Conclusions drawn

Healthy dialogue that crosses borders of intense political disagreement almost inevitably leads to the discovery of kernels of truth in each point of view expressed. It creates an opportunity to experience the other – no matter how wrong they are – as a fellow human being. It uncovers new possibilities for collaboration between otherwise opposed points of view. It leads each participant to new strength of conviction, at least when it comes to the beliefs that survive the test of genuine conversation. And it would – were it to become common practice – bring the heretofore unrealized potential of democracy closer to reality.

Also: liberals, leftists, and conservative tend to think using different “frames” to decide what counts as a problem and what counts as possible solutions. They also tend to define different moral goods in different ways – e.g. authority, care, fairness, loyalty, and purity – and also to understand the relationships between those goods differently. Yet liberals and conservatives can through dialogue gradually come to better understand the frames used by the other side – and by that mechanism find a degree of common ground.

These conclusions are somewhat at odds with prevailing wisdom, in that many people believe that reasonable exploration and compromise are only possible where differences are not overly sharp or intense. It is assumed that once the line is crossed into issues such as abortion or gay marriage there is little point in communication between differing sides. What Neisser and Hess demonstrate, however, is that no matter how sharp the differences, respectful and productive exchange is possible – as are fresh discoveries and new collaborations.

These insights challenge the views of the academic critics of deliberative democracy theory. One critical book is Stealth Democracy, in which John R. Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse argue that “stronger political involvement will not make people more trusting, more other-regarding, or more supportive of government,” and “increased political interaction will not boost political capital at all and may very well do damage” (p. 184). You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought, on the other hand, strongly supports the idea that people can become more trusting of others and thereby develop what Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam calls “bridging social capital” (Bowling Alone). The key to success in this regard is the nature of people’s “political involvement” and “political interaction.” When this interaction and involvement is driven by resentments and fears, as is commonly the case, it tends to confirm prevailing opinions. If, however, such political exchange includes sustained listening and attention to people with different points of view, different outcomes often ensue.

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