A Citizen’s Guide to Partisan Detoxification (Part 2)

By Kent R. Kroeger (Source:  NuQum.com, November 27, 2017)

{Feel free to send any comments about this essay to: kkroeger@nuqum.com or kentkroeger3@gmail.com}

[This essay is in two parts: Part 1 examines the effect of today’s hyper-partisanship on Americans; Part 2 details some simple steps to recover from hyper-partisanship]

Hyper-partisanship is hurting the Democrats more than the Republican for one simple reason: the Democrats’ party ideology is predicated on the idea that the government exists to solve problems and facilitate economic growth, and without it working effectively, Americans suffer.

Yet, recent evidence calls the Democratic thesis into question.

Eight years of the Barack Obama presidency produced two major legislative accomplishments: The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) and the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). And those historic pieces of legislation were passed without any bipartisan support.

Apart from those two accomplishments, Obama’s presidency is best described as eight years of partisan gridlock. And what was the result of that gridlock? Eight years of consistent (though stubbornly slow) economic growth.

Almost one year into the Trump administration and not one piece of significant legislation has passed Congress. And, again, the net result? The fastest economic growth in over two years.

It is not unreasonable to suggest the U.S. economy does not need increased interventions by the U.S. government to flourish. Hyper-partisanship, so far, has not hurt the U.S. economy.

Yet, collectively, there is a growing consensus that hyper-partisanship is hurting our daily lives in very tangible ways. Recently, two researchers found that hyper-partisanship has reduced the amount of time many of us spend with relatives around holidays.

Whether hyper-partisanship is depresses the U.S. economy is debatable; that it is hurting our civic culture is undeniable. Americans are divided on a scale we have not seen in our lifetimes and an increasing number of us are trying to find ways to reduce this dangerous tribalism.

The good news is that hyper-partisanship does not need to be a permanent aspect of our democracy. We can reduce today’s ideological polarization and the political dysfunction it breeds, and we can do it without shutting down Facebook or forcing people to watch broadcast television news again.

Six Steps to Partisan Detoxification

A full recovery program from hyper-partisanship requires a level of self-awareness most of us do not possess by nature. Therefore, we must through training create personal habits that compensate for our biological inclinations.

Thus, the first step is the most critical and complicated. Without it, the subsequent steps are impotent.

Step 1: Know yourself

Commonly in substance abuse recovery programs, patients are asked to first recognize they have a problem. Hyper-partisanship is no different. A person can’t complete a partisan detox program without first acknowledging they are a hyper-partisan.

What is a hyper-partisan and what if I am not one?

If the survey research is to be believed (and I do believe it), most adults in the U.S. are not strong partisans (hyper-partisans are a subset of this group). Pew Research identifies roughly one-third of the 2017 U.S. adult population as being at “consistently” ideological.

Source: Pew Research, 2017

One-third of Americans as strong partisans seems accurate.

Hyper-partisans, a subset of strong partisans, are defined by: (1) long-term, straight ticket voting, (2) policy positions consistently to the left of their party’s opinion distribution (if they are a Democrat/liberal) or to the right (if they are a Republican/conservative), (3) their closest friendships are exclusively with people that conform to their opinions and beliefs, and (4) the vast majority of their information intake comes from sources that conform to their opinions and beliefs.

Hyper-partisans live in the proverbial “bubble.” They actively avoid and reject information contrary to their partisan view of the world.

Given this definition, most people can quickly determine if they are a hyper-partisan. Some people will resist the label, and for those that do, they should have their hyper-partisanship assessed by a third party — a casual friend or colleague — preferably with an opposing political perspective. Like-minded friends and family are often useless for this task. They will tell you what you want to hear.

If the majority of those third party assessments describe the person as hyper-partisan, then that person is probably a hyper-partisan.

Anyone identified in Step 1 as hyper-partisans can therefore move on to Step 2. Anyone not accepting the label are either like the majority of Americans — non-ideologues — or in complete denial of their hyper-partisanship.

For the those uncertain of their ideological leanings, I recommend using Pew Research’s online political typology tool which uses a respondent’s answers to a series of policy questions to assign them to an ideological category. It is not perfect, but the tool is good at differentiating strong partisans from weak ones.

Step 2: Take inventory

Once someone has determined their status as a hyper-partisan, the next step is to identify the positive and negative impacts of hyper-partisanship on their daily life over the past year. This can include family, friends, neighbors, work colleagues, online friends, and strangers.

Ask these questions:

Of the people you talk to on a daily or weekly basis, how many do you feel comfortable talking ‘politics’ or sharing strong personal opinions?

