Rebuilding respect

By William McKenzie

Two friends – one Democrat and one Republican – offer strategies for bringing Americans back together. 

Ed Goeas and Celinda Lake, A Question of Respect: Bringing Us Together in a Deeply Divided Nation. Morgan James Publishing, November 2023, 191 pp.

The rising number of Americans intent on restoring trust and civility in our national discourse further proves the theorem that for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. Two pollsters, Celinda Lake and Ed Goeas, are the latest to join the movement. This odd couple – Lake is a Democrat and Goeas a Republican – wrote A Question of Respect to explain how the United States got into its current distemper and how it can be resolved. The last word in their title is the one the authors consider the most essential. “We were not writing a book on civility; we were writing about respect,” Goeas explains in his part of the introduction. “Respect is the essential core that informs how we interact with one another in all areas of life. Without respect, on a political or personal level, there is no possibility of coming together in meaningful, positive, healing ways – which we and the country desperately need.” 

The authors exemplify this respect personally through their own friendship, which grew out of a conference both attended in Hungary in the fall of 1990. Their backgrounds helped the relationship grow from there. Goeas, the Republican, grew up in a Democratic family. Lake, the Democrat, was raised in a Republican family. For the last 30 years, they jointly have conducted the Battleground Poll that surveys voters’ attitudes on topical political issues, such as their views about Congress. The Georgetown University Institute of Politics and Public Service now sponsors their poll, and Goeas and Lake offer their respective interpretations on each survey’s results. In 2019, in partnership with the same institution, they also jointly launched a civility poll. 

Direct exposure to the United States’ divisions through their work on these polls prompted Goeas and Lake to co-author this insightful, easy-to-read book. In their diagnosis of the current problem, one compelling statistic they discuss comes from the American National Election Studies Trust in Government Survey. The organization’s index has shown a decline in trust in government since the height of Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, ratcheting downward from a score of 47 out of a possible 100 points to 16.8 points in 2020.  

A more recent survey confirms Americans’ growing mistrust of their institutions: A New York Times/Siena College poll in July found that a majority of Americans believe their system of government does not work. As these and other data points Goeas and Lake highlight make painfully clear, the United States badly needs smart solutions. To their credit, they spend much of their book discussing them.

Play to Americans seeking solutions

These days, it may often seem like the United States is awash in pessimism and cynicism. In some cases, those isms have grown into contempt for people on the other side of the aisle. The book, however, points out that a range of individuals and organizations are working hard to restore Americans’ respect for one another. Among the groups the authors cite are Unite America and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Local Voices Network. The former is a cross-partisan organization that works on issues like protecting elections, overturning gerrymandering, and reforming electoral systems – all to create a more representative, functional government. The latter provides moderated online community discussions to help neighbors interact with those who hold different views. The MIT network also hosts in-person community discussions. In both cases, the purpose is to create opportunities for people to listen, speak, and be heard. Goeas and Lake term MIT’s network the “humanization of political discourse.” 

Elected officials will not naturally practice pluralism; they need incentives to do so.

My Bush Institute colleague Chris Walsh and I are engaged in a similar project we call “The Pluralism Challenge.” Through the program, we highlight individuals and organizations that promote tolerance for those with different backgrounds, views, or beliefs and provide a safe place to express or practice those beliefs. We also identify factors that help pluralism take root.  

One thing that stands out from our research is that elected officials will not naturally practice pluralism; they need incentives to do so. The strongest incentive, of course, is winning votes. You might think that one of the best ways to win the most votes would be to campaign to a wider, more moderate voter base. Yet that strategy largely has been abandoned today, due to politicians’ fear of losing their next party primary – elections in which only a small minority of voters, but typically the most extreme ones, take part.  

Here, too, a number of people and groups are working to address this problem. David Holt, a Republican now in his second term as the mayor of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, recommends a two-round election system. The two-round system puts the top two vote-getters of the initial round in a second-round runoff (if no contender wins a majority in the initial round). The winner of the second-round runoff is then elected. In addition to Oklahoma City, cities like Dallas, Texas, and states like California use this format or a variation of it. The benefit of this system is that it allows candidates to run at large without party affiliation. Holt argues that this arrangement forces candidates to appeal to a wide swath of voters, and his experience backs him up. He cites the system as instrumental in helping Oklahoma City voters pass the fourth installment of the city’s $1.1 billion Metropolitan Area Projects (MAPS) initiative in 2019. The projects ranged from mental health services to a civil rights center to economic development and stadiums.   

