Your turn: Breaking bread with the ‘other’ side

The pull of the extreme ends of our political spectrum in recent years, particularly from the right, has widened the divide that our political discourse must cross. Anthropogenic climate change, a given for many of us, with approximately 97 percent of climate scientists agreeing it exists based on decades of research, is portrayed by some on the far right as alarmism resulting from faulty computer models. Such vastly different views are common across many issues. And we often vilify the other side, whether that’s depicting the governor in cartoon image with flames in the background or the governor himself equating abortion with slavery.

How did the divide grow this large? In a recent article in The Atlantic, Avi Tuschman, a political anthropologist, discusses how increases over the second half of the 20th century in both higher education (which tend to increase the degree of one’s political leanings) and geographic/social mobility have lead to increased sorting of our populations into communities of like-minded individuals. This is further driven through mate selection, as birds of a feather with similar world views tend to flock together, one of the strongest correlations between spouses being political orientation. Nor do we have to expose ourselves to contradictory viewpoints with the explosion in mass media over the last quarter century.

The end result for Kansas, historically on the conservative end of the spectrum, is an even redder state on average than, say, 25 years ago, with more politically segregated communities. And this mirrors the national level picture. According to political scientist Gary Jacobson, in the 1980s approximately 25 percent of voters split their vote between the president and the legislature, but by 2012 that split had decreased to 11 percent.

Overlay this historical trajectory with evolutionary theorists’ understanding that uniformity among group members and high levels of cooperation are two of the hallmarks of successful groups, whatever. For humans, our social/cultural norms (including political orientations) act as a kind of “glue,” binding together unrelated individuals within larger groups. This increases behavioral uniformity and helps facilitate cooperation.

Ties among group members are further strengthened by limiting interactions with outsiders, demonizing the “other” and minimizing exposure to media with competing views. This isolates group members from influences that compete with the group’s dominant world view. However it also makes working with competing groups more difficult, as demonstrated by congress and many of our state legislatures, Kansas included.

While a simplistic analysis, the basic point is valid. Limiting oneself to information and interactions that only serve to reinforce one’s world view may be beneficial to the larger political group you’re a part of in terms of unity and uniformity, but it may also reinforce and propagate untruths that are detrimental to everyone over the long term. Compromise becomes a dirty word and the dominant political group is justified in running roughshod over minority groups.

So how do we create a more civil political discourse that relies primarily on data and logic and less on demonization or simple assertion? The Village Square, a Tallahassee, Fla.,-based organization with a forthcoming Kansas City operation, may have part of the answer. This self-described “nervy bunch of liberals and conservatives” promotes civil discourse to build collective solutions for our interwoven futures. One of the most basic elements of their model is sitting down and breaking bread together.

The act of sharing a meal is a core element of the human experience. A degree of intimacy develops, particularly after several meals as we share more than just food and drink. It becomes difficult to demonize those sitting across from you after hearing their joys, concerns, fears and hopes, many of which we all relate to. Once discussions with your meal companions expand to more contentious issues it becomes harder to rely on politically based dogma, as the beginnings of real debate ensue.

There’s obviously more to it than this, and I encourage readers to review their model. But perhaps both houses should adopt a joint rule requiring legislators have periodic meals with someone across the aisle. Even if the meals aren’t balanced, perhaps our governing may head in that direction.