Finding Common Ground

Sermon by Christopher Peters
August 2, 2020

The sermon text is available below the video. A resource list appears as an appendix to the sermon.

Introduction

I’m very grateful to have been invited to speak today and would like to thank Mary Kathryn Wallace and Valerie Bowman for their encouragement and patience, and everyone else who helped put together this service. I’m also grateful that we live in a country where free thought and expression is allowed, if not always encouraged, especially in our current politically polarized environment.

My first personal experience with political polarization occurred four years ago. In the span of a couple of weeks, a Democratic activist called my a homophobe, presumedly because I was then a Republican candidate for Congress, and a Republican activist called me something worse, because I supported same-sex marriage. What was really interesting about that experience was that I was stereotyped by both sides on the same issue. First, what a Republican candidate must be, a homophobe; and second, what a Republican candidate should be, against same-sex marriage.

In case it isn’t obvious by now, the topic of my talk today is expressly about politics, but it is not political, not partisan. I will not be taking a side, but instead will be focused on how we can improve our politics, and especially at the most fundamental level, between each of us as individuals.

This talk is divided into two portions, “Where We Are,” and “How We Move Forward.” In the first portion, I hope to convince you, if you are not already, that we have some serious problems we need to address. In the second portion, I’ll discuss some communication skills that I think will allow us to begin to address those problems.

One last point before we begin. While I am very concerned about the state of our nation right now, I remain stubbornly optimistic that we will prevail. As Winston Churchill is famously reported as saying, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” There’s actually no evidence that he did say that, but it still rings true, doesn’t it?

Part 1: Where We Are

I actually think we have two problems, one is a system problem, and the other is a people problem. The system problem is our existing political infrastructure, one which supports the existence of only two viable political parties. prioritizes fundraising and campaigning above legislating, resists transparency and accountability, and in the process promotes pandering to supporters, vilifying opponents, and ignoring everyone else.

For decades, multiple studies have shown that the average American is not well served by legislation and regulation coming out of Washington. Business, the wealthy, and special interest groups do quite well. But, regular Americans, not so much. And, this has been true regardless of which party is in charge.

I’ve included several suggested readings on the resources page for this talk, which I believe will be available on the church website. This includes an excellent study from the Harvard Business School, titled, “Why Competition in the Politics Industry is Failing America,” which I highly recommend. Just search that title online, and you can find a free PDF of their report, videos and podcasts, and even a recently released book. If you do nothing else, please check this out.

As the authors point out, the only winners in our current system are those politicians who can play the game well enough to overcome their opponents at the ballot box, and the immense “political industrial complex” that exists to support both sides in those battles. That “political industrial complex” includes campaign consultants, pollsters, fundraisers, big money donors, special interests, and lobbyists.

There are dozens of organizations working to change our system in a variety of ways, such as campaign finance reform, the institution of open primaries, the promotion of ranked-choice voting, and many others. I’ve also included links to some of those organizations in the resources page for this talk, if you’d like to get involved with any of them.

But, the truth is, the system won’t change until a sizable and politically diverse swath of the population demands it. That requires support from those on the right, the middle, and the left, and that’s where we have a people problem.

The people problem is a communication problem. Due to our extreme political polarization, it’s very difficult to have a reasonable and meaningful conversation with those on the other side, and frequently even with some on our side.

I already shared my anecdote about my first personal experience with political polarization. But, I’m a science guy, so I like numbers and graphs. What does the data show regarding political polarization? Is it really bad, and has it been getting worse?

Regular polling by Pew Research Center reveals trends in political ideology for active Democratic and Republican voters.

In 1994, there were obvious differences between the Democratic and Republican voters, which is no surprise. There would be no need for two different parties if there weren’t differences in viewpoints. But, the median Democratic and Republican voters weren’t too far apart, and there was a tremendous amount of overlap between the two.

Twenty years later, both groups had moved far to the left and right, showing that polarization of viewpoints had indeed gotten worse. As a result of this increasing polarization, there was not much overlap remaining between the active participants in both parties; the center had been largely hollowed out.

Note that this is from way back in 2014, the last year for which Pew has published this data. That was two years before the divisive 2016 election, and an additional four years have passed since then. While I don’t have the data to prove it, I have little doubt that our political polarization has gotten much worse since.

Ongoing polling from Gallup charts the self-identification of Americans according to party preference. Over the last three decades, both major parties have seen steady declines in popularity, while the number of Americans who chose not to identify with either party has continued to rise. This latter group represents the hollowed-out and largely ignored center, now consisting of over 40% of Americans.

As a businessman, I see that 40% as a market growth opportunity. As a person concerned about the future of our country, I see that 40% as a sign that our current political system is not serving most Americans well, and that is a very bad place to be for our country.

