitude entrenchment. In Federalist #10, James Madison foresaw that the source of faction was just such resistance to attitude change:

As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each (p.8) other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves.5

Realizing it would be impossible (and ill-advised) to force everyone to think the same way, Madison saw disagreement as a net positive for the republic, arguing that the very fact we think, feel, and act differently is “an insuperable obstacle to an uniformity of interests.”

No one likes to admit they are wrong. Instead, we resolve internal contradictions by ignoring information that might result in doubt in our attitudes or inconsistencies in our belief systems.6 As I’ll discuss more in chapter 2, these perceptual screens make it difficult to construct a governable consensus in a democratic system of government. If it is so easy to avoid updating our attitudes and our beliefs and rely only on what we already know, think, and feel, how will we ever reach any kind of compromise? Perhaps compromise is unrealistic: we are simply relegated to a system of majority rules, where the minority opinion is disregarded entirely.

That is, of course, entirely inconsistent with the spirit of the Framers’ intentions. While they felt majority rule to be the best system of government, they recognized it has significant imperfections as well: majority (factional) interests would be interested in entrenching their own authority and power. In times of crisis and trial, panic-stricken or even simply strategic majority interests could enact laws that too readily sacrifice fundamental freedoms and structural safeguards; intolerance and greed may undermine legitimate concerns of political, social, racial, religious, and other minority groups. The Framers created institutions—largely the courts—to remedy these very concerns. In 1789, when supporters of the original Constitution argued that a bill of rights would be useless because political majorities would simply ignore these guarantees, Thomas Jefferson responded that the judiciary would be the “legal check.” James Madison concurred that independent judicial institutions were necessary to guard minority rights. And in Federalist #78, Alexander Hamilton wrote that the (p.9) courts must “guard the Constitution and the rights of individuals from the effects of those ill humours which . . . sometimes disseminate among the people themselves.”7

We can’t have a system where minority opinion is completely disregarded. All citizens expect to be heard and for good reason. Political scientists and political theorists agree that the most basic definitions of democracy require that citizens have preferences about public policy and, subsequently, that elected officials (part of those often referred to as elites) respond to them.8 Democracy rests on the notion that citizens are expected to have at least some kind of policy attitudes and opinions that they express to their elected officials who then, in turn, aggregate them and try to make sense of what public policies to pursue. There are two key aspects of democracy: (1) political leaders and organizations should be able to participate in a competitive political system to communicate different policies and ideas; and (2) the public should be active participants in the decision-making process.9 “Most liberal democratic theorists . . . assume as a matter of course that citizens do, in fact, have definite preferences and that the primary problem of democracy is to assure that a government will respond appropriately to those preferences.”10

Another important expectation of democracy is that citizens are informed enough to prefer some policies over others and that elected officials (also called elites) should follow those preferences. Many argue that it is important for citizens to be exposed to divergent opinions, to the degree that this competition is necessary for a properly functioning democracy.11 Exposure to divergent views is seen as critical for citizens’ ability to form accurate political attitudes12 and valid opinions.13

However, it is becoming increasingly effortless for us to selectively engage with people and ideas with which we already agree and to completely ignore and discount political information and arguments that are different from what we already believe. Societal, cultural, and technological changes are making (p.10) it increasingly convenient to avoid contention and disagreement altogether, leaving us without opportunities to learn how to handle respectful disagreement of opinion. Algorithms on popular apps like Facebook and Twitter steer us toward familiar people and, therefore, information with which we’re likely to already agree. More on social media and their informational effect in chapter 4. In addition to simply ignoring opposing information, when we do see it, we are more likely to lash out, often inappropriately, which simply perpetuates the cycle. As this ability to avoid divergent information increases, we become more polarized and less informed yet simultaneously more strongly opinionated. As a result, the government envisioned by people like Madison—one with a free, competitive marketplace of ideas—becomes markedly more difficult because we don’t have informed preferences and we don’t have that unencumbered exchange of ideas.

There are a lot of reasons why some people don’t like talking about politics in everyday conversations. For many, it’s impolite to bring up contentious topics like politics and religion. It’s simply against social graces to start a conversation that might potentially cause conflict or disagreement. Another common reason is that many feel simply that it’s not worth it; it doesn’t matter because no one is very likely to change their mind anyway. Especially in the current political climate, we also see what’s known as politics fatigue: we are inundated with a near-constant barrage of coverage of minute details of every aspect of the American political sphere. We receive dozens of daily e-mails from politicians, political parties, interest groups, and advocacy organizations; news tickers constantly scroll across TVs in waiting rooms and living rooms (and our eyeballs when we’re trying to get to sleep at night). Twitter and Facebook are bursting with memes skirting the borders of rationality. Even if we wanted to escape, it’s becoming more difficult to do so without quarantining ourselves from (social) media and from (p.11) each other which, of course, would cause a whole bunch of different problems.