This two-round election system and others like it require politicians to promote pluralist policies and grant the winner a mandate to provide solutions with broad appeal. According to Lake and Goeas, the system reaches voters who care less about partisan ideology and more about solving their community’s problems. Lake and Goeas dub these people “solution voters.” They cite the Battleground Poll to support their claim that Americans are more practical than ideological. That important point should guide leaders to focus more on compromise issues like repairing our physical and technological infrastructure than on stand-your-ground issues like abortion. The former are more practical in nature, focusing on problems like which bridges or highways need repairing in a community or state. The latter are usually moral issues that are informed by a voter’s most deeply held values. Those indeed are important matters, but they’re much harder to resolve and lead to more partisan bitterness. Focusing instead on compromise issues would both fix the pressing problems of a given community and lower partisan tensions through cross-party collaboration.  

Look to women and students

Many of the leaders that Goeas and Lake cite in their discussion of solutions happen to be women and young adults. That’s no accident. Lake at one point describes how, in 2013, Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire worked with Democratic Sens. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Patty Murray of Washington to break an impasse over the federal budget that threatened to shut down the government. Lake writes that these women succeeded where their male colleagues failed because they shared the experience of overcoming gender barriers. “They also spent time together and knew each other … as people,” she writes. That’s because, along with other female senators, they had long held regular potluck dinners and met one another’s families. As Lake notes, such dinners alone will not resuscitate American democracy. But casual interactions are important, since they provide leaders and citizens a chance to interact with people who hold different views – something Lake calls “deliberative democracy.”

The authors also detail a generational shift. They cite a 2022 Battleground Poll where 58% of respondents said that “young people are the best hope for the future.” According to the pollsters, young respondents overwhelmingly affirmed that belief. Intrigued by this finding, Lake and Goeas convened a focus group of 10 Georgetown students and seven young, non-college educated adults from across the United States. The participants emphasized that respect must be earned every day and contended that their generation could fix our broken political system through respect, shared understanding, and listening. “Not to put the blame on older generations,” one young woman told the authors, “but it almost feels like they’re shifting the burden of the responsibilities to make a change on us. But it also gives me a sense of urgency because I think pretty much every young person that I know wants to make a change.” 

One survey doesn’t provide conclusive evidence, but other young Americans clearly share this sentiment, as is demonstrated by the growth of trust-building efforts like BridgeUSA, a national student organization that trains young Americans to engage in healthy conflict – that is, to disagree respectfully.  

Building trust in the media

In describing today’s media, Goeas and Lake rightly include both traditional news organizations (TV, radio, print) and social media (Facebook, X, Instagram, et al.). When it comes to TV, Goeas and Lake make the important point that cable networks adeptly cover news stories on topics that yield predictable partisan reactions. The authors go further and write that “cable news has become a toxic, polarizing format” and reflects how “outlets use negativity to generate clicks and eyeballs, which translates to dollars.” By narrowcasting their stories that confirm their viewers’ biases, the pollsters argue, the cable news networks define issues such as immigration or the war in Ukraine in partisan ways and harden partisanship. The solution, Goeas and Lake argue, would be for networks to focus more on facts and news reports that are aimed at all Americans, not just those of a particular political stripe. Reporting on all sides of a story is hard work, but shoe-leather journalism counters the silo effect of Americans hearing only one side of a topic.  

Of course, the financial model rewards the current system, so change is going to have to come from us as consumers. If we vote with our feet and turn away from toxic television, we can start to create an incentive for cable stations to provide something other than today’s polarizing reporting and formats.  

Social media presents different problems. Numerous Battleground Polls show that Americans see social media as a contributing factor to the larger decline in respect for other views. A good way to start fixing this would be for the platforms to become more transparent about how they moderate content and customize information for personal consumption. And, the authors argue, consumers should stop and look at the source of the information they find on social media feeds before accepting it as the truth and reposting it.  

Playing to solution voters, looking to women and young adults for leadership, and building trust in the media alone will not lead to greater respect. Yet they are some of the strategies our nation needs to move past the mounting rage that characterizes contemporary politics. A Question of Respect doesn’t provide all the answers, but it shows us the path to a less polarized atmosphere by emphasizing the fundamental role of listening to and honoring the views of others. 

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