The advantages and disadvantages of “hearing the other side”

I recently finished reading Hearing the Other Side: Deliberative versus Participatory Democracy by political scientist Diana Mutz. This book describes the results from a series of studies investigating the effects of talking to people who disagree with you about politics (she calls it “cross-cutting” discussion). The author frames the book as a look at two different theories of how people act in a democracy. “Deliberate democracy” proponents argue that citizens should regularly deliberate and discuss politics, especially with those they disagree with, as being a healthy thing for democracy. “Participatory democracy” proponents argue that citizens should be actively engaged in electoral politics (campaigning, volunteering, etc.) to make a healthy democracy. In theory, these two views are not mutually exclusive and both would contribute to a healthy democracy. Mutz’s findings, however, suggest that in real life, the one often comes at the expense of the other.

Chapter 2 examines who engages in “cross-cutting” political discussion and where they do it. The author shows that most people encounter cross-cutting discussion at work and through distant family members and acquaintances, but not very often through churches, neighborhoods or other voluntary associations (contra the benefits of Putnam’s social capital thesis). She also shows that those with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to engage in cross-cutting discussion than those who are well-off and relatively affluent. Finally, Mutz also looks at global data and shows that Americans have one of the lowest rates in the world of talking politics with people we politically disagree with.

Chapter 3 describes the benefits of “hearing the other side.” The more you engage in cross-cutting discourse, the more likely you are to recognize legitimate rationales for opposing viewpoints. This also leads to increase tolerance for groups you happen to disagree with.

Chapter 4 goes into the “dark side” of cross-cutting discourse. The more people talk with people they disagree with, the less likely they are to vote, the less they participate in civic groups and activities, and the longer it takes to decide which candidates to support. Further analysis reveals that this is because while people value political participation, they also value community and consensus. While people may desire to freely express their political views, they also want to make friends, get along, and not offend their family, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners, etc. When forced to choose between a happy social relationship and political expression, most people choose to maintain a good social relationship. This leads to de-valuing political participation and disengaging from the political community.

Mutz summarizes: “The meek and mild abstain from participation so as not to offend anyone, while ideologically extreme political bullies rule the Earth.” But then, we as Americans also manage to maintain social harmony (a good thing) by “relegating [our] desires … to speak [our] own minds, to secondary status” (a bad thing).

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