2016 US Presidential election voting results by county. Red for Donald Trump. Blue for Hillary Clinton. Shade scaled by percent of vote. County size scaled by population. Image by Mark Newman, CC4.0

Every day, Americans seem to grow more and more politically polarized. Hypotheses abound as to why this happens. Some credit the Internet for serving up fake news that tickles our confirmation bias. Others blame our self-selected echo chambers, from our chosen media outlets to our red and blue geographical enclaves. Deregulation of the media and failure to enforce the Fairness Doctrine may even play a part. However, the root cause may run still deeper. Perhaps the real differences have been inside of us all along. Can we bridge the partisan divide when we do not even share basic assumptions about the way the world works?

According to George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, framing matters. Liberals and conservatives, left and right, make sense of the world in very different ways. The metaphor of a family led by a strict father resonates with more authoritarian conservatives. For them, a rigid hierarchy defines peoples’ roles and place in society, moral responsibilities, rewards and punishments. In contrast, many liberals hew to the metaphor of a nurturing parent, valuing equality, community, fairness, and empathy. Such divergent worldviews likely dooms any attempt to bridge the partisan divide.

A couple news items stood out as I perused the internet recently. Both are shining examples of one side trying desperately to communicate with the other side, and failing miserably.

The first, from Slate. Note to Congress: The Affordable Care Act Is a Critical Bulwark Against Rising HIV Rates. If you want to convince conservatives that keeping the ACA mostly intact is the best option, this is not how to do it. Ever since its emergence in the 1980s, and once named GRID (Gay-Related Immune Deficiency) for its early association with male-to-male sexual transmission, AIDS serves as the just punishment for what the moral authoritarians consider sexual immorality. If people end up sick, the thinking goes, they brought it upon themselves. Lobbying the conservative members of Congress to help people they perceive as wicked escape sin’s consequences is unlikely to succeed. The call to preserve the ACA to save the lives of people with AIDS appeals to the nurturing parent mindset.

Equally tone deaf but coming from the other side was Gordon Klingenschmitt’s program on March 10th. A 2012 lawsuit by an atheist parent on behalf of her daughter, then a student at Valley Junior-Senior High School in New Kensington, PA, resulted in the school district’s decision to remove a stone monument bearing an inscription of the Ten Commandments from school property. Klingenschmitt blamed demonic activity within the family and their lawyers for the legal action they pursued against the school district. This may move those who view the world through the same stained-glass lenses as he does; God is, after all, the archetypal Strict Father. The family’s motivations, which revolve around separation of church and state, are as invisible to Klingenschmitt as his demons are to them. Increased exposure to the Commandments seems unlikely to convince the family to embrace a strict father God.

Gordon Klingenschmitt: Exposure To 10 Commandment Will Free Atheists From ‘Demonic Influence’ – RWW Blog

How can we bridge the partisan divide when the motivations of roughly half of us so obviously fail to make any sense at all to the other half? Lakoff’s book provides a crucial insight. Many of us don’t completely identify with either the Strict Father or the Nurturing Parent worldviews in all situations. A person may act as a Strict Father-type at her managerial job, yet nurture her family at home. Such people, who Lakoff calls biconceptualists, switch between worldviews as needed. This is why framing policy arguments is crucial when trying to communicate effectively and bridge the partisan divide. Rather than shoving a wedge between Left and Right-leaning Americans, the best course of action for our country lies in helping us understand each other. It’s unfortunate that this goal is less profitable than playing divide and conquer.  The alternative to success may be worse than we want to consider.


Note to Congress: The Affordable Care Act Is a Critical Bulwark Against Rising HIV Rates
Gordon Klingenschmitt: Atheists Need More Exposure To The Ten Commandments To Free Them From ‘Their Demonic Influence’
Ten Commandments to be removed from Valley High School in New Kensington
Pew study: Partisan divide widest in 25 years
Purple America Has All But Disappeared
Lakoff, George. Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2014. Print.

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