Hearing the Other Side

I recently finished reading Diana Mutz’s excellent book, Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy.

Tracking people’s political action and political deliberation Mutz comes to a disconcerting conclusion: the two are not readily compatible. On the one hand:

In studies of mass behavior, partisans are typically the “good guys.” They are the ones who always score highest on political knowledge tests, who vote most frequently, volunteer their time and money for campaigns, and basically embody everything that social scientists say they want all citizens to be.

But these hyper-partisans are sorely lacking in other civic areas. Most notably, as Mutz documents, they are significantly less likely to have productive political conversations with people who have different opinions. Why would they, when they already know they are “right”?

The strength of a person’s partisanship may have direct implications for their ability to interact with those who are different. As Mutz explains:

A highly politicized mindset of “us” versus “them” is easy so long as we do not work with “them” and our kids do not play with their kids. But how do we maintain this same fervor and political drive against “them” when we carpool together?

This is the crux of her argument – that a person cannot simultaneously maintain a diverse political network and a robust social network. We each must choose: be political and talk to those who agree with us or be apolitical and interact with people of many views.

The challenge she raises is an important one, and, I agree, one that has generally been overlooked by political theorists and deliberative theorists alike. Reconciling these two types of “ideal citizens” is no small task, but it is not, I believe, an impossible goal.

Mutz sees it as a flaw that our political system asks citizens to be both advocates and thoughtful observers; but – I wonder if the flaw is that we set these traits up as opposites.

Our socialization tells us that in polite company we ought to avoid such contentious topics as politics. But is it really so hard to imagine that with well-developed social skills people could regularly have engaging conversations across difference?


I’m not sure that is so impossible as Mutz imagines.

Certainly, as social beings we are likely to avoid engaging in irreparable fights with our friends and family. And it may be easier to be apolitical in social settings, but it is far from required.

Perhaps this dilemma points to another debate about deliberation – ought it to end in consensus?

If you assume that political talk needs to end in agreement, then debate among partisans who are not of like mind becomes nearly impossible indeed. By definition, each partisan is entrenched in their own view and the requirement of consensus leaves little room for anything but persuasion.

But two partisans, fully embracing an “us” versus “them” mentality, are unlikely to agree.

Modern trends in deliberation shy away from this consensus requirement. While many still see this as the ideal outcome of deliberation, there are theorists and practitioners who equally embrace deliberation as a tool for building understanding, not agreement.

Here, then, the nature of partisan deliberation may become quite different. Rather than (fruitlessly) trying to change each other’s minds, partisans could use the opportunity to better understand each other and to sharpen their own thinking (without necessarily changing their own minds).

Such deliberation is certainly no small task, and it rubs against how we’ve been socialized and how we’ve self-segregated into like minded groups. But it is, I think, possible to be both a partisan and fully open to genuinely hearing the other side.


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