How Can We Build Common Ground Between Bubbles? – Part 1

This has been a dramatic week to say the least.  Very few people expected the outcome of the presidential election.  The country is starkly divided with one major candidate receiving more electoral votes while the other major candidate received more popular votes.

Although the two candidates received a similar number of popular votes, the exit polls reveal stark differences in voting by gender, race, age, educational level, rural or urban residence, and religion, among other factors.

Some of the post-election analysis has focused on how people who live on the coasts live in a “bubble” and are “out of touch” with the majority of the people who live in the middle of country.  Writer Patrick Thornton critiqued this analysis, arguing that people who live in the Midwest live in a bubble.

Unfortunately, I think that probably most of us live in bubbles as society has become more polarized and less emotionally safe.  I suspect that many people, on all sides of the political lines, feel seriously disrespected by the others.  That hurts a lot.

To deal with this, it may help to start by using a neutral, mediator’s mindset to sympathetically understand how the world looks from both “bubbles” without evaluating the merits of the views.

It can be dangerous to make broad generalizations, so the following portraits should be read cautiously, recognizing that there are exceptions to these characterizations which do not include all the elements of the perspectives.

Liberal / Progressive Democratic Perspective

Many of the predominantly Democratic constituencies have suffered legalized discrimination until very recently and still feel the sharp sting of prejudice.  African Americans suffer from a legacy of slavery that began before our country was founded.  A series of shootings of Blacks in recent years and recognition of implicit racial bias in many realms of life have highlighted problems that Blacks routinely face.  Despite legal protections, many women throughout society still feel vulnerable to discrimination, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.  Many Hispanics feel that they or their friends and relatives are threatened by exploitation and deportation due to lack of legal status.  Many Muslims and Jews feel persecuted and physically threatened.  LGBT people are subject to legal discrimination in many places and could not be legally married until recently.  Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders feel that large banks and other corporations take advantage of the vast majority of the public.  Democrats feel victimized by Republicans who they feel have violated political norms by routine use of the filibuster and refusal to consider the nomination of Merrick Garland to the US Supreme Court, for example.  The release of FBI Director Comey’s letters in the last 11 days of the campaign deviated from Justice Department guidelines and a substantial percentage of Democrats, especially women and minorities, believe that the election of Mr. Trump is not legitimate.

Conservative Republican Perspective

Political scientist Katherine Cramer, who has studied rural residents, found what she calls the “politics of resentment.”  She wrote, “[T]he people I listened to felt like they were on the short end of the stick.  They felt they were not getting their fair share of power, resources or respect.  They said that the big decisions that regulated and affected their lives were made far away in the cities.  They felt that no one was listening to their own ideas about how things should be done or what needed attention. . . . [T]hey resented that they were not getting respect.  They perceived that city folks called people like them ignorant racists who could not figure out their own interests.  To them, urban types just did not get small-town life — what people in those places value, the way they live, and the challenges they face.”

Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild found a similar perspective in her study of Tea Party supporters.  A review of her book, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right, refers to “Tea Partiers’ complaints that they have become the “strangers” of the title — triply marginalized by flat or falling wages, rapid demographic change, and liberal culture that mocks their faith and patriotism.”   After listening to her subjects, Prof. Hochshild developed the following story capturing their perspective:  “‘You are patiently standing in a long line’ for something you call the American dream.  You are white, Christian, of modest means, and getting along in years.  You are male.  There are people of color behind you, and ‘in principle you wish them well.’  But you’ve waited long, worked hard, ‘and the line is barely moving.’  Then ‘Look!  You see people cutting in line ahead of you!’  Who are these interlopers?  ‘Some are black,’ others ‘immigrants, refugees.’  They get affirmative action, sympathy and welfare — ‘checks for the listless and idle.’  The government wants you to feel sorry for them.”

To Republicans, Democrats, especially President Obama, far exceeded the legitimate authority of the Federal Government.

Building Empathy and Common Ground

From a mediation perspective, it helps to begin by recognizing the truth and empathizing with the pain felt by people on all sides.  This is really hard.  I think that some people feel that acknowledging others’ problems is an implicit devaluation of their own problems.

Probably most of us have strong sympathies with one side and it is difficult for us to acknowledge the legitimate perspectives and problems of the other.  We have very different sources of knowledge so that both sides believe they have legitimate accounts of reality and the other side’s “reality” is based on falsehoods.  Both sides believe that the other has committed serious political sins.  These views are reinforced by reactions to highly publicized statements of extreme partisans of each side, which probably don’t reflect the views of most people on their side.

