My name is Ben, and I’m a partisan. You could go so far as to call me an addict.
I’ve been ‘using’ for years—inhaling my self-selected and exclusively progressive Facebook newsfeed and injecting my narrow perspective into the debate.
My addiction has numbed me to the complexity of many critical policy issues: At times, I’ve deluded myself that diplomacy can resolve all international conflict and tax loopholes for billionaires’ yachts are the significant source of our fiscal woes.
I increasingly view anyone who is not part of my consensus cluster as actual opponents—clear and present dangers to the US. I believe they have sowed fear and hatred to drive support for an agenda which puts corporate America’s interests before the working-class, while undermining social progress.
I know I’m not alone in my addiction. According to the Pew Research Center, partisans now view the other party more unfavorably than ever on record and principally blame them for policies which harm the country. The antipathy intensifies with more political engagement.
When Trump voters were asked to compare pictures of Obama and Trump inauguration crowd sizes, I joined my fellow progressives in laughing at how easily they rejected fact. I know my partisan identity pushes me towards the petty—I feel a rush of dopamine when I see a friend’s post of Trump with microscopic hands.
My partisanship feels so good, but have I too quickly rejected differing viewpoints, leaving little room for nuanced policy debate? Has my focus on short-term political wins at the expense of long-term achievements solidified our battle lines? Has the resulting intransigence and gridlock undermined most Americans’ faith in our legislative institutions? Has this lack of faith led them to throw up their hands and do the unthinkable? Even if I begin to strip away my partisanship, I wonder if I am capable of recognizing leadership that does not come from my expected source? If I see it, am I willing to call it out, to name it, for fear of the response from fellow addicts?
I’m not sure.
But Republican Senators Collins, Murkowski and McCain recently voting against the GOP’s “skinny” ACA repeal bill served as a case in point about the power of moving us beyond strictly partisan thinking towards thoughtful policy debate.
As a result, I’m joining this five-step program to help wean myself off a powerful hallucinogen which has clouded my perception of reality. While structural drivers of hyper-partisanship require reform —including campaign finance and redistricting — my hope is that these small, simple steps will make me a more honest, thoughtful participant in our democracy’s future. And I can begin today.
Step 1: Burst my news bubble. We are narrowing our exposure to diverse viewpoints based on our “self-selected networks” and due to social media algorithms curating news posts based on our preferences and clicks. Each time I click “You Won’t Believe Paul Ryan Just Said This!” or “Shocking New Trump Executive Order,” I become more and more likely to be fed more of the same, and then I’m off, chasing the dragon of similar sounding stories all designed to further inflame my self-righteousness.
Completely bursting the bubble is impossible, but I can take steps to inject thoughtful conservative insight into my media diet: regularly listening to Hugh Hewitt’s “Townhall Review” podcast, signing-up for the American Enterprise Institute’s email blasts, and reading the Wall Street Journal’s editorials, to name a few. Scrolling through my page now feels a little less comfortable, which is exactly what I need.
Step 2: Applaud leadership regardless of party. My view of political leadership shouldn’t be confined exclusively to towing the Democratic party line. Some elected officials are standing up to their own party and reaching across the aisle to advance thoughtful policy solutions.
Our partisan news bubbles largely insulate us from these efforts, and turning our back on them may reinforce the hyper-partisan climate undermining our democracy. For example, some of the U.S. Senate’s most conservative and liberal members recently collaborated on wildlife conservation efforts, something my regular news sources failed to report. To break our partisan addiction, we need to proactively increase our exposure to these bipartisan efforts.
One idea is for progressive participants to select a Republican “sponsor” (and vice versa). The “sponsor” should be someone who has demonstrated leadership by standing up to leaders within their own party or by working across the aisle on issues important to the addict. Following the sponsor’s activities serves as a gateway into a different perspective on the political process.
