Angry voters inhabit both sides of the political aisle, resulting in what perhaps should be the called bipolarization of the American electorate.
Pollster Frank Luntz interviewed 12 Republicans and 12 Democrats, with nearly two-thirds admitting they have stopped speaking with a friend or family member following the 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump. Republican-leaning participants said it was exhausting trying to defend their vote for Trump. Democrats said they couldn’t fathom why anyone would vote for Trump.
The only unifying theme was a shared bipartisan anger at lobbyists, special interests and elected officials in Washington, DC. Even then, they didn’t agree on why they were angry.
The GOP-backed tax plan provided the perfect backdrop for exposing polarization. Republicans called it “well-deserved,” “great” and “excellent for economic growth.” Democrats called it a “lie,” “confusing” and “supporting the rich.”
Participants grew especially testy on the issue of racism. Republicans bristled at the charge they are racist or enable racism. Democrats blamed Trump for fanning the flames of “us-against-them.”
One of Luntz’ objectives was to see whether dialogue and consensus are still possible in our current political climate. Nearly all of the participants said it may be time to look beyond our current two-party systems to find common ground. Most also agreed to continue the Luntz-moderated conversations, even if discussion is difficult.
The tribalism reflected in the Luntz interviews isn’t limited to views about Trump, Congress and political correctness. The deep divisions his participants reflect can seep into everyday life and be a buried obstacle in the path of a major local project or consensus on a policy direction. Anger and polarization are hardly the bunkmates of consensus and compromise. Without question, many Americans are very angry, deeply frustrated and in a polarized frame of mind.
In the public affairs sphere, this reality means care should be taken to avoid letting an issue or project fall prey to political bipolarization. Complex projects have enough built-in challenges without inheriting or inviting existential ones.
There is no secret sauce to avoid polarized neighborhoods, communities or electorates. But it certainly helps if you start projects or campaigns with genuine engagement with people involved or interested in what you are proposing. Listen and respond to concerns, including on social media. Focus your comments on community benefits, and validate those benefits. Don’t let your allies become bogeymen for your opponents. Be firm in confronting misstatements and lies, but refrain from personal attacks.
One of the best lines to emerge from April as National Poetry Month is: “See through the same eyes in different heads.” A remarkable phrase that should be the North Star for public affairs efforts. Help people see a project, policy or innovation with the same eyes. Opinions can differ, but the basic facts will be clear and not in dispute. Clarity is more important than unanimity. Transparency can reduce skepticism and at least create firmament for compromise, if not consensus.
We may deplore the polarization inflicting America, but for now we need to learn to live with it. They may mean finding new and better ways to conduct business and engage publics. They may mean conceding and respecting differences of opinion. We don’t all have to think alike to make progress.
Gary Conkling is principal and co-founder of CFM Strategic Communications, and he leads the firm's PR practice, specializing in crisis communications. He is a former journalist, who later worked on Capitol Hill and represented a major Oregon company. But most importantly, he’s a die-hard Ducks fan. You can reach Gary at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can follow him on Twitter at @GaryConkling.