Have you had any conversations in the past year that turned heated or confrontational because of political topics?

Conversely, have you come to a ‘meeting of the minds’ in the past year with someone you previously disagreed with on a sensitive political topic?

There are no right or wrong answers here. This step simply allows someone to refresh their memory about where partisan politics enters their regular routine.

Step 3: Humble yourself and build a bridge

I do not have any generalized empirical data on the percentage of hyper-partisans that have had a confrontational experience with someone in the past year on a political subject. However, my very biased sample of hyper-partisans (family members) finds that every single one has experienced at least one heated and unproductive confrontation with someone in the past year on a political topic — often with someone they know through their social media activities.

The third step, therefore, is straightforward. Hyper-partisans need to reconnect with at least one person they’ve had a recent unproductive political or ideological confrontation.

Just reconnect. There doesn’t need to be a reconciliation on the disputed issue, but there does need to be some acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the opposing view. That’s all. “I heard what you said, and while I still disagree, I understand your point of view.”

Warning: In building bridges, do try to avoid condescension. People have an uncanny ability to know when they are being talked down to by someone else. Remember what we learned earlier: Everyone, including very highly-educated people, believe in some ideas that are just plain wrong. Nobody, regardless of education, is immune from false consciousness. Nobody. That includes YOU.

What if my argument was with a neo-Nazi white supremacist on genetic determinism?

A simple answer: Some bridges aren’t worth building. So, move on to a past confrontation over a more mainstream issue. Those issues can be nearly as contentious (abortion, Middle East conflicts, immigration, etc.) but those are the bridges we, as a society, need to build up again.

Step 4: Cleanse your media palate

My experience is that this step can be the most surprising and rewarding. For at least one week, stop using your typical news and information sources and, instead, rely exclusively on a small number of ostensibly non-partisan media outlets. So, if you are a hyper-partisan Democrat, do not turn off MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and watch “Fox and Friends.” That is too big of a leap at this stage. It runs the risk of increasing your ideological entrenchment.

Rather, choose a comparatively non-partisan news source.

Do they even exist? Even BBC America has a globalist, if not left-leaning bias, after all.

Actually, according to the media bias watchdog, allsides.com, the BBC is centrist. But there are also other non-ideological new services left in the world. As such, I have found these news services (in no particular order below) to be refreshing in their generally non-partisan, though often bland, presentation of U.S. news:

  • CCTV – the major state television broadcaster in mainland China provides a number of English-service news channels available through local cable and the internet. While I wouldn’t recommend CCTV for news on Chinese politics or U.S.-Chinese trade policy, their coverage of U.S politics and events unrelated to China is remarkably uncontaminated by ideological bias. CCTV is almost annoyingly non-partisan.
  • BBC World Service – the most popular international news service in the U.S. and for good reason — the BBC remains the gold standard for international news. Its news features often have an internationalist (globalist) perspective that could be viewed as biased towards Democrats/liberals, but on most stories covering the U.S., they avoid the overbearing partisan trappings found on mainstream U.S. cable networks (CNN, MSNBC, Fox News)
  • Al Jazeera – based in Qatar and created by former BBC staff, this may seem like a controversial choice as non-partisan news option, but this news service comes the closest to the BBC standard — and in some ways — surpasses the BBC. Their English-language service covers a wide range of U.S. news events and, with the exception of U.S. policy in the Middle East — mostly avoids anti-Trump and other tiresome, partisan rants.
  • i24news – based in Israel and available in English, French and Arabic, I recently stumbled upon i24news while searching for Middle East news. Though its only been available since February 2017, I was surprised at the quality, breadth and depth of this news services’ U.S coverage. Apart from its coverage of U.S. policy in the Middle East, particularly as it relates to Israel and the Palestinians, their other U.S. coverage was remarkably blunt and free of partisan politics. For an American hyper-partisan, this news service will not feel like MSNBC or Fox News. They are clearly trying to draw a line somewhere in between.
  • The Christian Science Monitor (CSM) is an international news organization that, in their words, “delivers thoughtful, global coverage via its website, weekly magazine, and daily news broadcasts. As a young journalist in the 1980s, I considered the CSM newspaper and its companion radio news service to be our nation’s closest equivalent of the BBC — much more so than National Public Radio (NPR). Economics have eroded the breadth and quality of CSM news coverage, but as an alternative to today’s mainstream news networks, they are still relatively non-partisan and objective.

