Reconsidering “You just don’t get it!” as a Community Engagement Strategy

In the last month, the busy folks at the Pew Research Center have released two hefty analyses of political polarization in America, pretty much confirming what we’ve come to suspect as the cause of semi-permanent dysfunction in D.C., in state capitals and, increasingly, in local government.

If you’re looking for the latest big picture perspective on the dilemma, Pew’s got you covered. The Center’s first Pew report, released on June 12, gets the conversation going:

The overall share of Americans who express consistently conservative or consistently liberal opinions has doubled over the past two decades from 10% to 21%. And ideological thinking is now much more closely aligned with partisanship than in the past. As a result, ideological overlap between the two parties has diminished: Today, 92% of Republicans are to the right of the median Democrat, and 94% of Democrats are to the left of the median Republican.

Pew provides a dramatic animation of the trend over time here.

A follow-up Pew analysis was released two weeks later, exploring eight sub-categories of ideology/identification along the left-to-right continuum:

The 2014 Political Typology: Polarized Wings, a Diverse Middle

Want to see where you fit among these typologies, take the Pew quiz here.

If there’s a temptation to take heart in the “less partisan, less predictable” majority between the two extremes, Pew has an antidote for optimism. It’s true, Pew points out, that “most Americans do not view politics through uniformly liberal or conservative lenses, and more tend to stand apart from partisan antipathy than engage in it.” However, there’s a “but”:

But the typology shows that the center is hardly unified. Rather, it is a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this ‘center’ looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right.

Depending upon the issue — same-sex marriage, say, or immigration — folks in the middle move towards a partisan camp. Which, despite their frustration with stalemate politics, reduces the likelihood they’ll make good mediators for compromise.

Planners and others who have to wade into the politics of land use policy probably won’t be surprised that it’s possible to map partisanship according to degrees of development intensity:

According to the report, people with consistently conservative views overwhelmingly favor small towns and rural areas as places to live: 41% say they’d live in a rural area if they could live anywhere in the U.S., while 35% pick a small town. Conversely, 46% of people with consistently liberal views say they prefer to live in cities. (About two-in-ten of those in every category choose the suburbs.)

And when given the choice, three-quarters of consistent conservatives say they’d prefer to live in a community of larger houses with more space between them, even if that means having to drive to shops, restaurants and other amenities. Consistent liberals were almost exactly the opposite: 77% said they prefer denser communities where amenities were in walking distance, even if that meant living in smaller houses. (Speaking of amenities, 73% of consistent liberals said being near art museums and theaters was important, versus just 23% of consistent conservatives.)

So there you have the landscape of polarization. If you’re on the right, you have all the proof you need about the conspiracy of urban-dwelling socialists to undermine freedom, marriage and property rights in God’s country. And if you’re a lefty, it’s the country yahoo contingent, waving their guns and Bibles, who are pulling America back to the bad ol’ days of the 19th century.

Mind you, we’ve backed ourselves into these corners in a time in which opportunities to better inform ourselves and to connect with others have multiplied beyond the imaginings of any previous generation. How did we screw this up?

Researchers have some pretty good ideas. And it’s not good news for those of us who pride ourselves in fine-tuning arguments to overwhelm opposing views. It turns out all the new tools for diving deeply into even the most esoteric topics and virtually assembling communities of the like-minded contribute to the problem. But if there’s one thing getting in the way of bridging partisan divides and getting stuff done, especially in contentious situations, it’s our insistence on privileging facts and reason above all.

In a previous post, I referenced the work of Jonathan Haidt, who convincingly summarizes a wealth of scholarly research fortifying the “believing is seeing” argument. Basically, it boils down to this: Firmly held beliefs, including beliefs that seem to others to be easily refuted by contrary evidence, predispose us to cherry-pick facts that align with what we already accept as true and disregard contradictory evidence.

Vox’s Ezra Klein, writing in an April blog post takes this another step. Arguing that “politics makes us stupid,” Klein reports on experiments by Yale law professor Dan Kahan and his colleagues. In one, participants were asked to solve word problems that required slowing down intuition long enough to apply some math. Consider the results and questions about a hypothetical skin cream test in the box below:

Those who did the math got the right answer: People who did not use the skin cream were more likely to get better (84% vs. 75%). Their math skills overcame the pull of intuition towards the higher raw number that actually indicated a lower success percentage for cream users.

Here’s how Klein reports what happened when the experimenters introduced a politicized version of the problem:

This version used the same numbers as the skin-cream question, but instead of being about skin creams, the narrative set-up focused on a proposal to ban people from carrying concealed handguns in public.

The 2×2 box now compared crime data in the cities that banned handguns against crime data in the cities that didn’t. In some cases, the numbers, properly calculated, showed that the ban had worked to cut crime. In others, the numbers showed it had failed.

