Last weekend, thousands of Americans met with someone who has completely different political views at “America Talks.” David Broockman is a professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, and is conducting a scientific study on the outcomes of the event. America Talks was co-created by My Country Talks, and is powered by the My Country Talks software. Learn more here.
My Country Talks: Dr. Broockman, in your work you deal with the question of how to reduce prejudice between people who have completely different political opinions. Can discussion formats like America Talks contribute to this?
David Broockman: Face to face conversations can reduce prejudice because they can soften people’s views. There is a lot of work on prejudice reduction that shows this. In my work, for example, I’ve done extensive research on canvassers who go door to door to campaign for a particular issue. In that work, we show that one on one conversations with people can cause large reductions in prejudice, especially when people have the opportunity to tell and listen to stories.
My Country Talks: Can you say more about that?
David Broockman: One study I conducted found that the biggest impact seems to be made when the person doing the canvassing tells a story about a member of certain groups. This means that, when trying to reduce prejudice against undocumented immigrants, for example, telling a story about a particular undocumented immigrant can be really effective. And we find in our research that it doesn’t really matter if the person telling the story actually is an undocumented immigrant. Simply telling the experience of another person is enough to reduce prejudice in the listener.
People engage more with stories, rather than arguments or statistics. It is much harder to respond to a personal story with arguments, so people suspend their interest in arguing and just listen.
My Country Talks: So the story itself leads the other side to perceive the other side as more human?
David Broockman: Yes, because people engage more with stories, rather than arguments or statistics. For example with controversial issues like stricter gun laws, arguments often lead people to resort to counter arguments. But most people like stories, so they tend not to start giving counterarguments, because they want to enjoy the story. And it is much harder to respond to a personal story with arguments, so people suspend their interest in arguing and just listen. That creates openness to new perspectives.
My Country Talks: What do the participants take away from such conversations?
David Broockman: After such a conversation, participants generally come away with a very positive perception of their experience, and they often associate that positive feeling with their discussion partner and the group which they represent. They also often realize that, despite differences of opinion on certain issues, they may have similar attitudes. This can lead to the realization that you can cooperate with the other person to achieve common goals, and cooperation is something that reduces prejudice.
My Country Talks: At America Talks, a wide variety of people come together. What would you say to someone who finds the setting too intimate or who is afraid of making themselves vulnerable? For example, younger people or members of marginalized communities?
David Broockman: No one should be forced to participate in such conversations, but I believe that the people who do decide to participate have predominantly positive experiences. For example, in our studies, the canvassers we accompanied often had similar concerns. They assumed that they would be confronted with people who were racist or hateful toward them. However, it is only a small proportion of people who actually hold these extreme views. So the canvassers often came away from the conversations with a much more positive view of the other side.
The same patterns were active during World War II, in the Vietnam War, etc. Yes, there can be national unity, but politicians still want to win elections.
My Country Talks: If working together for a common goal helps break down prejudices, wouldn’t a historical situation like the Coronavirus pandemic be an ideal case for this?
David Broockman: Many people share this hope, but I do not believe that events such as a pandemic or a war are not usually capable of breaking down the typical patterns of human behavior. For instance, much of the polarization in American society can be attributed to our political system. This system gives politicians incentives to instrumentalize differences of opinion in such a way that they stir up hatred between the supporters of the two major parties. Similarly, the same patterns of mass psychology that lead people to listen more closely to their party than the other were active and operating during World War II, in the Vietnam War, etc. Yes, there can be national unity, but politicians still want to win elections.
My Country Talks: What do you mean by that?
David Broockman: For example, Republicans were willing to increase the budget deficit by trillions under Trump because they hoped to get credit for it from their voters. Since Biden has been in office, they have suddenly rejected further spending. In the US, the congress and the president are elected independently. So if I’m currently the minority party in Congress, like the Republicans, I no longer have any incentive to pass a bill that might be popular with both constituencies, because I always assume that political success is attributed only to the president’s party, i.e., the Democrats. For the Democrats, the reverse is just as true.
Political polarization is rooted in our political system
My Country Talks: Democratic and Republican senators introduced a bipartisan postal reform bill in Congress in May. Does that contradict what you just said?
David Broockman: People are paying relatively little attention to this reform in the USA right now. Paradoxically, this is precisely why Congress is able to actually make a difference, exactly because no one is looking. As soon as the public, the media or Twitter pounce on it, politicians on both sides have the incentive to polarize.
My Country Talks: The U.S. political system has not always led to such strong polarization. What is responsible for the fact that politics between Republicans and Democrats have become so irreconcilable?
David Broockman: Much of this trend has to do with the decline of local newspapers and local television stations. Americans are getting more and more news about what is happening in Washington DC, rather than what is happening in their community. So they don’t know that the Democratic or Republican party may be pursuing similar things at the local level and that may be diametrically different from politics at the national level.
My Country Talks: How was that different before?
David Broockman: It used to be that many people in the U.S. voted for different parties in different elections. One party for president, then another party for Senate, and another party for mayor. Now people tend to vote for the same party all the way down the ballot, from president to mayor. There are studies that have shown that the decline of local media plays a big role in that. Because when you don’t know what the mayor actually represents anymore, and the only thing you’re informed about is that the party of your political opponents is contemptible, of course you will always vote for your party. With a local newspaper, as a voter, you might have learned instead that the other party’s mayoral candidate is committed to expanding public transit, which might be something you support.
My Country Talks: What do the political attitudes of the majority of Americans actually look like?
David Broockman: There is a lot of overlap between Democratic and Republican voters, and policies that are quite popular on both sides. Voters are much more diverse in their political attitudes than the actual platforms of either party. The average American is not necessarily more moderate, but more ideologically flexible.
My Country Talks: What does that mean?
David Broockman: Many people have views that span the entire political spectrum, but that doesn’t mean that this places them in the “political center’’. Voters hold a mix of both liberal and conservative views. For example, a liberal Social Security platform is very popular among supporters of both parties. On the other hand, there are many Democrats, for example, who advocate a conservative immigration policy. However, the political system and media landscape pushes politicians to demonize the opposing party and its supporters, even though both sides share many goals and values.
The average American is not necessarily more moderate, but more ideologically flexible.
My Country Talks: It seems like you’re saying that the average voter is not so ideologically polarized in their own views, but that the American political system and the media pushes them to be polarised in their behaviour.
David Broockman: Yes, and we see this phenomenon increasing, for example, with the rise of campaign finance through small donations. While this idea is very popular among people who want to reform American democracy, it is causing many politicians in Congress to cater to the extremes of their party because they hope it will get them attention on social platforms like Facebook. That’s because now candidates can run Facebook ads badmouthing the other party in order to receive donations of $15 or $20.
My Country Talks: To what extent can discussion formats like America Talks counteract this?
David Broockman: One-to-one conversations between political opposites can have a big impact on “affective polarization.” Affective polarization is, put very simply, whether a person has a negative feeling or towards people who vote for a different political party. This doesn’t necessarily mean that people will change their voting behavior or their political attitudes as a result of such discussion formats, but they will often be more willing to engage in exchange with political dissidents, to have dinner together or to talk about politics, for example. In a country as divided as the U.S., that’s real progress.
My Country Talks: What can come out of the willingness to talk to each other?
David Broockman: For example, I live in San Francisco, where we have political divisions primarily between moderates and progressives. And these two groups actually share a lot of common ground. If activists on each side were more able to sit down with each other and discuss what they do agree on, they might decide to use their collective power to drive actual policy change.