Of course, someone is free to find their own non-partisan news services for this fourth step. The point of this step is simply to reacquaint hyper-partisans with what objective news coverage looks, sounds and feels like. After a week of going cold turkey on U.S-based news networks, a few hyper-partisans will even find it hard to go back. For some, this step will feel analogous to going from breathing Los Angeles’ air to breathing the air in Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains. CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News are polluted with former White House and partisan political operatives. They are not news services, they are partisan propaganda entities.  Hence, it is impossible to discern objective truth from partisan agendas on these networks. Impossible.

Step 5: Be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning

One of my former bosses had a sign above her office door that read: “Be humble, be teachable, and always keep learning.”

That is a good summary for Step 5.

Regardless of age or educational background, find an issue, preferably one that is new or with low visibility on the national policy stage, and do some deep-dive research on the topic, making sure all possible perspectives are considered.

After a week or two of intense study, share the knowledge with a wide range of people — but do not give a policy prescription. Instead, let others give their opinions and policy preferences. Anyone completing this step with an open-mind and heart may be surprised at the people with whom they share the most agreement.

The objective in this step is not to persuade someone to agree with your position on a subject. Quite the opposite, if done earnestly, this step will allow many hyper-partisans to experience what it is like to have their opinion formed or modified by someone else’s opinion.

Presently, persuasion is a lost art. Both political parties in this country openly reject persuasion as a tool of electioneering and governance. That is a sad outcome of our current political system.

This fifth step is based on class exercise I experienced during my first-year as political science graduate student. According to the professor, the exercise was designed to disabuse first-year students, who often come into political science graduate programs with strong partisan views, to understand the potential bias inherent in any objective analysis driven by partisan prejudices.

Partisanship kills objective analysis. If you are a partisan, you are not capable of doing meaningful journalistic or academic research.

Step 6: Share your partisan detoxification experience with others

This final step is the easiest. Having successfully completed the previous steps, now is the time to share that experience with others.

Perhaps it is a new favorite news channel or website you discovered in Step 4. Or share any new ideas or expertise gained from Step 5. Whatever is shared, it should be bring comfort to others knowing that living outside the partisan bubble is not disorienting or destructive to anyone’s self-esteem.

These six steps to partisan detoxification, moreover, are not intended to turn a hyper- or strong partisan into a centrist. That is not only hard to do, it is not the point here. The purpose of partisan detoxification is to expose and minimize, if not eliminate, the arrogance and intolerance that infects today’s political partisans.

Failing to fulfill this purpose on a national scale sentences us to a future defined by political stalemate.

And, no, Donald Trump did not cause the political stalemate we see today in Washington, D.C. Its roots likely go back to the Reagan administration, when Democrats, much like today, were in a constant tizzy over what would happen to this country with an B-movie actor for a president.

We prospered economically and defeated the Soviet Union, for those unacquainted with this period in American history.

Partisan detoxification does not forbid disagreements on policy. It does however admonish those who judge someone’s intelligence, or social background, or motives based merely on their policy views. Once we’ve gone down the hyper-partisanship path, we have entered a battle arena where acts of cooperation, compromise and consensus are signs of weakness and where cunning, inflexibility and conquest are the coins of the realm.

Today’s politics is like watching a badger fight a wolverine. Only one outcome is certain — one of them will die.

Winning and losing will always be apart of American politics. As Barack Obama liked to say, “elections have consequences.” Unfortunately for his administration, that view stunted any chance he had of securing a positive and lasting impact on American society. When your governing principle is, “We won.” The result becomes, “We all lose.”

Regardless of which side started today’s partisan gridlock, the future is not as bright if this political polarization continues.

There will be time when Americans will need both parties working together to solve a major problem in the country. In 2008, George W. Bush and the Republicans made the necessary compromises to ensure this country did not fall into an even deeper recession than necessary. The Obama administration, likewise, worked initially to reinforce the bipartisanship of late 2008.

Unfortunately, this bipartisanship died quickly and has been replaced by today’s toxic partisanship. Finding blame for this tribalism is fruitless. Instead, we need to move on and prepare ourselves and our government for the next existential crisis that may arise where we need both parties working together to solve a serious problem.

We know we can do better than what we see today in Washington, D.C. We just have to starting doing it…soon.


About the author:  Kent Kroeger is a writer and statistical consultant with over 30 -years experience measuring and analyzing public opinion for public and private sector clients. He also spent ten years working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness and the Defense Intelligence Agency. He holds a B.S. degree in Journalism/Political Science from The University of Iowa, and an M.A. in Quantitative Methods from Columbia University (New York, NY).  He lives in Ewing, New Jersey with his wife and son.