Presented with this problem a funny thing happened: how good subjects were at math stopped predicting how well they did on the test. Now it was ideology that drove the answers. Liberals were extremely good at solving the problem when doing so proved that gun-control legislation reduced crime. But when presented with the version of the problem that suggested gun control had failed, their math skills stopped mattering. They tended to get the problem wrong no matter how good they were at math. Conservatives exhibited the same pattern — just in reverse.

Being better at math didn’t just fail to help partisans converge on the right answer. It actually drove them further apart. Partisans with weak math skills were 25 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. Partisans with strong math skills were 45 percentage points likelier to get the answer right when it fit their ideology. The smarter the person is, the dumber politics can make them.

After talking to researchers, Maria Konnikova, writing in the May 19 New Yorker about the push-back against vaccinations despite overwhelming evidence of their success, came to similar conclusions:

Facts and evidence, for one, may not be the answer everyone thinks they are: they simply aren’t that effective, given how selectively they are processed and interpreted. Instead, why not focus on presenting issues in a way (that) keeps broader notions out of it—messages that are not political, not ideological, not in any way a reflection of who you are?

Ah, a way out of the rabbit hole.

I’m thinking now of the most common dilemmas faced by planners in communities pulled apart by political factions. The combination of tight budgets, stressed-out staffers and officials looking towards the next election conspires against the sort of slow, consensus-building process capable of separating ideology from strategic thinking. We’re all in a hurry to check off tasks and present a finished plan or design, even if evidence mounts along the way that the product has to be substantially watered down or chucked altogether if anybody questions any part of it.

The problem is that most of us involved in these processes are trained as problem solvers and not diagnosticians. We know how to do the math. But we’re not so hot at recognizing and coping with math anxiety, with the fears and suspicions that underlie and explain the resistance to planning and policy ambitions. We’re okay talkers, not such great listeners.

The good news is that local communities, where the connections between government and constituents are strongest, are good places to start the reform movement. They’ve been the last to be infected by partisan gridlock and could be the first to recover.

We can start by spending more time at the beginning of a community engagement process understanding predispositions that could turn toxic if we don’t keep the conversation at an altitude that encourages talk about what unites neighbors, neighborhoods and whole communities instead of what distinguishes them from one another.

Everybody’s concerned about safe places for children and older people, about more convenient ways for getting around, about expanding economic opportunities. Why not anchor conversations in that territory, encourage questions about the range of approaches, before opening the fancy toolboxes of solutions?

What we most want to do, I think, is to ratchet down the confrontational attitude, the “you just don’t get it” exasperation with folks who have their own reasons for not wanting on-street parking or multifamily housing in their neighborhood. We’ll get to all that eventually anyway.

Many of us — especially those of us with New Urbanist leanings — have honed our talking points in robust debate among colleagues, especially the ones we respect and who respect us. Sometimes argument in that context has inspired us to change our minds. And sometimes we may have changed the minds of others. But those experiences turn out to be not such great training for achieving agreement among strangers.

Ezra Klein is right. If you’re not careful, politics can make you stupid.

Ben Brown

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.


  1. Angela Conte says

    “Why not anchor conversations in that territory, encourage questions about the range of approaches, before opening the fancy toolboxes of solutions?”

    Great piece Ben, I like the way you tied up a lot of recent issues into nice clear understanding for anyone who may have fallen behind on whats happening.

    Social community is about survival and at the start of a new century we have a significant divide between those who want to move forward with change and those who are afraid of it. Then you add in economic catastrophes from a changing world where population growth and climate change is having their effects whether we acknowledge them and do something about them or not. It doesn’t help that our political system has been taken over by those wanting to take financial advantage of the chaos. Given all this, its impossible to get people to meet where they are already aligned and the priorities are the same. It being tried all the time and it doesn’t work. It won’t work until the underlining issues casing the rift is dealt with. The problem is change is happening and half the people want to do something about it and fix the problems and half the people don’t wont to and will even deny reality in order to maintain their position. Until the fear and anxiety of those who are dragging their feet is dealt with there will be no meeting of the minds or consensus on realistic change making for anyone. Just my opinion based on what I’ve been witnessing.

  2. Rod Stevens says

    Excellent writing, Ben!

    In my town, local issues transcend national party affiliation. The division is largely over fiscal management. Like high school, it has become much more of an issue of who is in power and how they share it.

  3. Peter Matson says

    Ben –

    In reading this piece, I can’t help but think of our 2012 West Layton Village Center FBC project that ended in a referendum vote reversing the City Council’s approval of the Code. We are presently preparing to embark on a city-wide growth scenario-based visioning project and it is obvious (to the planners at least) that we need to be committed to a community engagement process that is “very heavy in the front end”. We are pushing for the process to start with stakeholder group that is educated, open-minded and committed to help guide the process. An up-front, detailed understanding of market information and community values, through studies, research, and surveys, will also be critical. Anyway – – I appreciate the timely information and insight that confirms we are focusing our efforts appropriately. Tell the PlaceMakers crew “howdy” from the Layton City Planning Staff.


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