I worked in corporate communications for about a decade. My colleagues and I regularly discussed public opinion, and how to influence it.
Sometimes, there would be a consultant in the room. They’d be explaining the latest results of some poll or another, and we’d inevitably end up talking about how to reach people in the centre. If you imagine the results of an opinion poll, you usually get a small group of people on either end who are strongly opposed to, or in favour of, an idea. The accepted philosophy was that we were unlikely to change the views of those folks. But the people in the middle? Maybe they could be influenced.
(Side note: since deciding to change careers and move to social work, I’ve had similar conversations related to policy advocacy and systems changes.)
I was thinking about some of these discussions while listening to the Freakonomics podcast and an episode called “America’s Hidden Duopoly. It’s been a few weeks now since I heard the podcast, so I’ll probably get some of the details wrong – but basically they were suggesting that America’s two-party political system has become an industry designed to kill the competition.
That idea caught my attention, especially since it seems like more and more – in politics and elsewhere – we’re being driven to decide between one view or another. We’re asked to vacate the middle and choose a side, not to hear other perspectives (which, as I said in my last post, is kind of a big deal to me).
In fact, it’s so easy to take a “you’re this or you’re that” view that we often assume someone holding an opinion from one side of the political spectrum must feel a certain way about a multitude of other things. We make assumptions quickly, and we hold them (arguably) far too tightly.
Sometimes, we even make assumptions about ourselves. Sometimes we don’t look at our own views closely enough, but instead assume that we must think a certain way because we belong to a certain group. Take this example, where a study showed that most Democrats and Republicans in the U.S. believe in climate change, but can’t agree on associated policies because of their political identities. As the article said, “an interesting suggestion from our research is that Democrats and Republicans are swayed by partisanship because they think their fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans are even more swayed by partisanship — and they don’t want to break ranks.”**
The choice to hold an identity on one side – rather than look for middle ground – is doing us some damage. It erodes the middle, and we stop listening. Maybe we even stop thinking.
Here in Calgary, Canada, we recently had a city-wide vote on whether to bid for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games. I thought one of the most interesting things about the “Yes” and “No” campaigns was how people leaned toward either of those points from all over the political and social spectrum. And since we couldn’t assume that a fiscal conservative would not also be an Olympics enthusiast (as just one of many examples), we had to talk to each other to uncover the various viewpoints that we each held. Many of the Olympics conversations I was part of did not have a vehement “yes” or “no” flavour, but often sounded more like this: “well, I’m thinking _____, but I also understand this other angle _____.”
Sure, we each had to make a choice once we held ballots in our hands. But many of us made that choice with the awareness that there were many possible opinions. “No” did not stem from only one argument, and neither did “Yes.”
The Freakonomics host compared America’s political system to an industry with only two competitors. I think he even drew a Coke versus Pepsi analogy. But while we might feel forced to choose between two major brands if we want a cola beverage, we do not have to choose – resolutely or unthinkingly – between sides when it comes to our views on important issues. We can think on it. We can hold seemingly contradictory opinions for carefully weighed-out reasons. We can hold the middle ground.
**This post is not about climate change. But if you need help believing in science, you may want to turn to one of Canada’s largest oil companies (yes, I said oil) and their 2014 blog post that included a link from John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.