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Pew Politics
A reverend looks back at a long season of division.



Rev. Scott Anderson


 Five weeks ago, The Rev. Scott Anderson made a very accurate prediction about this day: Regardless of the outcome, roughly half the voters in the state – indeed, half of us across the country – would wake up unhappy.

Anderson made his observation in a sermon he delivered Sept. 30 as a guest preacher at Immanuel Presbyterian Church on Milwaukee’s East Side. Of course, he didn’t need a crystal ball to come up with that insight. It’s one election forecast that’s been pretty safe for a long time.

Wisconsin may be the poster child for just how divided the nation is politically. We helped re-elect President Barack Obama to a second term and sent Congresswoman Tammy Baldwin to the Senate – and then returned state government to all-Republican control.

The Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert spotted some exit polling data that throw those and other divisions into sharp relief. We’re split nearly down the middle on whether to throw out Obamacare or make it stronger, on support for the auto bailout, and on our opinions of Congressman Paul Ryan and Gov. Scott Walker.

Anderson brings a distinctive perspective to the subject of political polarization. As executive director of the Wisconsin Council of Churches, he has been working for more than a year with congregations wanting to help politically divided members talk with each other honestly and respectfully about their differences.

Last week I asked Anderson what he has heard in the course of that project from ordinary citizens, and what they think of how the media cover politics.

If we live in dependably blue Milwaukee or Madison or in bright red Waukesha County, we might not fully appreciate how deeply other parts of the state have been divided in recent years. The uproar over Gov. Walker’s bill in early 2011 stripping most collective bargaining rights from public employees in the state, and the angry rallies of public workers, unions, and their allies at the state Capitol opposing the measure exposed that division – a division that local clergy around the state told Anderson they saw in their own churches every Sunday morning.

“Religious communities are one of the few setting where there are neither red, nor blue, but purple communities,” Anderson says. “Many congregations outstate were split right down the middle between pro-Walker and anti-Walker members.” Some stopped speaking to each other.

While pastors and church members may have ranged widely in their viewpoints about Walker’s policies as governor, they shared “a universal disenchantment” at the way political dialogue had devolved to diatribe. Shortly before this year’s recall elections, 39 pastors called for “a season of civility” urging the religious community “to get its own house in order and offer another model for civil discourse around its own value system,” Anderson says. More than 500 religious leaders have now signed on (pdf).

And since then, some 400 pastors and other religious leaders participated in training sponsored by the Council of Churches, lessons on how to organize programs for members to engage in honest dialogue and bridge deep political and ideological differences. Their guide has been Quaker author Parker Palmer, who is based in Madison and works “to help people talk honestly with one another around difficult issues,” Anderson says. Palmer’s book, Healing the Heart of Democracy, exhorts readers to undertake the challenge of reaching out to people with whom they may have significantly different points of view.

As he listened to participants at the council’s training sessions, Anderson heard a lot about people’s perceptions of and reaction to the media. Not all of the feedback he heard was negative.

“There was an appreciation for the burgeoning fact-checking role that the media’s been playing,” he says, in projects like PolitiFact at the Journal Sentinel and similar undertakings on TV news programs. Viewers and readers welcomed “nonpartisan, dispassionate checking into the claims of political advertising,” he continues. “It left people feeling they were more equipped as political consumers to make judgments of this advertising.”

But there was criticism as well. “There was a feeling like the media loves the horse race – who’s ahead, who’s behind, the drama of conflict, all of which heightens the sense of tension in the public square around elections.”

Why so much attention to politics as a contest-cum-spectacle? TV stations and newspapers assume “the drama heightens readership, viewership, ratings,” Anderson says – or at least, that’s how it looks to the readers and viewers.

They also told Anderson they get frustrated when they see journalists “portray issues in a bipolar way” – reducing complex debates to simplistic extremes. “They complained of an inability to tease out the nuance of positions of candidates, of issues. There’s often not enough time for the media to be able to do that in a thoughtful way.”

The proliferation of new information sources and the emergence of more intensely partisan media have produced complicated reactions. On the one hand, people warily watch for hidden ideological agendas in the media. At the same time, they gravitate toward information sources that reinforce their own outlook.

“There’s a sense of homogeneity in messaging,” Anderson says. “So Republicans listen to Republican outlets and Democrats listen to Democratic outlets. We’re looking for affirmation of our own biases. As a result, we lose the benefit of hearing other points of view.”

 

Anderson is a pastor, not a pundit, but I pressed him on what lessons he thought the professional media might glean from the people who he heard.

One principal lesson is to resist boiling down differences over policies or politics to the two loudest antagonists. “We get two spokespeople with two extreme points of view and then present them as both sides,” he says. “People are kind of disgusted with that. They would say, ‘Neither one of those people represent my view.’ It’s kind of a manufacturing of conflict – it doesn’t need to be quite as dramatic as it’s portrayed to be.”

Instead of looking for spokespeople “who have the biggest megaphone or the most vitriolic positions,” news organizations might try harder to explore a wider range of points of view, recognizing first of all that they really do exist.

That could be an uphill battle – especially given “the need to make money and generate listenership and viewership,” Anderson acknowledges. “How do we do that without falling back on generating conflict? I don’t know the answer to that.”

And he has no illusions that fostering real dialogue will be easy – for the media, or for the ministry.

“Learning the tools and practicing the tools is enormously difficult and time-consuming,” Anderson says. “People are looking for a magic bullet, and it’s just not there. It’s hard work – it swims against the tide of our current cultural divide.”

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A few other election-related notes: Speaking of Craig Gilbert, the other day JS Managing Editor George Stanley tweeted that Gilbert is the Bob McGinn of political coverage. Stanley may be bragging, but he’s right. Gilbert takes an approach to political coverage that is professorial in its way – immersed in data and offering the sort of combination of fine-grained and big-picture analysis that McGinn’s weekly Packers report cards provide.

Nate Silver, the statistics wizard who nailed the 2008 Democratic primaries and the general election, then got a platform at the New York Times, was, once again, proven spectacularly on the mark. Jay Rosen offers a very useful round-up of the late-campaign controversies over Silver’s work. And while you’re there, also take a look at Rosen’s various awards for political coverage this year.


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