When I earned my Ph.D. in political science in 2013, I looked forward to engaging with young minds and creating intellectual challenges for them to look at the world in new ways.
I didn’t envision that seven years later, my students would be my seven-year-old twins. In first grade. In our suddenly too-small apartment. Like so many others, I’m juggling Zoom calls with addition and subtraction problems on an elementary school iPad; I’m reading books with my kids as I’m trying to write my own.
My newest book with Oxford University Press is called “A Change is Gonna Come: How to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America.” The thesis is pretty simple: we need to find a way to interact with other people — particularly those with whom we may disagree — if we’re going to have a functioning democracy. In practice, Americans have become poor communicators, falling into opinion silos and communication traps that make political discussions feel impossible.
My research and writing on American politics, public opinion, and attitude change has had more implications for my personal life more than I could have imagined. Deploying the strategies in my research to negotiate with cranky seven-year-olds has proved relatively successful — there’s a lot to be said for taking a deep breath and having a calm, rational conversation. These techniques are effective across different generations, too — like when I’m talking to my parents.
I grew up in a Republican household and was a political appointee for President George W. Bush. While I no longer identify as a Republican, I have two parents who are Trump voters. They’re in their 70s and like everyone else, I’m concerned about their well-being during the pandemic, particularly given that Gov. Kim Reynolds (R-IA) is not being as aggressive in the state’s response as other governors around the country. Iowa’s COVID-19 cases have grown higher than in neighboring, more populous states. Many believe that increase is because Iowa does not have a mandatory shelter-in-place policies. The governor says it is not necessary and my parents agree.
As a political scientist, I know about issue polarization and biased information processing; as a son, I know from where they’re getting their information. I’m also worried about their health.
When speaking with older people (possibly your own parents!) about how to stay safe, remember that a global pandemic invokes a lot of emotion: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, to name a few. Different emotions require different strategies and tactics. For example, anxiety can actually facilitate persuasion because it leads to a search for information and also a decrease in the salience of prior beliefs. Anger can be mitigated into more manageable emotions and a more open headspace if you take the time to build trust.
Arm yourself with well-known, reputable sources to counteract biased or motivated reasoning. Point people to data from Centers for Disease Control or a state health agency. Be empathetic, listen, and try to find a reasonably likely outcome. If your 75-year-old parents think they aren’t at risk for being exposed to the coronavirus when they’re at their Wednesday night bowling league with 15 friends, think of what you want to accomplish. Tell them about the health risks to people in their age bracket (from a reputable source) but also show them how to use FaceTime to have a virtual cocktail party with friends. You may not convince them about the dire threat you perceive but you can encourage them to consider new information and to change their behavior in ways that mitigate risk.
Contentious things can be hard to talk about. The old school taught us to avoid talking about uncomfortable things like politics and religion in polite company. The conventional wisdom, however, no longer applies. While we’ve hashed and re-hashed bitter political disagreements, we have paid less attention to concrete, actionable ways to better understand each other.
It may feel like it’s just too much to engage with someone, that the enormity of our “new normal” makes it feel impossible to make a difference. We need to find a way to talk to each other about American politics, however, even with those (and especially those) with whom we disagree.
This is not about civility, being nice, political correctness, kowtowing to others’ views, or agreeing to disagree. This isn’t a call for us to hold hands (virtually), to all sing “Imagine” (via Zoom), and to “come together” (whatever that means). Bridging divides takes genuine effort; some conversational forethought; a lot of patience; and the right mindset about what you can reasonably accomplish in a conversation. You won’t always be successful and you can’t control others’ attitudes. What you can control is how you interact with other people.
Even if person with whom you’re trying to speak is your child or your parent. And they’re throwing a tantrum.