Avoiding political discussions, however, means that we’re having fewer informal exchanges about important issues of the day and that is a normatively bad thing. As Mason (2018) notes, our various identities have become increasingly sorted, leaving us less likely to be tolerant of out-group members. We are more likely to feel threatened and angered by opponents and less likely to perceive them as reasonable people. The American public is more likely to view political contests as opportunities for our side to win or lose and less about the policies or belief systems that underlie the policy debates themselves.14 That’s not great news, for any of us. In a letter to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend.”15 I’m not sure I can say the same today. Can you?

The central thesis of the book is this: We need things to change. We need to learn how to (peacefully!) coexist and to engage with important issues of the day, particularly when discussing them among people with whom we disagree. For the health of our interpersonal relationships. For the health of our psyches. For the health of our democracy. We don’t need to build a bigger wall; we need to build a bigger table and invite a diverse group of people to it. But how do we start?

That is, of course, a complex question with a complicated answer. Political scientists have shown that, on average, public opinion moves slowly over time, and there are some fascinating reasons why. However, there has been at least one notable contemporary exception that will structure the latter chapters of the book: attitudes toward LGBT people and rights. These attitudes have seen an astronomical rate of change and they can serve as the basis for a discussion about practical things we can do to return to civility in political discourse.

(p.12) What Are Attitudes and Do They Change?

Before we delve into attitude change, we should define what attitudes really are in the first place: “general and enduring positive or negative feelings about some person, object, or issue.”16 According to most classic definitions, a key aspect of attitudes is that they tend to endure over time and that they help people create organizing categories in their heads, allowing us to make sense of the world around us in ways that affect our perceptions of public policy and ultimately our behavior.17

For reasons that I’ll discuss in more detail in chapter 2, attitude change is usually very slow over time, even on prickly political issues of the day. Once formed, attitudes both at the individual and aggregate levels tend to be relatively stable over time.18 Opinion isn’t perfectly stable, of course; it sometimes waxes and wanes based on current events and news coverage (e.g., attitudes toward gun control laws after a mass shooting). In general, however, attitudes typically revert back to previous levels after those kinds of events and remain stable for decades. For example, consider attitudes toward abortion, arguably one of the most contentious sociopolitical issues over the last 40 years. Figure 1.1 plots the average responses in Gallup polls from 1996 to 2018 to the question, “Do you think abortions should be legal under any circumstances, legal only under certain circumstances, or illegal in all circumstances?”19 In 1996, 24% of people reported that abortion should be legal under any circumstances; that number was 28% in 2000, 24% in 2004, 24% in 2010, 28% in 2014, and stands at 29% in May 2018. In 1996, 17% of respondents thought abortion should be illegal in all circumstances; that number was 17% in 2001, 16% in 2005, 19% in 2010, 19% in 2015, and 18% in May 2018. The majority of respondents believed abortion should be legal in certain circumstances, with the percentages mostly in the low to mid-50s. As shown in Figure 1.1, while opinion is not completely flat, the (p.13) trend over the last 25 years is remarkably stable, particularly on such a controversial topic.

With All Due RespectThe Importance of Disagreement

Figure 1.1 Attitudes toward Abortion (1996–2018)

Source: Gallup Polls, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1576/abortion.aspx.

The death penalty is another hotly contested issue in American politics. Figure 1.2 shows responses to Gallup’s polling question, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?”20 from 1995 to 2018. In 1995, 77% of the public supported the death penalty for a person convicted of murder. That support did decline over time (67% in 2000, 65% in 2006, 64% in 2010, and 63% in 2014) and in October 2018, support stood at 56%. Change does happen: as shown in Figure 1.2, we do see attitude shifts over time, with opposition to the death penalty slowly creeping up in the last 25 or so years. However, despite changes over time, the trend line shows relatively show change or at least the slope is not too severe.

With All Due RespectThe Importance of Disagreement

Figure 1.2 Attitudes toward the Death Penalty (1995–2018)

Source: Gallup Polls, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1606/death-penalty.aspx.

Like all good “rules,” however, there are exceptions, and those exceptions can be helpful in figuring out how minds can change. Attitudes toward marijuana usage, for example, have changed more quickly than most. In 1969, when Pew Research polls first asked the question about marijuana usage, only 12% of Americans believed (p.14) (general) usage should be legal and 84% were opposed. In 2016, a majority (57%) of Americans supported the legalization of marijuana and only 37% were opposed.