Data is useful, but it is rather dry and therefore may not be as impactful to some. Still, I think most of us are well aware of our growing political divides on at least a visceral level. Photographs of real life events do a particularly good job of capturing our growing divides at that gut level.

These are both from 2017, the first from Charlottesville and the second from Berkeley. I could have updated them with photos from this year, but I think these two photos are pretty iconic.

Note the “Become Ungovernable” banner in the background in the last photo. That is exactly where we are headed if we don’t change course.

The problem is not simply that we have differences of opinion on aspects of policy, or even broader philosophical differences about the role of government. No, the problem is that we’ve let these differences be felt emotionally, justifying dismissal or even hatred of the opposition.

This is sometimes called “affective polarization”, in which we have increasingly negative opinions about the people on the other side, not simply negative opinions of their views.

Especially among our most active partisans, both sides are increasingly likely to view members of the other side as not merely wrong, but as stupid, dangerous, or evil.

Rather than engaging in constructive arguments, we dismiss the other side as deplorable, as snowflakes, as Nazis or Marxists, as racists or elitists.

We have made great strides at promoting tolerance and celebrating diversity when it comes to ethnicity, religion, gender, and sexual orientation. Where we are failing, badly, is in the realm of political thought. With few exceptions, people are not calling for a celebration of diverse political views, or advocating for the toleration of political opinions other than their own.

As with any complex problem, the causes of our political polarization are multifactorial. And, those causes interact with our growing polarization in a self-perpetuating manner.

The media, social and conventional, is one such factor. While our news sources used to be limited, they are now nearly endless, and we can seek those sources which most align with our preexisting beliefs. While we once consumed the news to inform us, we now do so to affirm us.

And, as we self-segregate according to news sources, the media naturally responds by moving further to the left or right, which in turn leads to further polarization by each of us.

Similarly, as Washington continues to fail us, we become more distrustful of the federal government. We feel the need to blame someone, and the other side is the obvious, but wrong, scapegoat. As we become more polarized, the “political industrial complex” capitalizes on our divisions, making Washington even more ineffectual, and the cycle continues.

The good news is that this cycle can be broken, and that it is entirely within our power to do so. I will turn to how we do that, next.

Part 2: How We Move Forward

The two young men pictured are Christian and Anthony. In 2016, they were both students at Graceland University, in Lamoni. Christian was the president of the College Republicans on campus, and Anthony was the president of the College Democrats.

And they were roommates! They watched all the presidential debates together that contentious year, disagreeing on any number of issues, but remained roommates and became close friends. They went to one of their professors, wondering how they might bring what they had found to their campus. As it turned out, that professor had recently read an article about Better Angels, recently renamed Braver Angels. So, Anthony and Christian were the first to introduce Better Angels to Iowa, and me to Better Angels.

Christian and Anthony are living proof to me of what is possible in the ideas which follow.

How can we move forward, so that we can leave behind an America worth inheriting?

As they say in twelve-step programs, the first step on the road to recovery is admitting one has a problem; but in this case, we are not powerless in the face of it. 

Do we have a problem? I think we do. I believe our political system is broken, yielding benefits only to a select few. I think that our political polarization prevents us from finding workable solutions to our problems, to include reforming our political system. I find incivility in our public sphere to be hateful and disheartening. And, I think that ignoring the opinions of a large plurality of Americans is unfair and unwise.

I believe that the only way we can hope to fix things is by doing the work ourselves. Meaningful and sustainable change is possible, but it must start at the grassroots level, consisting of a politically diverse group of stakeholders committed to that change.

In other words, what would Anthony and Christian do? 

The essence of what groups like Braver Angels does is facilitate communication. I believe that there are three basic skills which are essential to effective communication, those being thinking, listening, and speaking skills. We’ll consider each in turn.

Good thinking skills are the bedrock of communication, because they determine how we in turn listen and speak. Knowing what we believe and how we reason is critical, and particularly with these skills, a healthy dose of humility is helpful. Remember that we are all fallible; prone to erroneous beliefs and snap judgements.

One common mistake is to believe the best of my side, while assuming the worst of the other. This gets to the heart of Jesus’ warnings against judging others, such as in the parable about the mote and the beam. In this case, though, it’s probably true that both sides have sizable logs in their eyes.

Another common mistake most of us make has to do with how we process new information. Do we easily accept it if it aligns with our preexisting beliefs, while being hypercritical if it doesn’t? It’s difficult to do, but we should try to be just as critical of news we agree with as we are with news we don’t, and to try to find areas of agreement with viewpoints different than our own.

