The Pause was both a stage and a lecture hall on Thursday, Oct. 4 when it hosted the Theater of Public Policy. It was the second event in the Institute for Freedom and Community’s fall series, “Patriotism, Nationalism, and the Idea of America.” The show featured a unique melding of civics lessons and improv comedy. The talk, “Political Polarization in America: Where We’ve Been, Where We’re Going, and Why it Matters,” explored how Democrats and Republicans agree on more than they realize.
Samara Klar, author and associate professor at the University of Arizona, described our current political climate as a combination of “disrespectful agreement” and “exaggerated perceptions of differences.”
“When it comes to issue positions we’re actually not as polarized as you might think, but when it comes to the way Democrats and Republicans view each other, we are definitely more polarized than ever,” Klar said.
William Doherty, a Senior Fellow at Better Angels, an organization dedicated to depolarizing America at the ground level, spoke about how to get Republicans and Democrats in the same room.
“The goals are to understand each other beyond stereotypes and try to find common ground, not changing anyone’s mind,” Doherty said. He said that when people disagree about policies, they assume they disagree about fundamental goals, but once people enter conversation with members of the other party, they begin to see that most Americans want a lot of the same things. It is this kind of humanization of the opposition that Doherty and his colleagues at Better Angels view as the foundation of depolarization.
“People don’t change their mind about policies, they change their mind about people,” Doherty said.
The role of independents in American politics was another theme of the interview portion. According to Klar’s research, Republicans and Democrats agree that introducing oneself as an independent makes the best first impression.
“People would actually be happier to have their son or daughter marry someone of the opposite party if they don’t talk about politics, than they would be with someone from their own party jabbering about politics all the time,” Klar said.
This apparent preference for political apathy sets up an interesting contrast with the prevalence of politics in our media and social networks.
“We just see so much anger and bitterness that most Americans do not want to be associated with it,” Klar said.
Doherty and Klar explained the basics of political polarization in America and pointed out some counterintuitive nuances. The Theater of Public Policy cast used that material as inspiration for an improv comedy show. The cast of actors rotated through various scenes, bringing concepts discussed by Doherty and Klar to life in funny and occasionally musical ways.
The show wrapped up with a question and answer portion for Doherty and Klar. When asked how to open depolarizing political discussions on campus, Doherty and Klar pointed to the importance of explaining the origins of one’s views. Telling stories about how one’s opinions were formed rather than just listing policy points creates a better foundation for understanding the reasons behind our differences.
“A lot of it is curiosity,” Doherty said. “First be interested in what the other person says, listen, ask questions.”