Another notable exception—and the focus of my previous book Listen, We Need to Talk with coauthor Melissa Michelson—surrounds the change in public opinion toward the rights of LGBT people.21 Figure 1.3 shows responses to the Gallup question, “Do you think marriages between same-sex couples should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional Americans?”22 Responses were either that these marriages should be valid or that they should not be valid. In contrast to the other issues, there is a steady and sharp upward trend, with substantially higher percentages of respondents approving of same-sex marriage across nearly every interval and demographic group.

In 1996, 68% of Americans opposed legalizing gay marriage/same-sex marriage, often referred to as marriage equality, and only (p.15) 27% thought these unions should be valid. That number increased at a steady pace, to 37% (2005), 46% (2007), 53% (2011), 60% (2015), and stands at 75% in 2018. The movement in attitudes toward marriage equality, even across different identity groups, defies typical patterns of attitudinal change. From 68% in opposition in 1996 to 75% in support in 2018 is a simply stunning reversal.

With All Due RespectThe Importance of Disagreement

Figure 1.3 Public Opinion toward Marriage Equality (1996–2018)

Source: Gallup polls, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1651/gay-lesbian-rights.aspx.

It isn’t just marriage equality where we have seen these dramatic shifts; the trend lines are the same for questions about the legality and morality of gay or lesbian relations between consenting adults.23 In regard to the legality of gay or lesbian relations, there was some volatility in opinion in the mid- to late-1980s, with a large spike in opposition to legal relations near the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis and amid the 1986 Bowers v. Hardwick Supreme Court decision, which denied “a fundamental right to engage in homosexual sodomy.” Public opinion was relatively stable in the 1990s, though there are not a lot of data points. Starting in 2003, however, there was a substantively large increase in support for the legal status of gay and lesbian relations, possibly related to the Supreme (p.16) Court ruling of Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which struck down sodomy laws in Texas and created a nationwide legal recognition of intimate, consensual same-sex relations.

There was a similar change regarding morality (as opposed to legality) of gay and lesbian relations. A common survey question asked, “regardless of whether or not you think it should be legal, please tell me whether you personally believe that in general” gay and lesbian relations are “morally acceptable or morally wrong.”24 The change from 2001 to 2018 on this question is also astounding: from 53% of people reporting in 2001 that gay and lesbian relations were morally wrong to 67% of people believing in 2018 that gay and lesbian relations were morally acceptable. It was a steady but unprecedented march toward support for (or at least tolerance of) the LGBT community over a very short period of time.

Not only did things change quickly but they also changed broadly, as shown in a 2017 national survey by the Pew Research Center, which found “striking increases in support for same-sex marriage among some demographic and partisan groups that, until recently, had broadly opposed it.”25 This included Baby Boomers, African Americans, younger white evangelical Protestants (overall, evangelicals remain opposed), and Republicans and Republican-leaning independents.

If public opinion is usually stable over time, what is going on? What sets these issues apart? Is it something about LGBT rights? About LGBT people? Or perhaps something about the conversations and how things were discussed? In reality, the reason for the meteoric rise in support for marriage equality and many other LGBT rights is extraordinarily multifaceted. As other scholars have noted, there were dramatic changes in media portrayals of LGBT people. LGBT people came out with higher frequencies, meaning that more and more people could say they knew a friend, family member, or member of their community who is openly LGBT. In my book with Melissa Michelson, Listen, We Need to Talk, we investigated the ways in which shared identity (p.17) can change attitudes toward marriage equality among partisans, religious communities, different ethnoracial groups, and even sports fans.26

Ultimately, we found that one of the most powerful reasons for these opinion changes is also one of the simplest: people from many different social and identity groups being willing to talk about their contentious and sometimes uncomfortable opinions. Harnessing the power of in-group identity, these were everyday conversations that got people who may not have thought about LGBT rights previously out of their echo chambers and listening and thinking to “people like me” who were supportive of marriage equality.

The rest of this book identifies specific ways to engage with people in a way that opens minds, not closes them.

Chapter 2 expands on the idea that uncomfortable conversations can be invaluable to the attitude change process. Chapter 2 dives into partisanship and biased information processing and reasons that attitudes are resistant to change. Given those reasons, the chapter focuses on the importance of setting reasonable goals for a persuasive conversation other than simply changing a person’s mind.

