The United States takes pride in its democratic model and the idea that citizens deliberate in a process to form political opinions. However, in recent years, division and partisanship have increased while deliberation and the actual discussion of competing ideas have decreased. More and more, citizens are siloed, interacting only with those with whom they agree, and there is more negative animus directed at the opposition. In his new book, A Change is Gonna Come: How to Have Effective Political Conversations in a Divided America
(Oxford University Press, 2020), Political Scientist Brian F. Harrison
critiques many of the current methods of communicating and explores the growing divide within political discourse. He demonstrates how, in our contemporary environment, political debate includes more name-calling and far less of a desire to understand political opponents. But hope is not lost. Looking at recent history, Harrison argues that conversations about lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights successfully changed public opinion in a civil manner and did so rather quickly. Drawing on this example, Harrison proposes a model for how the citizens in the United States can overcome increased partisanship and dissent in favor of more civil and productive conversation. A Change is Gonna Come
contextualizes both the advice and suggestions provided in the book by tracing out a great deal of the literature about political psychology and identity politics, since Harrison argues that part of the difficulty is the way that partisanship has become more of an identity marker for many voters.
Harrison offers the discourse about LGBTQ+ rights as a model for how engagement should occur. This is also an area of research that Harrison has previously explored in other works, specifically his co-authored book with Melissa Michelson, Listen, We Need to Talk: How to Changes Attitudes about LGBT Rights
. He notes that change in public opinion typically takes a long time. But in the last 15 years alone, public opinion around LGBTQ+ rights has significantly shifted. Harrison contends that change in public opinion regarding LGBTQ+ rights was supported by people of differing backgrounds engaging in uncomfortable conversations about the issue. He extrapolates that by talking to people with whom we disagree, we develop a dialogue which helps people on all sides of the issue to understand other viewpoints.
In A Change is Gonna Come
, Harrison outlines how to approach these conversations, including how to avoid a combative approach and how to engage, respectfully, across political and cultural divides. Combining social psychology, communication studies, and political science, Harrison concludes that if citizens in the United States wants to regain a sense of civility in politics, they should follow the model presented by LGBTQ+ discussions and encourage people to have difficult conversations across policy and partisan lines.
Adam Liebell-McLean assisted with this podcast.
Lilly J. Goren is professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics
(University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America
(Bloomsbury Academic, 2015).