Political analysts have spent the years since President Donald Trump’s reign wondering if the American electorate is at its most polarized in history.
Such was the question radio host Jamie Dupree said he gets asked frequently. Writing for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, he argued it isn’t, noting that National Guard troops have yet to shoot and kill protesters, as happened at Kent State University in 1970.
Though, the political climate hasn’t exactly been a friendly environment for a while. America has gone from the pitting of evangelicals against LGBT people in 2004 and the swift-boating of a war hero, to the question of whether a black president was really an American. Now Americans are taking to the streets fighting a president who seems to feed the polarization for his own political gain.
One philosophy professor, however, urges befriending the opposition in efforts to change minds. In a piece for Medium, associate professor Kevin Vallier explained that “political trust” isn’t exactly the same as being reassured that if you leave your phone at a Starbucks it won’t get stolen. Instead, it’s a trust in democracy, institutions, groups, civil service workers and officials.
For those spreading conspiracy theories about “deep state” efforts to undermine Trump, the ability to be persuaded may be lost. But for the silent majority, friendship could be key in building trust not only in institutions but in accurate information over “alternative facts.”
Vallier explained it by looking at ethnic diversity. “While ethnic diversity can bear negatively on trust, this is usually due to lack of contact and local segregation,” he wrote. “When different types of people interact more, there tend to be higher levels of trust among them.”
Yale researchers did an experiment in 2017 attempting to turn conservatives into liberals. What they found had more to do with the promise of physical safety. Conservatives in the study were given a description of a genie, who would grant them protection from any physical harm. When the conservatives were then asked questions about political issues on abortion, LGBT rights and immigration, their answers were more liberal when they were promised safety.
Cognitive scientist Paul Thagard went another route, explaining that the way to change minds is by “[addressing] their emotional attachment to what they believe.”
He noted that when people are first confronted with evidence contradicting their own opinions, their first response is to discount it. He urges people not to befriend, exactly, but to go into full attack-mode.
“To change people’s minds, it’s important to undermine the coherence among the things that they do believe. Make them feel worse about their current beliefs. Develop counterarguments to their most significant sources of support. Then expose them to more pieces of information that are consistent with the new belief,” he wrote.
When it comes to economic inequality, Vallier said that the cause isn’t necessarily from social mistrust. It actually comes from “policies where wealth is redistributed because they see it as fair,” instead of as a reward for wealthy CEOs and corporations. Data shows people have more political trust when they’re doing better economically.
Shockingly, having a democratic system of government doesn’t necessarily guarantee high levels of political trust.
“As long as leaders manage corruption and economic performance effectively, authoritarian types of governments can actually enjoy high levels of political trust,” Vallier wrote. That can explain how countries continue to elect corrupt officials profiting off of their position.