Last week, PPD brought together political operatives and UNC faculty to discuss the 2020 elections’ impact on the shape of civic life. Below, you’ll find excerpts from these conversations that explore the past, present, and future of political polarization, its role in society, and the ways we can address it in the coming years.

A Frontline Perspective

“Somehow, there’s got to be a reconciliation of sorts between the media, the public, and the political domain.” – Brett O’Donnell, O’Donnell & Associates, Ltd.
For the first part of the event, PPD met with Democratic and Republican operatives for a discussion that used the 2020 elections as a lens through which to view the ways Americans talk about politics at all levels.

From across the conversation:

When talking about the media’s role in the polarization process, Republican operative Brett O’Donnell stated, “The average person at home, their life does not revolve around politics… And they’re looking for some objectivity, someplace where they can go to get news and not be preached at by the news.” As a result of this, “local news viewership has gone up because people feel more comfortable getting their news there. They feel like they’re not in the middle of politics all day long.”
On bringing more underrepresented communities into politics and campaigns, Democratic operative B.J. Rudell suggested, “Talk less, listen more,” and described a realization he had after leaving a position at Duke to become a field organizer this past election: “These fights had been happening long before I quit my job and I had to remain humble throughout… For some people, it’s a lifelong struggle.” O’Donnell also pointed out the positive representation gains from this election, with record voter turnout on both sides of the aisle and a coming Congress that contains a record number of women in the House of Representatives.
In response to a student’s question about “post-truth politics,” Rudell confessed, “I think it’s more about… are we in a post-people-caring-about-truth era… I think we have reached a point now where being part of a team, or a tribe, is more important than anything.”
As for how these facts will shape the next four years, Rudell cautioned, “I’m very realistic that the next two years are going to be muddy and troubling… This is going to be stake your ground, and stake your ground for the purpose of running a two-year campaign to win in 2022.”
O’Donnell agreed, noting, “I would’ve thought a global pandemic could’ve brought us together. It doesn’t appear that’s going to be the case… Something has to jolt our country out of the current, really deeply partisan divide in which we find ourselves.”
As for what people can do about it right now, O’Donnell urged, “If you want to change the politics, become a part of the change, right? The best way to change how politics are done is to go volunteer on a political campaign and work on a political campaign and advocate for the kind of political change you’d like to see.”

An Academic Perspective

“The history of the country is more about the story of polarization than it is about depolarization.” – Dr. Marc Hetherington, Department of Political Science.
For the second part of the event, PPD brought together four UNC faculty members to discuss the intersecting forces that influence how and whether partisans can have productive conversations in a polarized political climate.

From across the conversation:

“Sometimes I ask myself: when have we ever not been politically and culturally divided in this country, or polarized in this country?” Dr. Travis Albritton from the School of Social Work offered early on, clarifying, “Especially… about issues as it relates to people of color and the history of people of color in this country.” He continued that, “For many folk, they feel as though their life really depends on what is happening and what is going on around them. And they do see the other side… as a danger to their very existence, to their health, to their safety.”
When discussing the current state of political polarization, Dr. Marc Hetherington from the Department of Political Science described the cultural transition from the muted political and party polarization that existed before the Civil Rights Movement: “Polarization has played a really positive role in the country. The polarization, I think, ends up resulting from the backlash against the extension of more equality in all of these different areas. And that’s something that’s really important for us to keep in mind.”
As panelists considered ways to make progress amidst polarization, Dr. Christian Lundberg of the Department of Communication put forward one possible solution: “Civility. Not civility in the sense of politeness, not civility in the sense of rules or norms, but the original Roman distinction between civil and non-civil speech is that civil speech was speech that was undertaken for the good of the whole community, as opposed to one’s own good.”
As for the points upon which individuals cannot agree, Dr. Susan Bickford of the Department of Political Science proposed that, while “it wouldn’t make sense in a political setting for me to put who I am aside… what we share is that argument.” She then explained, “Sometimes, because some interests are fundamentally conflicting even if we’re part of a whole, we’re not going to be able to merge or to come to an agreement, but we can still come to a better understanding of what the conflict between us is. Sometimes, even that is a political achievement.”