Provocative New Book Challenges Us to Really Ask "Why?"


The following is an excerpt from The Death of "Why?": The Decline of Questioning and the Future of Democracy by Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Copyright 2009 Andrea Batista Schlesinger. Reprinted with permission by Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Ideological Segregation by Click and by Clique

When was the last time you changed your mind on something important? I’ve changed my mind a few times. One thing I can say for sure is that I’ve never changed it while surrounded by people who agree with me. But we are insulating ourselves from more and more opposing viewpoints—through the places we live, the way we vote, and who we turn to for news and information—and finding fewer and fewer catalysts to question our beliefs.

Bill Bishop has lived and worked for newspapers in Kentucky and Texas, on both the writing and the publishing sides. Today, he and his wife publish The Daily Yonder, an online publication covering rural America, including places that much of the mainstream media has abandoned. Bishop argues that our country has become increasingly segregated by ideology. Americans are moving to towns and cities to live with people like themselves, who believe similar things. We are clustering “in communities of sameness, among people with similar ways of life, beliefs, and, in the end, politics.” One way to see this trend in action is to look at our elections.

The increasing incidence of “landslide counties” (counties in which a candidate wins by 20 percentage points or more) exemplifies how Americans are becoming more homogeneous on a community level. Between 1976 and 2004, the number of counties in which the presidential election was a landslide doubled, from a quarter of the population to half. It is conventional wisdom, for example, that the 2004 presidential election was one of the closest presidential campaigns in history. Yet, as Bishop points out, nearly half of American voters lived in places where a single candidate won definitively. On a macro level, America is closely divided. But these elections aren’t close calls in our communities, because we’ve moved to places with neighbors who believe what we believe and vote the same way.

Our changing demography isn’t the result of mass migratory patterns such as those we have seen in our nation’s history, but of people who are sorting themselves one by one. We are concentrating ourselves by belief, and the result is localities that are becoming “politically monogamous.” Bishop calls this phenomenon the Big Sort.

It was in his capacity as a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman, while trying to understand how certain cities like his were thriving economically while others remained stagnant, that Bishop came across the Big Sort. Despite an admission that his decision to locate to Austin was based on the same kinds of decisions that Americans are making throughout the country—to be in places that serve the food we like, offer the church services we prefer, and so on—Bishop believes that “democracy was not meant to be operating in an atmosphere where people don’t meet or discuss or come across those who disagree with them.” If that were the case, would we even have a democracy? When we read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we aren’t exactly seeing first drafts. The Founders didn’t share the same outlook on all matters, but through debate and discussion they were able to come to consensus.

There is little that will hasten the death of why in our country more effectively than raising our children in ideological homogeneity. There just aren’t many incentives to question when everyone around us shares our views. And it is in our neighborhoods, where we spend so much time, that we could most easily encounter those with whom we disagree, those whose lives and experiences might lead us to question our values and beliefs.

Ideological segregation in America is perhaps a natural outgrowth of the increasing ideological polarization gripping our nation. Although some dispute the idea that all Americans are more ideological, the evidence is convincing that, at the very least, American voters surely are. Our ideological identification determines how we vote, up and down the ticket, and how we feel about the issues. In a study of the 2006 midterm elections, ideology was identified as a strong predictor of the party a voter would support. If we are more ideological, and our ideology predicts our party, then we vote by party. No need to ask many questions there.

Despite Barack Obama’s impressive 2008 electoral victory, the electorate remained just as divided in 2008, segregated not only by politics but also by income, education, and geography. After the election, Bishop calculated that 48.1 percent of the population lived in landslide counties in 2008, almost exactly the same as the 48.3 percent who lived in them in 2004. In fact, in 2008 there were thirty-six “landslide states” where a candidate won by 10 percentage points or more, an increase from twenty-nine states in 2004 (including Washington, D.C., in both cases). Writing a week after the election, Bishop concluded, “The country is split in much the same way it was divided four and eight years ago. People continue to sort by age and by way of life. As a result, our communities (and states) are growing more like-minded . . . It is easy to ignore people on the other side when they aren’t your neighbors. But that doesn’t mean the country is less polarized—because it isn’t.” Obama’s election victory might have brought change to Washington, but it certainly did not reflect a less divided electorate.

News We Can Believe (In)

Our ideology even directs how we choose to learn about the world around us. According to a study undertaken by Natali Jomini Stroud, using data from the 2004 National Annenberg Election Survey, people are interested in consuming media that shares their ideological bent. After analyzing newspaper, cable television, talk radio, and political Web site consumption habits, Stroud found that almost two-thirds of conservative Republicans consumed at least one conservative media outlet, compared to a quarter of liberal Democrats. On the other side, over three-quarters of liberal Democrats consumed a liberal outlet, compared to about 40 percent of conservative Republicans. It’s not a surprise, I suppose, that we, in our ideologically segregated neighborhoods, would invite onto our television sets only those who share our ideology.