From a mediator’s perspective, one need not believe that there is equal merit on both sides.  I certainly don’t believe that.

At this point, however, I suspect that these conflicts will not be resolved through competing arguments about the truth or who has suffered more.

It feels as if the conflict fundamentally is about identity – who is worth respect and help, and who is not.

I believe that many people on both sides feel real pain.  It would be nice if this could be acknowledged without people on either side feeling devalued as if in a zero-sum situation.  Indeed, it would be good if people could simultaneously acknowledge the valid concerns of people on all sides.

I really don’t know how to make this conflict more constructive, especially in the public, political world.

I would like to think that in our daily private lives, in our schools and communities, people will increasingly decide to treat people in other “bubbles” with curiosity, respect, and appreciation even when we disagree about the extremely charged issues raised in this election.  I wonder if it would help if people would acknowledge that people on all sides legitimately feel wounded, without assessing who has been hurt more than the others.

I would like to think that this is possible and would help.  But I don’t know.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “How Can We Build Common Ground Between Bubbles? – Part 1”

  1. Here’s an article in the New York Times describing a polarization in Europe between liberal urban residents and conservative rural residents similar to the “bubbles” in the US described in this post.

    It seems that the rural populations generally value their traditional way of life and feel threatened by major social and technological changes in recent decades. By contrast, the urban populations feel threatened by some traditional aspects of society and have embraced recent changes.

    Obviously, these are broad generalizations that aren’t always true. But do they reflect a major underlying tension between the “bubbles” as you see it?

  2. I do agree with your themes, with some slight modification.

    When talking through social and political issues we tend to discuss things in terms of discrete bodies of issues or value frameworks that are typical of “Group X naturally aligned against Group Y.” As a (hopefully) moral and objective person I recognize that the human experience, and the way that personal values manifest as a product of experience must necessarily lead to myriad social identities, spanning an expansive spectrum, many or most of which do not conform to two separate ideologies that split all social issues almost neatly down the center. Unfortunately, we’re forced to discuss society in these terms, because we’ve allowed the party system to permeate the discourse, and we continue to hold it as the political framework by which we administrate our lives.

    In my own negotiations, I have found empathy to be an incredibly valuable tool. Not only does it “bring people in,” as noted elsewhere in the comment section, but it serves to uncover shared values and establish a base from which parties are able to explore these values. Applying empathy skillfully early on in a negotiation tends to cultivate the open and honest exchange of ideas. People want to be heard, they want to know that they are understood, and they are often willing to tell you more if they believe you have an ear with which to hear them voice their positions and that that ear is a considerate one. To my mind, this is a positive step that serves to create a gateway in to objective analysis of the issues and collaborative discussion of shared concerns. There is also a greater potential for relationship preservation in this context.

    What we need to do is use this empathy not to explore all of the issues on each side, but to encourage shared value creation along reasoned, objective lines. How do we accomplish this? As stated above, not all arguments are equally valid. We need to acknowledge that some (even most) of the concerns on either side of the discussion are developed under some grave misapprehensions as to the way the world works. It’s too often that the discourse is hampered by the fallacious notion that all ideas are equally valid. For example: some of the Tea Party notions that recent events indicate an assault on Christian values in America today. In order to work through this belief we would need to engage with the people that profess the belief directly, trace the reasoning behind the belief down to its logical roots, point out the faults that run along the course of these roots, and show them that the reasoning within the belief is illogical. We can not afford all ideas equal currency within the discourse because of the simple and undeniable fact that not all ideas are equal in their conception. Discourse must be an increasingly evolutionary process and to afford all ideas equal currency runs counter to the ethic of intellectual honesty.

    Mindful of the necessity of an evolutionary discourse: filtering our thoughts through the lens of the mediator when engaging in dialogue “inter-bubble” should be a step on a path towards the ultimate goal of cultivating true dialogue, the kind that existed before we reduced ourselves to thinking in 140 characters, and expressing ourselves in memes. The discourse these days is all conclusion and no substance. As stated above, those at the fore of each bubble are the vocal extremes. They are typically positioned in such a way because they yell the loudest and are rarely the people armed with the best reasoning. Our collective recognition of this is discounted as the unfortunate “way of the world.” That is precisely the reason why these bubbles are buttressed and insulated by a disturbingly malformed amalgam of buzzwords and prejudices, bricks held together by the thick clay of underdeveloped self-awareness.

