Is There a Cure For Political Polarization?

Bloomberg Opinionn , April 03, 2022

This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Virginia Postrel: You’ve gone from being a community-oriented journalist to working for Braver Angels, a nonprofit organization working to address political polarization in America. You’ve now published a book called I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times. To ask one of your favorite questions, Why you? Why you as the author of this book?

Mónica Guzmán, author, “I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times”: A couple reasons. One, I happen to be the loving liberal daughter of conservative parents. And despite the fact that we have yelled at each other at full volume about our varying politics pretty much since we became American citizens in 2000, if not even before, we still manage to keep the kind of relationship where we can ask each other lots of questions about the differences between our beliefs. So the contrast between my experience with my parents and the experience of the nation — both at the bird’s eye-view level, and at the individual level with lots of families, lots of friendships, lots of relationships — made me think that I’ve got to do something.

VP: You write that “what’s underrepresented in your communities will be underrepresented in your life and overrepresented in your imagination.” What do you mean by that?

MG: The kind of political polarization that matters here is called “affective polarization,” which is when people distrust each other because of how they feel about each other, not because of actual disagreements. If you don’t have conversations where you are speaking with — and not just about — somebody who thinks differently from you, you’re going to be more vulnerable to misperceptions and to an elevated sense of fear that people on the other side are very dangerous. We have studies showing that each side thinks the other despises them twice as much as they actually do. There’s also research that shows that when you ask someone on one side to guess at the ideas of the other, they’ll think that they’re more extreme than they actually are. If you don’t have someone in your life that you are talking with, you may not actually see the reality of people who disagree with you.

VP: So what can we do about that?

MG: To me, the prescription is to begin to push back in your own life. If you ask one more question in a conversation before jumping in with your opinion, if you decide to engage in one of those tricky conversations where you otherwise would not, you are more likely to learn something that you may not have known, something that adds perspective to your view of the other side. And that might even reduce some of your fear.

VP: Can you give an example where this worked?

MG: Just last week, I heard from a woman who is more liberal, sharing a story about a conversation she had with a younger man who is more conservative, a friend of her daughter’s. She said that they finally got to the point where they had enough trust to talk about abortion. She is very, very pro-choice. And he was very, very pro-life. And as a result of the conversation, each had what I call a “I never thought of it that way” moment — moments of illumination about another perspective that enriched their own.

In the case of the conservative young man, she told him, “Your friend — my daughter — wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the two abortions that I had before. I wouldn’t have had her when I was ready and she wouldn’t be the person that you know and love.” He had never thought of it that way and he said that was really striking for him. And then later, after the conversation, she was reflecting to herself, and realized counterintuitively, that she wanted her daughter to end up with a man like this young conservative man. Why? Because it was so clear to her how much he valued life, and that he could see the responsibility that comes with getting a woman pregnant, maybe by accident.

VP: You talk about asking the question, “Can I believe it?” versus “Must I believe it?” Could you unpack that?

MG: That’s based on some great social psychology by Jonathan Haidt and others. When we’re faced with information that already conforms to our previously held beliefs, we will look at that information and ask the question, Can I believe it? Yeah, I can. But when we are faced with information that challenges our pre-existing beliefs, we’ll go, Must I believe it? In that case, all we need to find is one thing to justify throwing out the entire perspective.

As I was writing this book, I was trying to be extremely conscious of those two questions. The great thing about reading news or reading thoughtful articles is you’re having a conversation with yourself. You can make that a more curious conversation, too. So when I read an article with a perspective that I immediately reject, I will myself to go: Ask, Can I believe it? Just try. And just like that, I look at that perspective more generously. It might not change my mind. But it does help me really, truly understand that perspective. And then I learn more.

VP: You put a lot of emphasis on curiosity. What are the biggest barriers to it?

MG: The arch villain of curiosity is certainty. If you think you know, you won’t think to ask. Certainty eliminates the gaps between what we know and what we want to know. This happens a lot around our political divide — we’re certain we “know” about those people who are different from us.

The other barrier is fear. When someone’s aiming a gun at you, you’re not going to be like, “What’s that?” You’re gonna want to run away. You can’t wonder about something you think is out to get you, so the more afraid you are of other people, the more that your survival instinct is gonna kick in. Exaggerated fears that we have about each other kill curiosity, just kill it dead.

VP: If we are curious, and if we come to understand what motivates the people we disagree with, but we continue to disagree with them — does that improve the situation? Or does it just make us equally polarized, but perhaps a little more understanding of the opposition?

MG: Getting curious about each other, really listening and staying open minded, and perhaps discovering some reasons that allow things to make sense in our minds that previously didn’t — all of that lowers the threat level, lowers the fear. That in and of itself is an improvement.

VP: What would be an example of understanding without agreement?

MG: I talk in the book about the night of the 2016 election when I called my mom. She was very happy. And I was very unhappy. In my head, the thing that felt undeniably true is that our democracy had broken, because Trump had won. And so I called my mom, and she tried to hold back her enthusiasm and listen to her daughter. She really heard me out. And then she started talking about Mexico, and how, for most of her life, the same party won every election in Mexico. It was one-party control. They were sham elections, and everyone knew, and there was nothing you could do. So she’s telling me, “You think democracy is broken? Monica, I think it worked.” Everyone in the mainstream news was saying her side was going to lose. Why even bother voting? It’s going to be a trouncing. And then Trump won. And she said she felt like her vote mattered, in a really refreshing way. Democracy worked. Did I agree with her that democracy was completely fine? No, I did not. But did I understand? Yeah, I did.

VP: The assumption of the book is that it’s good for society to have these conversations. And yet there are a lot of people who would say no, we should not be having conversations with bad people. We should just shun those people and shun those opinions and make them outcasts. What is your response to that?