A few weeks ago, I decided to try an experiment.
As Maine Goes (AMG), one of Maine’s most popular and controversial political websites, had gone dark after a 16-year run that allowed verified members to post and comment on a wide range of political issues. Admittedly, AMG was a conservative site, but it was well-moderated, and liberal posters would sometimes wade into those waters to offer their perspectives and to push-back on what they perceived to be an echo-chamber of conservative thought.
AMG’s membership, although decidedly right-leaning, was rather diverse: single mothers, retired folks, business owners, students, academics and every-day working people spent hour upon hour debating ideas, posting insights and frequently arguing about a wide range of subject matters.
Journalists would monitor the site, observing political trends and gleaning intelligence from campaign operatives who would lurk on AMG’s pages.
Profanity was forbidden, but the jousting was real. It was not a place for those easily offended. If you couldn’t take the heat, if you didn’t like being challenged, well…you could always just sit back and watch the big dogs get off the porch.
So it was, in the post-AMG abyss, that I decided to try my own social media experiment. Lacking the dedication and commitment that Scott Fish gave to AMG, I instead set up a Facebook group called “Thinking Politics”
It remains a closed, secret group (new members must be invited by existing members to participate). I started the group with fourteen people: six who generally lean left, six others who generally lean right and two people I perceived to be in the middle of the political road. (This was all very subjective and was calculated while drinking generous doses of a favorite Merlot).
The mission statement of the group is rather simple: Thinking Politics is a place for those who enjoy political discourse that includes rigorous debate but not personal attacks. Members are seeking an elevated level of political discourse and pledge to be as committed to hearing as they are to speaking.
I wanted to see how these selected friends would do in a controlled environment. I invited no one else, despite the urge not to offend other friends. I tried to just sit back and watch. That was almost five weeks ago.
Can you hear me?
Today, there are nearly 120 members in the Thinking Politics group. Members pick and start the conversation points or join other ongoing discussions.
At least one person dropped out of the group. She was reportedly frustrated that she could not see comments being made by another member because he had “blocked” her from his own Facebook profile.
The group quickly veered left. Why? Simply put, my left-leaning friends outflanked their counterparts on the right by inviting others of similar thought as reinforcements.
Obviously, this dynamic frustrated my friends on the right. They were feeling outnumbered, outmatched and felt it was a waste of time to participate if they were just going to be outshouted. They retreated a bit.
But here’s where it gets strange. Some of those on the left actually began bemoaning the fact that the page was becoming little more than a “political echo chamber,” chock full of progressive thought with little or no input from the political right.
Just when I thought my experiment had failed, something happened. The conservatives found some heavy-hitters to join their ranks, including State Rep. Jonathan McKane (R-Newcastle) and Beth O’Connor, a former state representative and vice chair of Maine Taxpayers United. Other unapologetic Republicans followed.
So now the page was a bit more balanced, but was it more productive?
It remains to be seen. A majority of the members seem genuinely committed to the process: to stand firmly on ground and debate with civility. But I wanted (hoped) to see something else. I wanted to see if people would begin asking questions. I wanted to see if there was a natural curiosity out there. Would people pause and consider alternative viewpoints? More importantly, would they proactively seek out those other views?
You can guess the answer.
I’m right, you’re wrong
Even in a semi-controlled environment, my friends seemed more focused on being right rather than considering an alternative viewpoint. I get it. That’s how I roll 99 percent of the time.
Last week, I participated in an event that some friends organize every once in a while: a Political Beer Summit. Now, face to face and with the assistance of great beer and delicious pizza, the political debate was just as passionate but it was a lot less heated.
Sitting across the table from one another, the Democrats saw the Republicans as reflections of themselves with the exception of different viewpoint. The Republicans were not afraid that the Democrats were going to stiff them with the check. It was fierce, but friendly. No one changed their mind, but every one was willing to listen.
Why can’t that dynamic happen more often? Why are we so fiercely competitive?
Recently, I stumbled across an article in the Washington Post that explains this increasingly fierce dynamic of political competition.
Nearly every recent election has held out the possibility of a shift in party control of one institution or another, writes Francis Lee in his Monkey Cage blog.
Lee continues: Competition fuels party conflict by raising the political stakes of every policy dispute. When control of national institutions hangs in the balance, no party wants to grant political legitimacy to its opposition by voting for the measures it champions. After all, how can a party wage an effective campaign after supporting or collaborating with its opposition on public policy?
Lee’s analysis of political competition helps explain the dynamics I witnessed in my experiment. Today’s political discourse has taken on the tenor and tone of an all-out war, a battlefield of fighting to the death and an unwillingness to compromise.
Last night I posed a question on my Facebook timeline: Is it possible to debate politics without animosity; is it possible to fight a war without hating your enemy?
Matt Jacobson, a Facebook friend who was one of several Maine people seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2010, offered a brilliant response: “Too many don’t understand the difference between an opponent and an enemy,” he wrote.
I am fascinated by the psychology of politics, and I earn my living as a policy/political consultant. It still amazes me that so few candidates understand the vital importance of reaching toward the middle for additional supporters. If we want the fence sitters to join our side, how do we get them off the fence and into the game?
I think it’s a worthy question, and I invite your feedback. And if you want to join the Thinking Politics group just send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
To be continued . . .