    Is not the purpose of social discourse to test the resolve of our positions, armed with reasoning, to perish or stand victorious on the field of logic? Some of the more ridiculous, divisive issues operative within our country today come to mind when I ponder the social dialogue as it tends to manifest itself: disputes over what bathroom a person may choose to use and whether Halloween costumes should be allowed on Ivy League campuses for fear of injuring the students’ emotions. If these are the trenches that my generation has chosen to fight and die in then I would rather fight against the need for such trenches than choose one.

    The problem as I see it is this: best and brightest among us relegate themselves to fighting from within their “bubbles” because this is the way that society has become structured. This is the system that we live in: the general fairness intended by the founders was circumvented very early on. We all just went along with it. Imagine if the scientific community was plagued by such a defeatist attitude! We would forever insist against evolutionary theory and the laws of Newtonian physics simply because a relatively functional establishment is in the way.

    Good ideas and honest causes are only bound by the inaction of otherwise strong people. When it comes down to it, what we have on our hands is the need to develop and promote a new intellectual ethic.

    An additional note: I have to say that citing implicit racial bias as a source of active concern within the minority is a bit of a stretch. To my mind, any implicit bias is rooted in the subconscious and a great number of implicit biases exist, many as biological imperatives (the uncanny valley, for one). Its effects are testable but poorly understood by experts, and even more poorly understood by the public. It has to do with the way our subconscious influences our thoughts and behavior on a level that is so deep to actual surface consciousness that we would not be aware of its true influence even if we were persistently cognizant of its existence, and how it might affect our actions, in everything that we do. This is a factor of our being that is molded by whole-life experience and is far more difficult to address than actual behavior or representation. I don’t think that something like this can be reasoned through and settled along the lines of a mediation-type discussion, or any discussion for that matter.

  3. I’m glad that this post sparked thoughtful reactions.

    I want to add a few things here. First, as I described in a later post, I believe that trying to understand others sympathetically does not mean that one should necessarily try to reach agreement (or seek unity, in the political context). This is not appropriate if the others have starkly incompatible goals or are untrustworthy. I think that seriously trying to understand others as a first step generally is just a good human thing to do and it can help decide whether to seek common ground or use another strategy.

    As an extreme example, it is useful to accurately understand the perspectives of KKK and neo-Nazi leaders (and not simply rely on assumptions), but I think it is better to build coalitions against them than to seek common ground with them. As described in the later post, I think that constructive engagement in long-term conflict sometimes is more appropriate than seeking agreement or unity. Similarly, on a private, personal level, I think it is good to try to really understand others with whom we disagree about some things and then decide what, if anything, we want to pursue with them.

    This is easier said than done, especially when we have strong emotional reactions, as stimulated by this election.

    I also want to note a podcast of This American Life broadcast on the Sunday after the election. This includes eleven conversations and stories with reactions to the elections by both Trump and Clinton supporters. I think that this program generally does a fabulous job of respectfully conveying so many different perspectives about all sorts of things. This post-election podcast does a particularly good job of vividly portraying how many different people feel.

  4. I agree that empathy is an important step to building common ground, but I believe that it is only the first step of many. Empathy may peak interest in having a conversation, but it only gets people to the table. In order to foster a dialogue and real healing, there needs to be self-reflection and accountability.

    A lot of political issues that cause great divide are centered around issues that we hold to be deeply personal, so an attack on our position is interpreted as an attack on us as an individual. To overcome the pain of an attack, it is not enough for people to say “Although I do not agree, I understand your feelings.” We need to take it a step further until we arrive to the point of : “I understand; I take ownership of my speech or actions that have advertently or inadvertently hurt you.”

    Also part of the process is self-reflection on one’s experiences that shape his or her perspective. We all need to take time to reflect on why we think the way we think, why we are hurt, angry or feel overlooked. Self-reflection helps to facilitate a meaningful conversation in that it allows one to clearly articulate her position to others and step outside of himself to evaluate his own behaviors.

    Once we add self-reflection and accountability to the mix, I think we are closer to building a common ground that will lead to positive change in the long run.

  5. As other has expressed, I have gone through a wide-rage of emotions since the election. I envision a much different America than the one that Trump as endorsed over the course of this election season. Yet, I trust the democratic process and plan to channel my angst to get more involved in some of the causes that are most important to me.

    I have struggled through conversations with friends and family who, like myself, live in the midwest and maintain different viewpoints. While its tempting to paint with a broad brush when discussing such emotional topics, I think it is important to remember that the majority of conservatives are not racist. Rather than voting to harm others, I think they voted for Trump to help themselves. They simply have lost faith that they were represented in the political system and voted for change. In fact, this line of thinking meshes with the reasons I supported President Obama the last eight years.

