Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product.
Almost a decade into our work at the Village Square, we’ve made a decision to become more intentional about sharing the theoretical and academic foundations behind our work product. We’re doing that because we think that our strategy isn’t always the most natural direction for those pursuing a more civil political environment, but we’re confident it’s the right one. It’s almost reflex to think that if only people had better information we’d be able to rationally navigate our way to statesmanship. That assumption then leads to the presumption that more facts, more analysis, and more technocratic wonky process needs to be applied to politics ASAP (a plodding policy-filled evening that draws an audience of about five, in our experience). Instead, we see the problem as fundamentally a relationship problem – we no longer have vital relationships with enough people who see the world differently than we do. Research supports the notion that people make decisions intuitively rather than rationally – people who share some bond are more likely to be able to find political common ground because they’ll intuitively “lean” toward each other. These (sometimes uneasy) relationships between people who disagree are foundational to functioning democracy. Bonus: it’s more fun to build relationships than write white papers (so we draw packed houses).
The development of our model has been strongly influenced by the groundbreaking work of NYU’s Dr. Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. Here’s Jon on what we’re describing: “If you bring people together who disagree, and they have a sense of friendship, family, having something in common, having an institution to preserve, they can challenge each other’s reason… wisdom comes out of a group of people well-constituted who have some faith or trust in each other.”
The Program: Created Equal and Breathing Free
Our most recent dinner program is an example of this thinking played out programmatically. Much recent political struggle surrounds the straining founding ideals of freedom and equality – both societal goods that can conflict with each other (Hobby Lobby case, Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, etc). Rather than getting a panel of lawyers together to debate legal precedent and settle on a policy prescription, we set about to create a more empathetic view among liberals of the rising conservative concern that religious freedom is being threatened, and a parallel deeper understanding among conservatives of the foundational struggles of minority groups striving for full equality.
This thinking led us to invite two very unique human beings to our Created Equal and Breathing Free program – an openly gay performance artist who had established a well-known alternative theatre company and a young conservative Catholic priest who stylistically defies the usual stereotypes one might have of a Catholic priest. Each has a great sense of humor (a quality that helps substantially as we invite our audience to “lean” toward the “other”) and a truly accessible, warm humanity about them – yet they are in complete disagreement about issues about the topics of our conversation.
Find a lengthier discussion of the specific strategies and interventions we used during this program here.
We are fortunate enough to have the support of Dr. Haidt and his colleague Dr. Ravi Iyer in assessing the results of our programming, through their organization Civil Politics. Ravi assesses attitude change that occurred pre and post event here.
The primary attitude shift that appears to have occurred as a result of our programming is an increase in positive attitudes about conservatives among a more liberal-leaning audience. There was a smaller positive shift of conservatives toward liberals but there were fewer conservative responses, thus the result wasn’t statistically significant.
We didn’t appear to have moved the needle on our two issues, equality and freedom. We predicted that after the program (but before we saw the results) based on the fact that we just didn’t go deep enough into our topics to expect a shift (we were enjoying the human connections enough that we got a little waylaid).
Processing the Results
We think it’s possible we might consistently expect more favorable shifts in liberals’ view of conservatives based on Moral Foundations Theory. Where liberals show a consistent two-channel morality with a laser-like concern for care and fairness, conservatives show a much broader-based morality that encompasses care and fairness but also includes liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. If you are conservative you likely understand liberals when they focus on care and fairness. But if you are liberal if you see conservatives violate care and fairness in favor of liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity (things you don’t perceive as being moral goods), you likely develop a negative view of their moral compass. So it is at least possible that liberals begin interactions like this with a more dim view of conservative “goodness” and that if we can offer conflicting evidence, this may be one of the easiest high impact changes we can make.
A final observation is that anytime you are looking to complex human beings to achieve a sociological result in the course of 90 minutes, it’s more an art than a science. Sometimes our hopes for a panel are fulfilled and other times it doesn’t quite gel as we’d like it to. We can absolutely foresee the possibility that despite our best efforts a given program could negatively impact the view of the “other.” People (panelists, moderator, audience, executive director) can be unpredictable and we’ve been surprised a time or two. It’s worth noting that we accurately predicted the attitude shifts we’d likely see from this program with the team at Civil Politics – after the program and before the results were calculated. We think it’s pretty easy to do once you see the event play out (human beings are, after all, intuitive). While certainly we believe we’ve still got lots to learn about how to apply the academic theory, we believe any failure to deliver results from a given program would be more likely due to the imperfect human-delivery-system we must employ, not a weakness in the moral foundations theory we follow. We have a lot of confidence we’re heading the right direction on the “compass”, but admit we’re probably still in kindergarten on the learning curve in how to apply it.
Beyond chalking instances where we fail to achieve attitude shift to “you win some, you lose some,” we believe there is a real shift that occurs through our ongoing efforts to create relationship – there’s even academic work that supports our thinking in the contact hypothesis and the extended contact effect. We host about 20 events a year that are quite broad in their focus in order to build a strong ecosystem of relationships inside our community, the web of connectedness between our events and between people in our community where our impact has the potential to grow exponentially. Many programs are intentionally focused on community issues that have nothing to do with political partisanship in order to grow “bonding social capital.” This focus leverages the relationships that form when people are on the same “team” at least some of the time, which creates a common bond that allows them to be on a different team when the circumstance shifts. (These are called cross-cutting relationships – a strategy often used by European monarchs who intermarried their children to keep their countries from going to war).
Our Theory of Change
Democratic societies function properly for the common good if strong geographic communities exist within that society – where a robust social fabric bonds diverse citizens, where crosscutting relationships thrive and result in high levels of civic trust, and where human beings routinely stay highly engaged over the inevitable disagreements that arise. It is by nurturing these relationships – exercising a civic “muscle” despite disagreement – that people develop empathy for others, then strive to reciprocate kindnesses, leading to the best behavior of man toward our fellow man. It is ultimately only through these relationships that opinions shift, consensus is reached, good decisions are made, and problems are solved.