The irony here is that by studiously avoiding political disagreement, the potential for political conflict often becomes much worse. We become less able to understand our political opponents or empathize with their positions. Instead, we are more inclined to believe their ideas are not just wrong-headed but dangerous. This is bad for our democracy, creating an environment where many Americans are primed to accept misinformation and conspiracy theories.There is hope, though. In a novel experiment, a group of researchers working with NORC at the University of Chicago, recruited over 500 registered voters from diverse backgrounds to discuss politics with one another over a four-day period. The researchers found that political discussions yielded a profound change in views about American democracy. A New York Times account of the experiment reported that “the share of participants who said they thought American democracy worked well doubled, to 60 percent.” And after just a few days of talking to people with different political beliefs, participants expressed considerably more favorable views about their political opponents as well. But despite these promising results, scaling up this experiment would be difficult, and it’s unclear how lasting these changes will prove to be.
At the very least, availing ourselves of diverse political viewpoints may reaffirm our trust in democratic institutions and processes, even if we don’t like the outcomes. Our survey showed that when our social circles include a more diverse mix of political beliefs, we are more open to argument and less ideologically extreme. And, arguably, the best way to get to this point is to discuss — and disagree about — politics more.