Tuesday April 9, 2013

The wig was ill-fitting and the glasses were enormous. I didn't often wear heels, so my stride onto the stage was not nearly as confident as it could have been. But as soon as I reached the podium and gazed out at the undulating sea of supporters and detractors, I found my gumption. It was 1984 and I'd been picked by my 11th grade social studies teacher to portray Geraldine Ferraro in our school's mock nominating convention. Like Ferraro herself said in her actual nomination acceptance speech, I was "absolutely thrilled."

Our convention was unconventional in that both major political parties shared the same hall, and we delivered our nomination speeches to everyone. A close friend portrayed Ferraro's running mate, Walter Mondale. We were a formidable team, each a potent package of moxie, humor and preparedness. Frankly, we knew our speeches were better than our opponents' offerings, as we'd crafted them in side-by-side political scrums in our classroom. Emotionally I wasn't prepared for the sexist barbs that were hurled at "my" Ferraro from some members of the audience, but intellectually I was ready for battle.

I launched some great impromptu one-liners, meeting each attack tit-for-tat; I wasn't at all interested in hearing the other party's platform or ideas. But I was in high school and can be forgiven for both my self-righteousness and my ample indignation when others disagreed with my positions. It was my job.

Righteous indignation is quintessentially adolescent -- as we struggle mightily to sort out who we are and want to be -- but it is less useful when we "grow up". As we become more sure of who we are, we need an accompanying ability to truly listen to an opposing view point -- rather than waiting for someone to stop talking so that we can tell them all the reasons they're wrong.

In 2008, The Economist ran a piece about Bill Bishop's theory of American political segregation. Bishop and sociology professor Robert Cushing -- who wrote "The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart" -- assert that Americans "Balkanize" as we increasingly choose to live among like-minded neighbors. The bitter culture wars become more personal, and political solutions to problems become nearly impossible as we aggressively shut out opposing views.

Bishop highlights that when Jimmy Carter narrowly won the presidency in 1976 -- with 50.1 percent of the popular vote -- just 26.8 percent of Americans lived in so-called "landslide counties" (where Carter either won or lost by 20 or more percentage points). The proportion of Americans who now reside in lop-sided political counties has doubled since then. Bishop explains that our national credo of mobility, combined with "even a mild preference for living with like-minded neighbors leads over time to severe segregation." Many of us now live "in a giant feedback loop" -- hearing our own deeply held beliefs reflected back to us by the neighbors we choose, the newspapers we read, and the cable news programs we consume.

Although there is superficial comfort that comes from surrounding ourselves with likeminded people, there is a real danger in never being exposed to opposing views. Diana Mutz, political science professor at the University of Pennsylvania, examined data from 12 other nations and discovered that although Americans are more likely to have political discussions than citizens of many other countries, "they are the least likely of all to talk about politics with those who disagreed with them." We can't wrestle with big problems when we're conducting our conversations in echo chambers. The creative process has no room in which to thrive when the starting position is complete entrenchment.

As hard as it is to resist the pull of likeminded people, though, it is even tougher to fight genetics. Rose McDermott --- political science professor at Brown University -- asserts that many political preferences on the spectrum of conservative to liberal are not based in social causes but come instead from hereditary components. McDermott explained in an August 2012 interview that the underlying propensity to be conservative or liberal -- in attitudes and ideology -- appears to have a significant genetic foundation. Evolutionarily speaking, we're all trying to protect our "in-group."

Given our geographic and genetic limitations, we must make a concerted, perhaps a Herculean, effort to listen to those whose views do not align with our own. A friend of mine -- a Vermont lefty -- recently confided in me that he was disappointed with the "smugness" he felt was an aspect of Vermont lefty politics. I told him that this same smugness exists in my in-laws' home state of Wyoming -- only it comes from the Republican majority. When we stop believing the opposing side has anything to add to the discussion, a dangerous self-satisfaction moves in and takes up residence.

What would happen if we each had a generosity of spirit and a willingness -- even for just a moment -- to consider that we might be wrong about a particular issue. I'm not talking about giving purchase to Holocaust deniers or racists. I mean all those complicated issues that we try to make simple through slogans and talking points: health care, social security, size of government, guns, same-sex marriage, etc. What would open up if we approached these difficult conversations with respect and a real desire to listen and understand the other person?

Although, admittedly, it can be awfully fun to hurl zingers across a stage at a political opponent -- or mock another's point of view that we consider so outrageous -- ultimately, it shortchanges our democracy.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at bbalint37@gmail.com. Read her blog at www.reformer802.com/speakerscorner.