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Overcoming political extremism: Not as divided as we think

Steve Mandell

At times, it seems we can’t heal what divides us. Sixty-six% of Americans believed that the political divide increased during the previous year, according to an August 2022 poll by the Economist magazine and YouGovAmerica, a respected data analytics firm. More than 40% believed that civil war will break out in the next 10 years. Sadly, our political differences can make it difficult to maintain relationships with friends, family and neighbors.

Yet, there is growing evidence that we are not as divided as we think, if we identify and focus on the common values and traditions we share.

The 2020 presidential campaign experiment: Robb Willer is a social psychologist who directs the polarization and social change lab at Stanford University. He and co-author Jan Voelkel conducted a series of experiments during the presidential campaign leading up to the 2020 election. Their findings are relevant to Republicans and Democrats, showing that conservatives and moderates will increase their support of a Democratic Party candidate when the candidate’s campaign explains policies in terms of the common values they share.

Voelkel and Willer conducted two large-scale experiments measuring levels of support for an imagined 2020 Democratic Party candidate they named Scott Miller. They tested three sets of values: one based on conservative values, like patriotism and tradition; a second based on liberal values, like social justice and equality; and a third, a control group offering a technical emphasis on growth and employment.

When the Democratic candidate’s policies were linked to conservative values, conservatives supported the candidate by 10 to 13 points more than when the candidate pushed liberal values or the control group’s growth and employment values. Not only were conservatives more likely to vote for the candidate, but they also thought he was more likable, competent and principled. They were also more willing to support his campaign. And, importantly, support for the imagined candidate did not decline among Democrats, even when the candidate pushed conservative values instead of overtly liberal values.

These ideas will also work for moderate and conservative Republicans who seek to challenge extremists in the primaries.

The core Western Colorado values we share:

The tradition of independence. For generations, living in the rural West meant self-reliance. Help from the government wasn’t available, nor was it requested. That fostered a widespread belief that the federal government should stay out of our lives as much as possible. But now our desire for independence collides with extremists who want to use the powers of government to intrude into our personal relationships, our bedrooms and our privacy in general.

Western Coloradans embrace individual responsibility to the community. For generations, we have understood that each of us has a responsibility to the communities where we live. It’s true, whether we’re talking about litter, vaccinations, protecting our public lands or respecting the rights of neighbors. But extremists think “freedom” means they can do whatever they please, regardless of the harm it causes.

We have a long tradition of cooperation. Most of us know that some give and take is necessary in order to make things better – the horse-trading we’ve been doing for generations. But extremism rules out compromise and finding workable solutions. Extremists imagine that considering both sides is a weakness and a waste of time.

If we refocus on our core values around Western Colorado, we can overcome extremist politicians and make progress on many issues, including climate change, inadequate health care, government intrusions into our personal lives, economic development and turmoil on our public lands. Let’s do it together.

Next: The most important – and difficult – step to overcome extremism.

Steve Mandell is a politically independent researcher and writer living in Montrose. This column is Part 1 in a two-part series. Please contact Mandell at SteveM81401@outlook.com.