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What Can Be Done About Our Deep Political Divisions?

An interview with political scientist and author Timothy J. Redmond.

Key points

  • Civic abilities have not kept pace with civic responsibilities.
  • Common points of interest can bring together political opposites.
  • Humility is necessary for more rational thinking about politics. No one is a policy expert on everything.

Like many other countries today, the United States finds itself navigating in treacherous political waters. Blind loyalty to a party or politician, social media madness, the ongoing failure of schools to teach critical thinking skills, and the declining popularity of fact-based journalism have converged to shake the foundations of democratic societies. Politicians have always lied, and voters have always been divisive and gullible, of course. But it all seems faster, louder, and more dangerous now. Can a democratic government by the people and for the people survive… its people? What happens when hyper-partisanship, irrational beliefs, science/history illiteracy, and baseless fears overwhelm a voting population? To the rescue comes Timothy J. Redmond, a political scientist and author of an important new book, Political Tribalism in America. He has a lot to say about the mess we’re in and how we might think our way out of it.

Source: Timothy Redmond, used with permission
Timothy Redmond's book analyzes trends toward irrational thinking and deepening political divisions.
Source: Timothy Redmond, used with permission

What is one problem in American politics that keeps you up at night?

Timothy Redmond: Our civic abilities have not kept pace with our civic responsibilities. For example, editors and producers have traditionally had the responsibility of keeping the nation’s newspapers and nightly news broadcasts free of false information. With the rise of social media, however, that responsibility has largely become our own. We are all editors now. Unfortunately, we are oftentimes unwilling or unable to bear that burden.

America has always had some degree of overheated political rivalries and turmoil, what’s different today?

TR: Long-form journalism traditionally prompted us to “stop and think.” By contrast, today’s partisan news and social media outlets often encourage us to “hurry up and feel." As a result, our ability to think and argue with our fellow citizens has regrettably atrophied. Accordingly, we have to start exercising our deliberative social skills and discerning media habits once more.

Source: Timothy Redmond, used with permission
Political scientist Timothy Redmond.
Source: Timothy Redmond, used with permission

How can two people on opposite ends of the political spectrum today find common ground on which to work together?

TR: First, I would tell them to deliberate in person rather than on social media, as the latter is not conducive to constructive conversation. Second, I would encourage them to begin by identifying and discussing something that unites them as opposed to something that divides them. Perhaps it’s a love of music, or college football, or a favorite movie. Then, after they establish a personal relationship, they can begin to explore areas of political disagreement. When they do so, however, they should focus on the matter of how they know as opposed to what they know.

For example, instead of arguing about the positive or negative impact of gun control on violent crime, the pair should discuss how they know gun control increases or decreases violent crime. Here, the discussion will revolve around epistemological questions regarding sourcing, evidence, and logic instead of more emotionally fraught matters of fact. Productive cross-party conversations are possible and, when structured appropriately, have proven time and again that Democrats and Republicans aren't as divided or as different as we think.

What are a few of your best tips that can help all of us think more clearly about political campaigns and how we vote?

TR: Democrats and Republicans need to exhibit humility. I encourage people to honestly assess whether their thinking has determined their party, or—as is often the case—their party has determined their thinking. Then, I would encourage people to honestly assess the depth of their policy expertise. Many of us are incredibly passionate about issues of which we actually know very little. If we can take these simple, though surely not easy, steps, we will be able to think more critically about the information that is disseminated during a political campaign.

Why do so many candidates seem severely incompetent and uninformed these days?

TR: Part of this perception is due to the availability bias. The most controversial candidates attract the most attention. As a result, many Americans have an easier time identifying say Marjorie Taylor Greene (MTG) than their own member of Congress. Surely, this is because MTG courts controversy and the attention it begets. Having said that, our party attachments do enable the election of less qualified candidates. Partisans are often more willing to vote for an underqualified member of their own party, than perhaps a qualified member of the opposing party.

After going through the process of researching and writing your book, are you pessimistic or optimistic about America’s future?

TR: On balance, I am an optimist, and remain so after writing the book. But our republic is currently adrift in perilous waters. It is imperative that we develop and deploy our critical political thinking skills at once. Although one’s solitary attempt to do so can’t chart the course of a nation, it can help change the direction of the ship of state when added to the efforts of others. It’s high time that we each pick up an oar and start rowing.

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