The way Americans filter media through an ideological lens can be extreme. One study that tested whether the logo of a news company appearing on a screen would determine the likelihood of a participant clicking on the news headline found that “no matter how we sliced the data—either at the level of individuals or news stories—the results demonstrate that Fox News is the dominant news source for Americans whose political leanings are Republican or conservative.” On political subjects, the likelihood of conservatives clicking on the Fox story was understandably high. But here’s the kicker: this was also true for soft news. Conservatives were more likely to click on sports and travel stories that came from Fox. Apparently, sports and travel coverage also needs to be mediated through our political ideologies.

This increased polarization in how we live and how we learn about how others live has profound implications for the policies that govern our lives. Because our ideologies are increasingly concentrated, we are increasingly electing people who represent that ideology well, by being either very left or very right. This extremism has led to a paralysis in our national politics.

Congressional districts, reflecting their residents, are overwhelmingly Republican or overwhelmingly Democrat. Bishop sees these landslides as an affront to the vision of the Founding Fathers, who intended that members of Congress would meet in D.C., bringing with them a variety of perspectives and beliefs, to hash out the nation’s business.

“Now,” Bishop tells me, “they fly in on Tuesday, oftentimes they live with members of their own party, in their own dormitories with ideologically similar members, then they fly home on Thursday to their homogeneous districts, and they never have to do the work of politicians, which is to make deals and compromise.” And when politics becomes merely an expression of ideologies rather than a process of figuring out how to actually improve the quality of people’s lives, we all suffer.

Don’t Know, Don’t Ask

I agree with Bishop that ideological segregation is destined to have a negative effect on our politics, but not just because our politicians are ill-equipped or unmotivated to do the business of politicking. The environment created by the Big Sort instills in us a sense of complacency. We are less likely to ask questions of those who represent us, because we assume they have our interests in mind.

In 2008, the Drum Major Institute for Public Policy commissioned a poll to find out which policies the current and aspiring middle class think would improve the quality of their lives. We asked a random sample of Americans throughout the country about pieces of legislation that had been voted on by Congress, but not signed into law, during the previous session. For example, we asked about the Employee Free Choice Act, which makes it easier for employees to join unions; an expansion of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program to provide health insurance to more middle-class children; and taxing the income of hedge fund managers at the same rate as everyone else’s income. When we asked respondents how they would have liked their member of Congress to vote on these bills, the answer was overwhelmingly in favor of a yes vote, among Democrats and Republicans alike. But when we asked, How did your member of Congress vote on this bill?, the overwhelming response was Don’t know.

We don’t know, and we don’t ask. We figure that our members of Congress have our back, because we share a spot along the ideological spectrum with them. We agree on some big-picture issues, maybe on cultural values, maybe on the rhetoric about the role that government should play in our lives. So we don’t ask what they are up to, and they don’t feel obliged to tell us. Despite advanced communications at our fingertips, only one in four of our respondents reported hearing from their member of Congress on a regular basis. We don’t ask, and they don’t tell. And our problems do not get solved.

Transcending Ideological Segregation through Deliberation

Whether we are infants, members of Congress, or regular citizens, it is encountering the unfamiliar that prompts us to question. If people are living in their ghettos of belief, where is the catalyst to inquire?

Bringing people together who don’t already agree is Carolyn Lukensmeyer’s business. I know firsthand, because I worked for Lukensmeyer in my first job out of college. It was the late 1990s, and she was on a mission to engage Americans in a conversation about the future of Social Security. My job was to run the Social Security Challenge, a campaign within the broader campaign, focused on inspiring college students to talk about the seventy-three-year-old program and its future.

The idea driving Lukensmeyer’s Americans Discuss Social Security campaign was that any discussion that might result in a change in the mission of a universal program such as Social Security couldn’t just happen behind closed doors in Washington, D.C. Americans needed to talk. They needed to weigh in on a conversation that was about more than the mechanics of the program, that was about our values and commitments. And if politicians were going to be successful in whatever decisions they made (whether to keep the program or to change it), they would need the support of the American people. Lukensmeyer organized town hall meetings, inviting thousands of Americans to talk about the program, in their own neighborhoods. Although Clinton’s efforts to reach some kind of deal for the program’s future collapsed in response to the scandals of the year, Lukensmeyer saw the promise in engaging people directly in conversations about the issues that affect their collective future.

The forums were far more than sessions designed to make attendees feel they had fulfilled their civic duty. Participants became better educated about the Social Security debate, and consensus emerged about what people expected from the program and desired from its reform. At the forums, diverse participants from diverse communities tackled thorny economic and political issues but were able to engage each other as well as policymakers in developing concrete, plausible proposals for policy action.

Soon after the conclusion of Americans Discuss Social Security, Lukensmeyer founded AmericaSpeaks, where she continues to serve as president. This organization is hired by local and state governments, nonprofit organizations, foundations—anyone who wants citizens to come together to deliberate on a particular issue and reach consensus about what needs to happen next. For example, thousands of New Yorkers who lived in the area affected by 9/11 came together to develop their vision for how they wanted their neighborhoods in Lower Manhattan to redevelop. Thousands of California residents came together to decide on the kind of health care they would like to see the state offer. Six hundred students, university presidents, and young activists met as part of the Clinton Global Initiative to develop plans for student action on issues of global importance, such as climate change, health, human rights, and peace.