A parable of the elephant and the rider is used in Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, to describe the relationship between beliefs and reason. According to Haidt, much of what we believe is based upon emotion or intuition, rather than reason. It makes sense, too. For example, most of us have an opinion about climate change, but few of us have actually read any of the IPCC reports.

Our rationality is the rider in the parable, while our beliefs are the elephant. The elephant goes where it wants to go, based upon intuition or emotion, and we use our reason to justify our beliefs, or where the elephant is taking us. At least much of the time, I think Haidt is right about that.

This is one of my favorite quotes, and we don’t know for certain where it comes from. It is probably an anonymous proverb whose origins have been lost in time. It has been linked to Diogenes and Epictetus, and the earliest citation one researcher could find was to Zeno.

Anyway, I think the true emphasis here is not on the quantity of time we listen versus speak, but on the quality of our efforts.

Probably the most common mistake here, and one I think we are all probably guilty of committing, is of listening to rebut rather than understand the speaker. I’m sure you know what I mean; of how we at some point stop actively listening, and instead are formulating our rebuttal. Or, sometimes it’s not actually a rebuttal we’re entertaining, but we’re merely interested in sharing a funny anecdote or shifting the direction of the conversation.

Regardless of the reasons why, we have stopped listening to someone who might have something important to share. Along with humility, remembering that we are all fallible, it is also important to remember that we are all valuable, to include the speaker you may disagree with. New perspectives and insights are how we move knowledge forward.

Another error, even if we are actively listening, is to focus on finding differences, rather than common ground. I had an experience with this a few months ago

The topic had something to do with some type of economic reform, and my friend asked me to explain further, stating that we might have some areas of common ground. I did so, and she disagreed with my ideas. In truth, I don’t think that she was really seeking common ground between us, but whether or not I agreed with her. But, in fairness to my friend, this occurred on social media, which is where lots of communication goes to die.

The final communication tool is speaking. When it comes to contentious topics, such as politics, many of us make the following mistakes, sometimes only occasionally, but sometimes quite often.

One is to make what are called “truth statements” rather than “belief statements”. The world of demonstrable, undisputed truth, is really fairly small, and I’d argue that it’s pretty much limited to the physical sciences. Beyond that narrow realm, we are forced to deal with a lot of uncertainties and complexities. I’m sure you’ve seen that people can find studies that support any particular position.

For example, if I were to say, “I believe a carbon tax and dividend system might be a good way to address climate change”, I’ve left room open for a discussion of the pros and cons. If, however, I were to say, “the evidence is clear that a carbon tax and dividend will work”, I’ve potentially shut any avenue for further conversation, unless my listener is particularly forgiving.

Another speaking error is asking the wrong sort of questions. What are called “questions of understanding” are genuine attempts to better understand another’s beliefs. In contrast, “gotcha questions” are purposeful efforts to put the other on the defensive. “Have you stopped beating your wife?” is the comedic classic of the gotcha question. Or, if I were to hear, “so, you’re a socialist, now?” in response to an argument in favor of a carbon tax and dividend, would be another example.

Even honest Abe didn’t like everyone he met, but he made the effort to get to know them. I think that’s where we need to start.

Such efforts are frequently fruitful, and they also can be a lot of fun. Last year, I was at a Better Angels event at Graceland University with Anthony and Christian which is called a Red Blue Workshop. We had a mix of “reds” and “blues” in attendance, to include two people, one on each side, who justified their political beliefs based upon their strong Christian faith.

The “blue”Christian, a retired professor from Simpson College, focused on things like climate change and the environment, saying God had called us to be good stewards of our planet. The “red” Christian was concerned with traditional conservative social values, likewise justifying her beliefs based on her faith.

Christian, Anthony, and I were concerned there might be a confrontation between them. But, early in our gathering, I simply pointed out that I thought it was interesting that both of them shared a strong Christian faith. That was enough. Common ground was established, and from there, they also found other areas of agreement.

The retired professor has since become a good friend of mine. I’m now his “favorite Republican”, I rode with his team on RAGBRAI later that summer, and would have done so this year, if the ride hadn’t been cancelled.

So, who knows what you might find? If you’re on the political left, drop by that house in your neighborhood with the Trump sign out front, or buy a beer for the guy with the MAGA hat. If you’re on the political right, strike up a conversation with the woman still proudly wearing her Warren t-shirt, or have a cup of coffee with the fellow with the Biden sticker on his laptop at Starbucks.

I invite each of you to become a member of Braver Angels, and any of the dozens of other organizations which are working to effect meaningful political change.

Remember, we are all fallible, so be humble as regards your own beliefs. We are all valuable, so be respectful of the beliefs of others. And, we are all responsible for leaving behind an America worth inheriting. So, let us actively work toward finding common ground and moving forward in a more positive direction.

Resource List

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