Chapter 3 is a discussion about what not to do in conversations about politics, focusing on three common pitfalls. The first is approaching discussions as a competition. The goal of a conversation isn’t to “win” or to wage a battle against another person; the goal is to come to a clearer understanding of what the other person thinks and, in the process, to come to a clearer understanding of what you think. Second, another common hiccup in meaningful dialogue: resorting to shame. One of the surest ways to shut down a conversation before it starts is to make someone feel ashamed or defensive. Finally, the chapter identifies approaches to considering status differences and shifting your focus to interpersonal dynamics to create the strongest environment for meaningful conversations about politics and policy to take place.

Chapter 4 shifts to strategies and tactics of what you should do during political discussions, starting with how to best prepare (p.18) before the conversation even begins. In this era of “fake news,” the use of data and statistics in interpersonal conversations can be complicated. We are naturally inclined to seek and to trust information that reinforces current beliefs and actively discount information that challenges our beliefs. Given that proclivity, how we use information in political discussions has become more important than ever. This chapter considers ways to empower yourself with reliable information from credible sources and how to bolster your arguments in a way that doesn’t alienate your audience. Anticipating counterarguments and the kinds of suspicion you may face from others can help you find the right information and sources to counteract the skepticism that many feel for the media and other information sources.

Chapter 5 investigates the importance of emotion and how it can be harnessed for good. We are not purely rational thinkers when it comes to politics, particularly as partisanship has become a more significant aspect of our core concepts and identities. Chapter 5 focuses on how people often feel about politics and our emotional reactions to conversations. Three common negative emotions—fear, anger, and disgust—can be difficult to navigate, and chapter 5 provides suggestions on how to approach emotionally charged situations. The chapter identifies positive emotions like hope and enthusiasm that can help to break through emotional barriers and reframe discussions in ways that are more productive and respectful.

Chapter 6 focuses on one of the most important strategies at our disposal: the power of shared identity and shared values. Social psychologists tell us that we like to feel like we belong in social groups: it boosts our self-confidence and helps us make sense of the world around us. Each of us has more than one identity at any given time and maintaining social group membership is a powerful driver of political and social behavior. Research shows that highlighting the sociopolitical groups and identities we share with others remains one of the best ways to relate to people and to (p.19) encourage them to listen to political conversations they may otherwise ignore or avoid. A common strategy in advocacy campaigns and persuasive communication about LGBT rights has been to focus on shared strongly held identities and values to shift opinions. This chapter discusses the benefits of these campaigns that focus on commonalities rather than differences or things that are unknown. The chapter discusses the effect of emphasizing shared identities like being members of the same community or state, ethnoracial group, or political party and of appealing to common values like fairness, equality, patriotism, and nationalism.

Finally, chapter 7 summarizes the main points of the book and reiterates concrete, actionable steps to encourage rational and clear thinking when it comes to political discussion. It also highlights some of the important limits of persuasive communication and why opinions are so slow to change. The chapter includes a broad discussion of the importance of discussing sometimes-contentious social and political issues with those in our closest social circles. The chapter reiterates strategies of empathy and position-taking in persuasive appeals, demonstrating that under the right conditions, walking a mile in someone else’s shoes can have a powerful effect in terms of attitude change. It can be difficult for many to view people who are different than they are as real people, not nameless abstractions; this was a common obstacle for LGBT advocates in the 20th century and even today. There are a variety of strategies to encourage empathy toward those who are different or otherwise inaccessible; for example, asking people to remember a time when they felt marginalized or when they experienced discrimination can trigger attitudes that are less discriminatory against out-groups. Adding concrete anecdotes and creating a narrative or story can help spur more imaginative thinking toward otherwise difficult issues or concepts.

We need to find a way to calmly disagree because avoiding conflict and confrontation doesn’t solve anything. Persuasion doesn’t always work—in fact, it usually doesn’t—but that does not mean (p.20) we should stop talking or stop thinking about ways to maintain relationships and extend conversations about important issues of the day. We can have meaningful relationships with those with whom we disagree without abandoning our beliefs and values but it takes patience and practice, elements that American culture often seems to lack.

Final Thoughts

As you read the next chapters, there are some important things to keep in mind. First, it’s not practical to expect hearts and minds to change immediately, overnight, or perhaps even at all. As discussed earlier in the chapter, some people are simply too entrenched in what they already believe to hear anything new. Many personality types are too stubborn or too proud to even consider the fact that they might have been wrong. That’s OK. You can’t win over everyone and you shouldn’t expect that you will. More on that next.