    With the prevalence of extremism and great polarization in the election, I think it is important that we seek to understand the interests that caused voters to vote in a particular way. Otherwise, we risk lumping people into groups and creating more distance between people. There are many reasons why someone may vote for a particular candidate. Putting forth the effort to understand these motivations will help us better to understand other perspectives and encourage people to actively support causes that they are passionate about.

    In mediation, it is equally important, as hard as it may be sometimes, to put forth effort to understand the perspective of the other party. In many cases this will help to ease resentment and encourage compromise. This election has taught me that there are many types of people who have very different interests, yet all of them had to vote for just two candidates. In order to promote discussion, understanding, and healing, we must learn from each other and push to find common ground.

  6. When Donald Trump first announced that he was running to be the president of the United States, I do not know if anyone really took it seriously. Then as we progressed through the debates and the primary election season, he gained ground and his campaign became more legit.

    No one thought after the remarks Donald Trump made throughout the election season, that he would become the president. That being said, he is our president. It has been an emotional couple weeks for a lot of people, but we as a country have to move forward.

    After taking part in the mediation clinic at Marquette University Law School, I think the most important thing I learned is to empower each party to understand each others side or view point and why they feel the way they do. Everyone has opinions and reasons for what they do or say, but it is important to understand why. As a mediator, you want to help the parties acknowledge these feelings and help them come up with creative solutions.

    If we keep blaming the other side, name-calling, and not coming up with effective solutions for America as a whole, we will continue heading down a bad path.

    America must pull together and everyone needs to put their differences aside. That may be easy to say, but it is the only way anything will get done. Coming up with creative and effective solutions will help this country move forward in a positive manner.

  7. After reading this article, it gave me a fresh point of view of this election. As African American female it was hard for me to acknowledge the conservative republicans perspective. Living in my self-absorbed bubble, I viewed people who were voting for Trump were voting for hate. I further viewed that Trump supporters were unintelligent and privileged, that they didn’t understand that the trump election had any effect on them. The day of the election when it was finalized that Trump had won sadness and fear engulfed me. It scared me knowing that I live in a country where the majority is okay with racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and sexual assault. As an African American, I feared that I would face hate crimes or be targeted by police. As a female, I feared that I would have the government policing every aspect of my body on what I can and cannot do. It never crossed my mind that here are some Republicans that live in rural areas that feel that they got the short end of the stick and their voices have not been heard in the post elections. I further agree with the article that city folks like me called them racist who could not figure out their interests, that their values had no meaning and didn’t matter. I didn’t have empathy for how they felt, nor did the Republicans have empathy for the Demarcates, not caring for each other’s interests or values. Both sides were in a bubble only voting for their self-interests and not for the interests of America as a whole. With the Anti-Trump protests going on and the fighting we must stop and come to a common ground. We must pull together now. If we stick to blame, name-calling, and discrimination the divisions our country ahs felt so acutely, particularly over this last year, will be just a taste of worse things to come. These next four years are going to challenge to us, non-Trump supporters and Trump supporters combined, to truly understand what America is and what this will mean for all of us. From a mediation process, we should acknowledge that people on sides of the political spectrum feel wounded without assessing who is hurt more. This process is a path that we should take together to make America great.

  8. As a start, I decided to facilitate a small group dialogue:

    Tell the story of an experience when you felt, “THIS is what democracy looks like.”

    An Invitation to an Online Small Group Dialogue
    Saturday, November 19, 2016 at Noon Chicago ( 6PM UCT)

    from the


    Our Pluralism, Dialogue and Community Transformation Initiative ( PDCTI) will seek to hold dialogues on any topics that introduce and the possibilities of restorative communities, globally. (

    Pluralism requires the nurturing of constructive dialogue to reveal both common understandings and real differences. Not everyone at the will agree with one another; the process of dialogue will inevitably reveal areas of disagreement as well. Pluralism involves the commitment to be at the table—with one’s beliefs.
    The goal of these dialogues include:
    enhanced understanding of the views of others
    defusing polarization
    overcoming stereotypes

    The Initial 2 hour Dialogue, using a Zoom Meeting Room, will be Saturday November 19, 2016 6PM UCT ( Noon Chicago) Group size will be limited to 8 people.

    Framing Question: Tell the story of an experience when you felt, “THIS is what democracy looks like.”

    To participate, contact Tom Valenti, who will facilitate the dialogue (

  9. Wonderful and timely post. I have been struggling with how to acknowledge multiple perspectives without falling into “false equivalency.” And how do we do this in a public dialogue, which devolves so quickly (perhaps necessarily?) into simplified positions and absolutist rhetoric?

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