Senator Lindsay Graham is my “sponsor.” Yes, I staunchly disagree with his positions on a myriad of issues, but his vocal opposition to Trump during the primary and criticism of the administration demonstrated leadership – something we need more of in Washington. For example, he recently announced plans to introduce legislation with Democrats intended to prevent a president’s firing of a special counsel without judicial review – a strong warning to President Trump. I applauded this act of leadership throughout my networks and I worried about the response from some of my fellow partisans. It was uncomfortable, but at least we’re talking about Senator’s Graham’s actions.
Step 3: Cultivate curiosity for nuance. As a hyper-partisan, I have an opinion on every issue. Through years of using, I’ve been conditioned to reflexively relay the party line when confronted by a Republican on a hot topic. Whatever the issue, I have the answer—or at least I think I do, which is part of the problem.
Cognitive scientists Philip Fernbach and Steven Sloman in their New York Times Op-Ed suggest that ignorance is our natural state. We rely heavily on shared, community knowledge to formulate our opinions, which can be highly-problematic, especially if we are in our partisan “bubbles.”
To illustrate the challenge, Fernbach and Sloman note the left’s outcry to President Trump’s relaxing of regulations on dumping of mining waste in waterways. We were confidently opposed to Trump’s mining waste action, but know little about the actual effects of mining waste on waterways or the consequences of the regulation on natural resource industries.
And that’s the frustration with so many policy debates: lack of nuance. We addicts too quickly reject it in order to have an opinion on everything, regardless of whether or not we really understand the nuances. We trust our fellow partisans have done the thoughtful analysis, but their incentives are not to investigate and present me with raw facts and both sides of an argument. They want me doped up on talking points in order to maintain another wedge issue – locking me into a vicious cycle that crushes my curiosity while embellishing my conviction.
Therefore, in order to invite productive discussions with those whose views differ from my own, this step in the program requires I, as a partisan, do something unthinkable: acknowledge that I don’t know. Should the minimum wage be raised to $15 an hour in Casper, Wyoming?
“I don’t know… but I want to learn more.”
Step 4: Broaden exposure to include local policy efforts. While the federal government is mired in gridlock, city officials across the country are working collaboratively to solve some of our most pressing challenges. While both President Trump and Senate Democrat’s infrastructure proposals languish, city officials have successfully advanced efforts for significant infrastructure investments in St. Louis, Atlanta, and Los Angeles.
And at an even more basic level, city officials—regardless of party or the hot-button issue of the day—recognize that trash has to be collected and streets need to be cleaned. To varying degrees of success, they work across the aisle and across state and federal levels of government to get it done.
To increase my exposure to these efforts, I regularly read the Metro section of my local newspaper, signed up for City Council press releases and event announcements for my Council District member, and once a week peruse the legislative calendar. These efforts further “Burst my Bubble” and provide me with new, often overlooked opportunities to meaningfully engage and have an impact.
Step 5: Serve the community. Our partisanship is often fostered and exacerbated in environments with limited exposure to people and communities of different backgrounds, experiences and values.
Fortunately, community and national service provide an incredible opportunity to bridge these divides and foster a more empathetic, constructive political dialogue. For this reason, the Bipartisan Policy Center identified expanded opportunities for public service as critical to strengthening our democracy, and General Stanly McChrystal and the Franklin Project Leadership Council are working to support universal access to national service.
Ideally, the individual chooses to serve a community unlike their own. For some, this might be providing meal service at a church different than their own, while for others it could be joining AmeriCorps.
At the end of the day, the onus is on me to make a change and break the cycle of addition. I want partisans from both sides to know that I support you too. Reach out if you need help. We can follow the steps together.
Unlike with other addictions, my family and friends may not recognize that I’m an addict. After all, they too are heavy users.
This isn’t to say I will, or need to, change my underlying beliefs and values about the world and what’s important. I will continue to fight to improve economic opportunity for all, ensure healthcare is a universal right, and protect the environment against competing business interests.
But by taking these steps to break my partisan addiction, I can also contribute to more thoughtful, fair, and nuanced policy debates—our best hope to move past the gridlock and achieve what really matters: making our incredible country even greater.