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If We Are Political Extremists, How Can We Make That Work?

07/08/2013 06:49 pm ET | Updated Sep 07, 2013


The following discussion results from a segment on HuffPost Live called The Psychology of Political Extremism hosted by Josh Zepps, in which I participated along with Howard Fineman (Huffington Post Media Editorial Director), Philip Fernbach (Assistant Professor of Marketing at the University of Colorado and Bethany Blankley (eeligion and politics analyst).

You might be like most people who probably consider themselves moderates. So, let's find out if you're actually closer to being a political extremist. Do you continually post comments and links on social media that promote only your position -- whether it's political, religious, racial, whatever -- and you criticize the opposite side without acknowledging any merit at all to their position?

Along with criticizing the other belief position from yours ("I hate Republicans/Democrats"), you may focus on protecting your own position by whatever means it takes; you may be untruthful, evading, telling part of the story when you know there is more. You can also be changing the subject when you're questioned, trying to turn their criticism back on to them, or just ignoring whatever their counter might be, even though you know it makes some sense. If so, then you may be a political extremist and there is a way to making this work for us all.

If, on the other hand, you convey and solicit complete, balanced opinions of current issues -- they can be family issues as well as "big" political ones -- you're one of the rare birds, probably more interested in solving problems than in campaigning for and maintaining your position, intact. You are courageous enough to acknowledge that both sides in most disagreements have elements of truth.

In America some politicians have, for all intents and purposes, dropped out of the fray by signing secret pledges not to vote on certain issues if they contain any reference to tax increases. And some politicians have vowed that, however much it hurts our country, they will obstruct President Obama's efforts so, of course, they have withdrawn from attempts to resolve issues.

This article is not for unwilling politicians or other individuals. It's for those who have opted to operate, at least to some degree, on principle to promote policies which are beneficial to all.

Each of us sees the world through the lens of our core paradigm -- our own unique set of values with which we identify -- and that paradigm determines how we react to and participate in the world around us. It is what makes us choose to identify as Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, and so on.

Adhering to only one fundamental value system without acknowledging acceptable aspects of an opposing system keeps us spinning our wheels. Combining the best aspects of both value systems, though, can be dynamite -- blasting us out of the status quo and into a future in which we Americans can still lead by example.

Coming to terms with sharply opposing viewpoints is neither easy nor quick but, for the good of us all, we must try. It takes patience and the strong will and determination to resolve our differences, and we can use a particular set of communication skills to facilitate the process.

The challenge lies in finding the way to maintain our core paradigm (identity, set of values by which we view the world) while functioning successfully as more centric Americans. Meeting this challenge certainly is possible for each side if we know how to do it and we're determined to keep striving for it, even when it seems we're making no progress.

It will help to understand why so many of us unyieldingly simplify, protect and defend our one-sided positions so fiercely, according to our core paradigm, which we may label as "liberal" or "conservative," exclusionary or inclusionary.

Philip Fernbach suggests that most unyielding people are operating under "the illusion of explanatory depth." This means, he says, that:

"A lot of people's attitudes and beliefs are based on people who have fairly strong opinions about complex policies but if you ask them to explain in a mechanistic way, 'so, what are the steps by which these policies will accomplish the goals that you want them to,' their sense of understanding decreases and they become more moderate."

Under questioning, we may find that we know much less about our position than we thought we did. And that, likely, is why we go to such measures to protect and defend it as we do.

Political issues are generally complex -- the economy, climate change, health care plan, etc.; the challenge for conscientious politicians and journalists is objectively condensing them into an interesting form that the ordinary person can understand. (Remember Joe SixPack and Phil the Plumber?)

To say, "I don't support gay marriage" is a value-based (religious) approach, to which not all Americans adhere. "Guns don't kill, people do" is another value-based statement that ignores the fact that people pull the triggers. Neither of those approaches goes far in completely describing or resolving the issues for the majority.

"Genuine political leaders will acknowledge the value aspect, then move it to a consequence position, which removes the emotions and transfers discussion to actual facts which participants can discuss calmly to find a mutually acceptable solution," says Howard Fineman. Doing so doesn't leave each paradigm totally intact, of course, but it does keep the best, highest forms of them both, and that's a win-win solution.

Like most of America, probably, my family and friends are polarized politically. For a long time, I oversimplified by mentally labeling us as "inclusionary/exclusionary, greedy/altruistic, racially prejudiced/racially open-minded." I fell for the "illusion of explanatory depth," but I see now that the positions are not as cut-and-dried as we might, at first, believe.

Now, because I'm looking for them, I'm beginning to see excellent applications for my beliefs from the Republican side along with my Democratic ones.

My staunchly Republican cousin recently presided over his daughter's marriage, beautifully combining both conservative and liberal paradigms. The couple chose to make the occasion a principle-based rather than a materially based event.

Rather than going into debt by putting on a show of ostentation, they had a simple country wedding in which they solicited numerous family members and friends to assist in making decorations and food. They became participants rather than merely observers. For guest favors in the symbol-laden celebration, the bride's mother baked approximately 200 loaves of bread, beginning in February, for the wedding in May.

Anyway, when I applied the concept of that style of wedding to the GOP concept of fiscal responsibility, along with my Democratic belief in inclusion, I could understand the GOP's position; my cousins did as much as they could themselves, thereby avoiding debt. They put on an inclusionary celebration on their terms. I can certainly relate to that!

So, how do we find other ways to actually accomplish the seemingly impossible task of finding centrist solutions that allow each side to maintain their core paradigm both at home and in Congress?

For starters, in our discussions we can remember President John F. Kennedy's admonition, "Remember, those are people on the other side."

With that in mind, we ask the person with opposing beliefs to explain the reasons for their position in as much detail as possible, and we listen carefully without countering, looking them in the eye the whole time. Not only do we allow them to finish, we ask questions to make sure we understand exactly where they're coming from. As we do all that, we constantly look for elements that coincide with our position, making mental note of them.

Then, we repeat the whole position back to them, asking if we got it right from their perspective. Once they agree that we do understand, they know we "get" them. We have validated their position without necessarily agreeing with it.

This is a huge element in having them, then, willing to listen to our position, and the process is reversed.

For both sides, in describing our views, we eliminate adjectives, labels and name-calling, keeping to the bare facts. This brings attention to the issues themselves without the element of prejudicial heat.

After both sides successfully validate each other, it is possible to move to discussing the issues themselves, and options for resolution, by bringing up mutually agreed-on points; the issues have then become centrist (consequence-based) so resolutions can be found that, while not 100 percent satisfactory for both sides, have enough elements from each to justify the conclusion.

And, thus, we can all become problem solvers keeping our core paradigms, while doing our part to restore our position as First-Rate Americans because the process begins at home and should permeate every strata of our society.

We can do it; let's go!