AmericaSpeaks calls their events 21st Century Town Meetings, and to look at the forums is to understand why. In person, the sessions resemble a cross between bingo and a trade show. Hundreds or thousands of people are seated at round tables. Each of the participants has a laptop. A facilitator asks questions to help move the group toward accomplishing their goal for the day.

But it isn’t the high-tech tools that make the town halls special; it’s the people. There is no Big Sort here. AmericaSpeaks picks participants through random sampling to represent their broader community. They are sitting next to people they don’t know. There are no ideological cliques. They don’t possess expertise in the issues they are there to discuss, such as health care, immigration, or Social Security, and they aren’t expected to. Their job, no matter what they believe, is to discuss an issue, debate the policy options, and reach consensus. And they do.

The participants are not unlike the residents of the communities that Bishop writes about in The Big Sort, but the AmericaSpeaks experience illustrates that, in the right environment, with the right incentives and support, we can transcend ideological segregation, both as a group and within ourselves.

“Many of [our participants] live in communities like Bishop describes,” Lukensmeyer told me. But “even those people who come from very polarized ideological backgrounds, when placed in a context and facing real human beings who are really different than they are, and given the basic information that they need to participate in the discussion, and given questions designed to make them think—they think.”

The sessions have a significant effect on both policymakers and participants alike. Even Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was visibly excited as he chatted with a group of AmericaSpeaks participants debating health-care reform in California, in a forum called CaliforniaSpeaks: “Your involvement can make [reform] happen—that’s why we need to hear your voices, opinions, and experiences so we can create the best health care for everyone.”

As callous as politicians can be at times, my experience as the director of a public policy think tank has taught me that politicians really do love a good policy idea, especially when you can show them that the public supports it. AmericaSpeaks provides both good ideas for public policy reform and evidence of public support. Organizing the sessions through difficult but manageable questioning, discussion, and response makes the deliberative process transparent and effective; extensive polling results make support for particular avenues of reform obvious. Indeed, a California Health and Human Services assistant secretary said that CaliforniaSpeaks had let policymakers know what California citizens want.

Perhaps the most striking element of the AmericaSpeaks forums is the capacity and willingness of participants to transcend their personal interests to consider—and to consider acting on—policies that might force them to make trade-offs in their personal lives. In a session to discuss recovery priorities for New Orleans, for instance, one attendee humbly noted to his discussion colleagues that “I am going to vote for [priority] three, but I am personally affected by number two.” The AmericaSpeaks forums are about inspiring participants to think beyond their own policy ideas and political ideologies; at the forums, participants must listen to and engage with other reasonable, respectful people with contrasting ideas, responsibilities, and life experiences. At Schwarzenegger’s urging, the California health-care forum concluded by asking, “How willing would you be to share in the responsibility of paying for health-care reform that covers all Californians?” Eighty-four percent of participants expressed some level of willingness.

So it is not that we have lost the capacity to think beyond our frames of reference; it is that we aren’t presented with enough opportunities to do so. But when we are presented with such an opportunity, surrounded by people we don’t know and who have different experiences and views, talking about an issue that affects the quality of all of our lives, we wind up going in unexpected directions. Proof of this is the frequency with which participants change their minds.

“[The participants] follow lines of inquiry,” Lukensmeyer told me. “And . . . they don’t necessarily come out with the programmed answer that they would have come in with. Huge numbers, up to 70 percent of participants, change their position.”

When we bump up against new perspectives and experiences, when we are asked new questions that force us to think more deeply about our assumptions, we can change our minds. We don’t have to—but the fact that we can is most important. This type of interaction, these expressions of deliberative democracy, are the antidote to the inward direction of our daily lives. When we create the right environment for people to come together around a shared goal, and the format and the facilitation to help them expose their own biases but move toward an end, we can arrive at consensus. In that consensus, there is power.

But when participants exit the town hall meeting, they return to a culture in which deliberation across ideology is not encouraged. In fact, according to Lukensmeyer, it is actively discouraged.

“For the vast majority of people’s time,” she said, “they are spending their lives and experiences in structures and processes that are not carefully designed to help them inquire and think and discuss; they are sitting in structures and processes that are intentionally designed to get them to think in a way that someone wants them to think.”

Perhaps the problem is that we ask too little of ourselves in our democracy today. If we knew that it was up to us to ask the questions that would determine the quality of our lives, if we were given actual assignments to improve our communities (beyond voting every four years), maybe then we would view differently our responsibilities as citizens. Maybe then we would willingly undertake whatever questioning it took to get to consensus, rather than focusing on finding the perfect posture from which to hold our ideological ground. Maybe, if it were up to us to solve the problems of our whole city or state, we would see those with whom we disagree as necessary partners, would engage rather than avoid. But, isolated not only from one another but also from a clear understanding of how our participation matters, the Big Sort remains—until Lukensmeyer and those like her force us to question it, one 21st Century Town Meeting at a time.

Click here to buy a copy of The Death of "Why?"

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