What Democrats and Republicans Get Wrong (About Each Other)

I’ve been telling friends and colleagues that, now at age 46, I don’t want to give up a year of my life, but I would be happy to live 2019 twice if I could skip 2020 altogether. I first began writing Strong Towns in November 2008 right after an election season that I found insane, one where seemingly every issue I felt was important was rejected, ridiculed, or opposed by the major candidates. As frustrating as that was, it all looks so quaint now.

It’s astounding how many friends I’ve lost over politics, and I don’t even engage all that much anymore. After the 2016 election, a number of people who assumed I voted for Trump (I didn’t) stopped talking to me. That was a few weeks after an old Army buddy unfriended me on Facebook for “being too liberal.” We’ve had people quit being members of Strong Towns because we’re too conservative, too liberal, and because we are not political enough. This past weekend, someone on Twitter contended that my Pre-Election Thoughts post from 2016 was a defense of Trump (not even close, but I invite you to read it yourself). Whenever a major election approaches, I watch the discourse online get crazier. I anticipate that, in the coming year, we might reach new levels of crazy.

This weekend, the Atlantic published an article headlined Republicans Don’t Understand Democrats – and Democrats Don’t Understand Republicans. If this were the core insight, tell me something I don’t know, but I found the underlying study—The Perception Gap—to be utterly fascinating. And a bit depressing.

We all understand that fear of the other is a powerful motivating factor. From the Atlantic:

Although most liberals feel conflicted about the Democratic Party, they really hate the Republican Party. And even though most conservatives feel conflicted about the Republican Party, they really hate the Democratic Party.

The study revealed just how bad the misperception of the other is. In a series of questions, partisan voters are asked to guess what percentage of the other party believes certain statements. The gaps are huge. For examples, Republicans believe that 70% of Democrats support open borders (it’s about 40%) while Democrats believe that a little more than 50% of Republicans think “properly controlled immigration can be good for America” when about 85% of Republicans actually indicated support.

Essentially, the other isn’t as evil as we think. I know this, yet I took the test myself (you can too) and my own results disappointed. For the sake of the test, I identified as a Republican (I’m really not these days) thinking I would not have much perception gap with Democrats at all. Wrong! My gap was 22%, better than the 27% for a typical Republican but not as good as the 20% for self-identified Independents. The identified perception gap that a typical Democrat has with Republicans is 19% in this study.

I’m almost done with Jared Diamond’s latest book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. When talking about the United States, he brings up poor voter turnout (apathy) and voter suppression as major problems threatening American democracy. He makes a compelling case—and I’m not going to disagree with him—but the Perception Gap study suggests that the less informed someone is, the less motivated by fear of the other they are and, paradoxically, the better they are at perceiving the beliefs of others. From the Atlantic:

Americans who rarely or never follow the news are surprisingly good at estimating the views of people with whom they disagree. On average, they misjudge the preferences of political adversaries by less than 10 percent. Those who follow the news most of the time, by contrast, are terrible at understanding their adversaries. On average, they believe that the share of their political adversaries who endorse extreme views is about 30 percent higher than it is in reality.

It's one thing to have the media warp our views—don’t we all believe that is what is happening to those on the other side?—but this study suggests that we’re all guilty. And the most astounding thing is that our perception becomes worse as we become more educated. The antidote to a lack of understanding should be education, but that’s not so, especially for Democrats. From the study:

The more educated a person is, the worse their Perception Gap – with one critical exception. This trend only holds true for Democrats, not Republicans. In other words, while Republicans’ misperceptions of Democrats do not improve with higher levels of education, Democrats’ understanding of Republicans actually gets worse with every additional degree they earn. This effect is so strong that Democrats without a high school diploma are three times more accurate than those with a postgraduate degree.

What? That just seems wrong. Learning more should help this situation, right? But digging a little deeper shows how this isn’t a matter of knowledge. In fact, the problem is that knowledge can’t overcome the power of social connections. From the study:

Why do Democrats, as they become more educated, have a wider Perception Gap? The evidence suggests that it’s likely because they have fewer Republican friends. Highly educated Democrats are the most likely to say that “most of my friends” share their political beliefs. The same is not true of Republicans – more educated Republicans report having about as many Democrat friends as less educated Republicans. And Democrats whose friends are similar to them politically have a significantly wider Perception Gap than those with more political diversity in their friendship groups.

Given this very Kahneman-esque revelation, what do we do now? If we can’t trust our own perceptions, and getting more informed or educated makes it worse, what will get us out of this mess?

Last week, there was uproar on the political right over Harvard rescinding its acceptance of Parkland survivor—and pro-second amendment advocate—Kyle Kashuv after it was revealed that he used racially inflammatory language in a shared document when he was 16. I’ve lectured at Harvard and appreciated the opportunity, but my conservative inclinations—reinforced by certain parts of my news feed—made me skeptical of Harvard and reflexively somewhat sympathetic to Kashuv.

Some of you are aware that I’ve tweaked my Twitter feed to give me a good percentage of voices that challenge my thinking. One of my favorite is Thomas Chatterton Williams, whose book Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd will be on my best of reading list at the end of the year. As my thoughts on Kashuv were forming, I came across a series of Tweets from Williams. Let me just say that hearing from someone outside of my bubble—someone I respect— and then pondering what he said, gave me some shame for my initial reaction. I now believe Harvard got it right.

In the last chapter in my upcoming book, Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, I look at the impact that our development pattern has had on our discourse. The reality is that, without intentionally seeking out alternative frames of reference, most of us live in what moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt has described as “lifestyle enclaves,” neighborhoods of people who have incomes, lifestyles, and values similar to our own. In other words, I would never hear the views of a Thomas Chatterton Williams—or anyone with a substantially different life experience—through my day-to-day living. Without hearing opposing viewpoints presented authentically by people we know and respect, those beliefs are easily reduced, caricatured, and discounted.

I think this has a tremendous negative impact on our cities. From my book:

It’s my contention that cities need both mind-sets to solve problems and thrive. Hierarchy without compassion for individual suffering quickly becomes tyranny. The liberal framework is critical to helping us understand where existing social structures create harm, and pushing society to update, sometimes even completely reimagine, those structures. 

Yet, a society without a certain level of structure becomes chaotic, the destabilization creating deep psychological anxiety and tension. When conservatives advocate for certain institutions and traditions, they are – as Haidt has suggested – rightly pointing out that “you don’t help the bees by destroying the hive.” 

I was ridiculed in some parts when I suggested earlier this year (Strong Towns and Race) that, “In interacting with people-of-color, I strive to listen ten minutes for every one minute of speaking.” Some people thought this was silly, like I was awkwardly using a stopwatch, but many of you got it: By listening with no intention of speaking, one frees up the part of the brain formulating a response and instead you can just deeply listen. The best answer I have to the perception problem is just that: deeply listening—combined with a very intentional seeking out of opposing viewpoints (and it’s okay to find those you respect, not just opposite antagonists or, worse, social media trolls).

As Strong Towns advocates, we must recognize our own perception problems. We must humble ourselves to acknowledge our own mental limitations (read: Thinking Fast and Slow), and take intentional steps to overcome those deficiencies. This is difficult, and I’m not claiming any kind of superiority on this one. I’ve opened myself up here because I want you to know that I struggle too.

The good news is that the other is not as evil as we generally perceive. Let’s not let the coming election season turn us against each other and distract us from the important work of building a Strong Town together with all the people around us.