Second in a series exploring ways to embrace the nuance and complexity of contentious issues. See the first installment here

MUCH OF OUR public discourse in political campaigns, legislatures, and the media is increasingly shaped by a pattern of engagement and argumentation that privileges controversy, relies on facts and figures without validation or context, and glosses over critical details, ambiguities and trade-offs. As a result, important issues of public policy are oversimplified or distorted, leading to dysfunctional decision-making and dangerous divisiveness. 

As evidence of this growing polarization, Roll Call has calculated that over 83 percent of votes in the US Senate broke along party lines last year, an all-time record. Equally important, regular voters increasingly view members of the opposite party as immoral or dishonest, according to a recent poll by the Pew Research Center.

This state of affairs is not entirely new, but it has reached a scale and intensity that seems unprecedented in modern times. There are clearly deep and real ideological fissures that drive much of today’s conflict, but the tone and practice of dialogue and reporting often create a vicious cycle that enables voices on the left and right edges of the political spectrum to control the narrative, crowding out and shrinking the pragmatic center and making amicable decision-making difficult or impossible. Making matters worse is the fragmented media environment, with its 24/7 cable news networks and ubiquitous social media platforms, which fuels the fire, making any effort to rein in or uplift the public discourse challenging, at best. 

Notwithstanding the degree of difficulty, there is reason to hope that there is demand among voters and media consumers for better behavior. The steadily shrinking share of voters who are registered in either major party is one indicator of a deep frustration with the status quo, as is a recent survey conducted by AP and the University of Chicago, which found that close to three-quarters of Americans believe that the news media are making polarization worse, with “stories that mostly create conflict rather than help address it.”

So, what are some of the common practices that undermine a healthy public discourse and what are useful alternatives for a more rational, productive and substantive dialogue that might ultimately yield better policies and more progress?

Expecting ideological purity vs. embracing politics as the art of the possible

“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” said Concord’s own Ralph Waldo Emerson. In order to live together in a diverse society and especially to engage in the messy business of democratic governance, one must accept the fact that you can’t always live up to your principles or impose them on others. Trying to do so, especially through force of law, is a sure path to marginalization, paralysis, or tyranny. Nevertheless, both political parties seem intent on keeping internal dissent to a minimum, with the most extreme members having the upper hand by their eagerness to publicly shame those who deviate from their dogma, while mobilizing activists to recruit primary challengers.

The era of big-tent political parties whose raison d’etre was to win elections seems to have been consigned to the dustbin of history. For a variety of reasons, the parties are content to lose elections and live with divided government or minority status, if necessary.  

If deviation from the dominant ideology is unacceptable among friends, compromise with the other side of the aisle is considered beyond the pale, if not immoral. The only thing that can occasionally and temporarily bridge the divide is a mutual self-interest in reelection through fiscal largesse (spending, tax cuts, or both).

Perhaps the only hope of getting beyond this moment in political history is the continuing decline in partisan registration, which today sits at around 25 percent of the electorate enrolled in each major party (or less than 18 percent of the total voting age population). At some point, you can’t plausibly claim to have a national platform or mandate when you represent such a small minority of the people. 

In the meantime, voters and the media need to recognize and reward politicians who are capable of delivering results, while reducing screen time and column inches for those who see themselves primarily as crusaders or celebrities, no matter how entertaining they may be.  

Equally important, public officials need to be accountable for not just standing by their principles, but for understanding and explaining the practical impact of their ideologically informed actions on real people. Bill Clinton’s campaign strategist, Jim Carville, is famous for saying “it’s the economy, stupid.” A better dictum might be “it’s the people, stupid.”

Demanding solidarity vs. judging issues independently on their merits

As important as toeing the ideological line has become, loyalty to the team may be a higher priority in our evenly divided polity, even if it requires ideological incoherence. 

Back in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan pronounced his 11th commandment: “Thou shalt not speak ill of another Republican.” Today, both parties have become orthodox believers in his creed, with an important corollary: “Thou shalt not speak well of anyone in the other party.” When applied to public policy, this translates into: “if they’re for it, we’re against it” – even if we were for it when our party was in power.

