Active Citizenship means thinking with your brain, not your party affiliation
A 2013 poll commissioned by the Bipartisan Policy Center and USA Today posed the following question: “To improve education, Democrats have proposed reducing class sizes in our schools and making sure teachers teach the basics, and Republicans have proposed increasing teacher pay while making it easier to fire bad teachers.” Seventy-five percent of Democrats agreed with the Democratic proposal, compared to only 13 percent of Republicans. But when the same proposal to reduce class size and emphasize the basics was described as a Republican initiative, the tables turned: only 12 percent of Democrats supported it, compared to 70 percent of Republicans. The poll found similar results with the proposal to increase teacher pay and fire bad teachers. Most poll respondents supported only the proposal attributed to their own party.
The power of suggestion carries over to voting patterns as well. Although most voters are loyal Democrats or Republicans, their policy views are not as consistent as their voting records. Even the most loyal Democrats and Republicans are likely to disagree with their parties on one third of the issues outlined in their party platforms, but they still support their party’s candidates on Election Day.
We live increasingly in segregated echo chambers. But active participation in the democratic process requires more than thinking and voting along party lines. It requires that we hold ourselves to the same standards that we would hold our leaders: we must do what our intelligence and conscience require of us, rather than allowing ourselves to be polarized by self-serving political clubs.
Each of us has the right to participate in the democratic process by voting, advocating for causes we believe in, volunteering in political campaigns, and running for office ourselves. These freedoms, however, come with the responsibility to stay informed of the issues affecting our communities and our nation. We live in an age of information and big data, but staying truly informed – looking at an issue from different sides, and considering multiple points of view before making a decision – requires more time and effort than many people today are willing to give.
Ironically, today’s network of instantaneous, around-the-clock news coverage makes the forces of polarization stronger than ever. We might expect that more active news coverage would help bring people together by promoting more accuracy and shedding more light on the issues. Instead, incessant media coverage runs every issue through a prism, separating facts and analysis into different streams of data targeted at different types of news consumers. Consumers, in turn, gravitate to the media outlets that reinforce, rather than challenge, the views they already hold.
To sharpen the way we think about our politics, where should we start? Here are a few ideas, which we’ll discuss in more detail in the coming weeks:
- Seek out information from a variety of credible sources, including reputable news organizations and the websites of state and federal agencies.
- Listen to a variety of different opinions, including opinions opposed to your own.
- Throw away the postcards you receive from political candidates, and closely read the content on their websites instead.
- Confirm the accuracy of statements made by candidates, elected officials, and others in public office on fact-checking websites like politifact.com and factcheck.org.
This article appeared in the June 1, 2019 issue of Wide Angle, our regular newsletter designed, we hope, to inform rather than inflame. Each edition brings you original articles by Common Ground Solutions, a quiz, and a round-up of news items — from across the political spectrum — that we think are worth reading. We make a special effort to cover good work being done to bridge political divides, and to offer constructive information on ways our readers can engage in the political process and make a difference on issues that matter to them.
Sign up below to receive future issues.