There truly is more that unites us than divides us. It’s becoming far too easy to tighten our social circles and continue to be “us” versus “them” and to focus on our differences rather than our similarities. We can’t simply listen to and care about people like ourselves though; we have to support and even fight for the rights of people who are different than we are. I certainly don’t have all the answers but I have some ideas of where to start to keep the momentum moving forward and to get us thinking about where the boundaries of our identity groups begin and where they should end.

So where do we go from here? This is a book about disagreement, why it is important, and the ways it is, in fact, necessary for a well-functioning democracy. Our country will almost never have a political issue or policy question where everyone agrees and that’s perfectly fine: we don’t need to see everything in the same way or to come to the same conclusions about important issues of the day. What we do need to do is remember how to disagree while still (p.21) remaining empathetic to those around us and maintaining mutual respect for each other. Many of us have lost our way in this regard. Identity does play a role in the way we disagree with each other, of course, but the way we communicate with each other can create even more walls if we aren’t careful. We need to rethink our communication processes and conversational end goals. The old adage taught us to avoid talking about politics in polite company but I wholeheartedly disagree: we just need to do it better.

Never were words the words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address on March 4, 1861, more important than they are now: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.”27


(1.) Hamilton, Alexander, James Madison, and John Jay (2012), The Federalist Papers (New York: Tribeca Books).

(2.) Mason, Lilliana (2018), Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), p. 45.

(3.) Lipset, S. M. (2000), “The Indispensability of Political Parties,” Journal of Democracy, 11, 48–55; Mansbridge, J. J. (1983), Beyond Adversary Democracy (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press).

(4.) Mill, John Stuart ([1859] 1989), “On Liberty” and Other Writings, ed. Stefan Collini (New York: Cambridge University Press), p. 24.

(6.) Taber, C. S., and M. Lodge (2006), “Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs,” American Journal of Political Science, 50, 755–769.

(8.) See Dahl, R. (1971), Polyarchy (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press); Mansbridge, J. J. (2003), “Rethinking Representation,” American Political Science Review, 97, 515–528; Pitkin, Hanna (1967), The Concept of Representation (Berkeley: University of California Press).

(9.) Schattschneider, E. E. (1960), The Semisovereign People (Hinsdale, IL: Holt, Rinehart and Winston).

(10.) Bartels, Larry M. (2003), “Democracy with Attitudes,” in Electoral Democracy, ed. Michael B. MacKuen and George Rabinowitz (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), pp. 50–51.

(11.) Mutz, D. C. (2006), “How the Mass Media Divide Us,” in P. Nivola (Ed.), Red and Blue Nation? (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press), pp. 223–248; Mutz, D. C., and P. S. Martin (2001), “Facilitating Communication across Lines of Political Difference: The Role of the Mass Media,” American Political Science Review, 95, 97–114.

(12.) Downs, A. (1957), An Economic Theory of Democracy (New York, NY: Harper and Row).

(13.) Arendt, H. (1958), The Human Condition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press); Mendelberg, T. (2002), “The Deliberative Citizen: Theory and Evidence,” Political Decision Making, Deliberation, and Participation, 6, 151–193; Price, V., and P. Neijens (1997), “Opinion Quality in Public Opinion Research,” International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 9, 336–360.

(14.) Mason, Lilliana (2018), Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

(16.) Petty. R. E., and J. T. Cacioppo (1981), Attitudes and Persuasion: Classic and Contemporary Approaches (Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown), p. 7.

(17.) Allport (1935) noted that attitudes “often persist throughout life in the way in which they were fixed in childhood or in youth” (Allport, Gordon W. 1935). Attitudes. In C. M. Murchison (Ed.), Handbook of Social Psychology. Winchester, MA: Clark University Press, p. 814); Sherif and Cantril (1947) wrote that “attitudes, once formed, are more or less enduring states of readiness”(Sherif, M., & Cantril, H. (1947). The psychology of ego-involvements: Social altitudes and identifications. New York: Wiley, p. 7), See also Petty. R. E. & Cacioppo, J. T. (1981). Attitudes and persuasion: Classic and contemporary approaches. Dubuque, IA: William C. Brown

(18.) Page, B. I., and R. Shapiro (1992), The Rational Public: Fifty Years of Trends in Americans’ Policy Preferences (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press); Erikson, R. S., M. MacKuen, and J. A. Stimson (2002), The Macro Polity (New York, NY: Cambridge University Press).

(21.) Harrison, Brian F., and Melissa R. Michelson (2017), Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Change Attitudes about LGBT Rights (New York: Oxford University Press).

(27.) Lincoln, Abraham, “Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1861, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=25818.