This mindless reflex, whereby any action from one side requires an equal and opposite reaction from the other (usually within the same news cycle), is not only tiresome, it makes any thoughtful or independent consideration of serious policy alternatives impossible. Politicians and advocates need to be forced off their scripted talking points into an evidence-based conversation about their own views on both the pros and cons of specific proposals, placing the focus where it should be – on what’s being proposed, not who’s proposing it.

Seeing everything as a slippery slope to extremism vs. distinguishing between incremental steps and real inflection points

Exaggeration and scare tactics are the coin of the realm in politics and the media. It seems like the only way you can get noticed is to declare a crisis that requires immediate attention or to run a screaming banner at the bottom of the screen every five minutes calling out the next “BREAKING NEWS” story. Similarly, every political opponent stands accused of having a secret agenda to subvert democracy, take away our freedoms, or even sacrifice innocent lives, such that any new proposal, no matter how modest, must be crushed in its crib before it can grow up into an existential threat.

Sometimes, there really are Trojan horses that look innocent enough at first glance but are capable of doing great damage when put into effect or taken to scale. More often than not, though, incremental changes are just that, incremental. This is not to say that a small change can’t lead to large effects, like the straw that breaks the camel’s back, and there is surely risk in giving an inch only to lose a mile. But if everything is seen as a life-or-death decision, nothing will get done. 

In evaluating policy ideas, proponents should be clear about intended and expected long-term impact, potential side-effects, and unintended consequences, along with the criteria and process that will be used to evaluate success or failure before any next steps are proposed. By doing so, it might be possible to erect some defensible barriers to prematurely or unintentionally slipping all the way to the bottom of the slide.

Cherry-picking statistics to prove a point vs. using data to clarify issues and inform deliberation

Kellyanne Conway, then senior counselor to President Donald Trump, famously said that White House press secretary Sean Spicer was using “alternative facts” to estimate the size of the crowd at the 2017 inauguration. Although she wasn’t just being selective in choosing her facts, but was transparently and cynically attempting to provide a fig leaf to cover her colleague’s exaggerations, Conway put her finger on something important: There’s a lot of data out there to choose from and much of it is unreliable or contradictory.  

In such an environment, who’s to say which numbers are true and which are false? As a result, much of the public tends to believe the “facts” that are presented by the people or media outlets they trust and dismiss those from the people they don’t—while everyone else recites some version of Mark Twain’s quip: There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.

The problem is that data and research have become weapons of choice for political warfare. All sides have their favorite sources to confirm their biases and pre-existing positions. And while some of these researchers (and reporters or media personalities) are themselves advocates who make the facts fit their conclusions, more often they are looking at different parts of an issue from different perspectives, resulting in data that are like apples and oranges, similar, but ultimately not comparable.  

Compounding the problem is that advocates and reporters often select just one factoid from a larger study or take one narrow snapshot of a much bigger or longer-term data set, in order to provide some semblance of rigor to their favored narrative.

The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York (and Cambridge) said, “you are entitled to your own opinions, but you are not entitled to your own facts.” Unfortunately, it’s naïve to think we can all agree on a common set of facts, but maybe we can raise our standards for what qualifies as a fact worthy of serious consideration. 

In particular, we as citizens and the media as watchdogs should make sure politicians and advocates cite their sources and provide relevant caveats and context to the data they use. The media must hold itself to the same standard (perhaps through the revival of internal ombudsmen), with help from all of us users and consumers.

In the coming weeks, I will address a variety of controversial national and local issues, focusing on specific policy proposals that are under active consideration. For each topic, I will provide some background and context, along with the most relevant and reliable data I can find, followed by what I believe to be the most reasonable and evidence-based opposing arguments. 

Each issue brief in the series will conclude with some reflections on the most substantive and intractable points of disagreement, along with possible avenues for finding common ground (or higher ground) to help facilitate a rational and civil dialogue, ideally leading to agreement or at least understanding, if not in the halls of power, then maybe just around the dinner table. 

Jim Peyser served most recently as Massachusetts secretary of education under Gov. Charlie Baker.