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How Can We Build Common Ground Between Bubbles? Part 1 of 4


Click to review Part 2Part 3, and Part 4.


2016 has been a dramatic election year, to say the least.  Very few people expected the outcome of the presidential election.  The country is starkly divided with one major candidate receiving more electoral votes while the other major candidate received more popular votes.

Although the two candidates received a similar number of popular votes, the exit polls reveal stark differences in voting by gender, race, age, educational level, rural or urban residence, and religion, among other factors.

Some of the post-election analysis has focused on how people who live on the coasts live in a “bubble” and are “out of touch” with the majority of the people who live in the middle of country.  Writer Patrick Thornton critiqued this analysis, arguing that people who live in the Midwest live in a bubble.

Unfortunately, I think that probably most of us live in bubbles as society has become more polarized and less emotionally safe.  I suspect that many people, on all sides of the political lines, feel seriously disrespected by the others.  That hurts a lot.

To deal with this, it may help to start by using a neutral, mediator’s mindset to sympathetically understand how the world looks from both “bubbles” without evaluating the merits of the views.

It can be dangerous to make broad generalizations, so the following portraits should be read cautiously, recognizing that there are exceptions to these characterizations which do not include all the elements of the perspectives.

Liberal / Progressive Democratic Perspective

Many of the predominantly Democratic constituencies have suffered legalized discrimination until very recently and still feel the sharp sting of prejudice.  African Americans suffer from a legacy of slavery that began before our country was founded.  A series of shootings of Blacks in recent years and recognition of implicit racial bias in many realms of life have highlighted problems that Blacks routinely face.  Despite legal protections, many women throughout society still feel vulnerable to discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.  Many Hispanics feel that they or their friends and relatives are threatened by exploitation and deportation due to lack of legal status.  Many Muslims and Jews feel persecuted and physically threatened.  LGBT people are subject to legal discrimination in many places and could not be legally married until recently.  Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders feel that large banks and other corporations take advantage of the vast majority of the public.  Democrats feel victimized by Republicans who they feel have violated political norms by routine use of the filibuster and refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court, for example.  The release of FBI Director Comey’s letters in the last 11 days of the campaign deviated from Justice Department guidelines and a substantial percentage of Democrats, especially women and minorities, believe that the election of Mr. Trump is not legitimate.

Conservative Republican Perspective

Political scientist Katherine Cramer, who has studied rural residents, found what she calls the “politics of resentment.”  She wrote, “[T]he people I listened to felt like they were on the short end of the stick.  They felt they were not getting their fair share of power, resources or respect.  They said that the big decisions that regulated and affected their lives were made far away in the cities.  They felt that no one was listening to their own ideas about how things should be done or what needed attention. . . . [T]hey resented that they were not getting respect.  They perceived that city folks called people like them ignorant racists who could not figure out their own interests.  To them, urban types just did not get small-town life — what people in those places value, the way they live, and the challenges they face.”

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild found a similar perspective in her study of Tea Party supporters.  A review of her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, refers to “Tea Partiers’ complaints that they have become the “strangers” of the title — triply marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism.”   After listening to her subjects, Prof. Hochshild developed the following story capturing their perspective:  “‘You are patiently standing in a long line’ for something you call the American dream.  You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years.  You are male.  There are people of color behind you, and ‘in principle you wish them well.’  But you’ve waited long, worked hard, ‘and the line is barely moving.’  Then ‘Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!’  Who are these interlopers?  ‘Some are black,’ others ‘immigrants, refugees.’  They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — ‘checks for the listless and idle.’  The government wants you to feel sorry for them.”

To Republicans, Democrats, especially President Obama, far exceeded the legitimate authority of the Federal Government.

Building Empathy and Common Ground

From a mediation perspective, it helps to begin by recognizing the truth and empathizing with the pain felt by people on all sides.  This is really hard.  I think that some people feel that acknowledging others’ problems is an implicit devaluation of their own problems.

Probably most of us have strong sympathies with one side and it is difficult for us to acknowledge the legitimate perspectives and problems of the other.  We have very different sources of knowledge so that both sides believe they have legitimate accounts of reality and the other side’s “reality” is based on falsehoods.  Both sides believe that the other has committed serious political sins.  These views are reinforced by reactions to highly publicized statements of extreme partisans of each side, which probably don’t reflect the views of most people on their side.

From a mediator’s perspective, one need not believe that there is equal merit on both sides.  I certainly don’t believe that.

At this point, however, I suspect that these conflicts will not be resolved through competing arguments about the truth or who has suffered more.

It feels as if the conflict fundamentally is about identity – who is worth respect and help, and who is not.

I believe that many people on both sides feel real pain.  It would be nice if this could be acknowledged without people on either side feeling devalued as if in a zero-sum situation.  Indeed, it would be good if people could simultaneously acknowledge the valid concerns of people on all sides.

I really don’t know how to make this conflict more constructive, especially in the public, political world.

I would like to think that in our daily private lives, in our schools and communities, people will increasingly decide to treat people in other “bubbles” with curiosity, respect, and appreciation even when we disagree about the extremely charged issues raised in this election.  I wonder if it would help if people would acknowledge that people on all sides legitimately feel wounded, without assessing who has been hurt more than the others.

I would like to think that this is possible and would help.  But I don’t know.

What do you think?


John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE >

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