Salon Summary: Alexandria.001

Salon Summary: Alexandria.001.1

Union Street Public House

The Burke-Paine Society (BPS) Alexandria Salon.001 held its first gathering on July 9, 2018. Bartender Mike poured amazing cocktails as participants arrived and socialized. After a friendly social hour, participants carried out the BPS mission of cross-partisan dialogue addressing the question, “What’s wrong with politics, today?”

Introductions. Participants came from many different states, including Texas, California, Michigan, and Virginia. Their views ranged from pro-Trump conservative to progressive democrat. (Note: BPS salons enforce the Chatham House Rule. The Rule allows the participants to use the information discussed but not attribute the information to a person or organization.) 

Why BPS. Participants joined BPS to find common ground with people of differing political views. Many participants described politics’ negative impact on their families and personal relationships. They hope that BPS will help them build the necessary skills and perspectives needed to reconnect with family and friends—and by extension—take a step toward mending our fractured republic.

Admin. After brief introductions, the facilitator requested that participants sign the BPS Pledge. The BPS Pledge asked participants to uphold the BPS values of inclusiveness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and humility and abide by the gorund rules. Then, the facilitator requested that each participant foster a cross-partisan esprit de corps in and outside the salon, leverage their networks in service of the group, and help fellow salon members by serving in an administrative role (such as deputy facilitator, secretary, and event planner). Finally, participants decided that publishing a brief summary of salon would be the best option for communicating results. As a result, the BPS Blog was born!

Cross-partisan dialogue: what’s wrong with politics, today? Participants engaged in a wide-ranging exploration of America's current political dysfunction (though many questioned whether today was really that much worse than previous periods of U.S. history). They weaved historical and contemporary events into a rich analysis that generated three drivers of today’s political woes: (social) media, tribalism, and the insufficiency of facts.

(Social) Media. Participants agreed that media companies, responding to market forces, create an overly-tailored and politicized message for their audiences. “Big media” tailor their content because they want audience and revenue growth. Media companies are, therefore, not incentivized to publish information or analysis inconsistent with their viewers’ perspectives. One possible reason for this, participants argued, was that media executives may worry that their audience would tune-out when confronted with conflicting points of view. Fewer viewers mean less revenue. Participants then concluded this portion of the discussion with a brief reference to social media. Social media platforms are also part of the problem. Instead of exposing users to diverse perspectives, social media platforms help users isolate themselves within their echo chamber (or tribe).

Tribalism. America’s republican system lends itself to tribalism and factionalism, so participants rightfully questioned whether the premise that today is worse than previous periods in our history is true. One participant believed that today was a bit different than previous periods in our history—at least the last seventy or so years after the end of World War II. The participant theorized that today is a bit different than the previous post-World War II period in U.S. history because the United States does not face a massive external threat. The person argued that unlike the previous generations—where politics stopped at the water’s edge because of consensus around the external threat of the Soviet Union—Americans today do not face an existential threat. The Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal generated tremendous pressures on our politics that constrained slightly America's tribal and factional tendencies. In the absence of an existential threat, one should expect a rise in tribal and factional forces.

The Insufficiency of Facts. As the tribalism discussion concluded, a participant commented that our salon—and our country—need more facts and data. The person argued that facts and data are in abundance thanks to the internet, so we should use them to drive toward common understandings of problems. Another participant noted that facts and data seem insufficient when each partisan presses his own facts into the service of his position. Worse still, people (and political parties) tend to cherry-pick those facts which support their points of view. The more facts and data are wielded as partisan weapons, the more people lose trust in the very idea of facts and data (and the academic disciplines that create them). The group concluded that trust is a necessary pre-condition prior to using facts in discourse.

Conclusion. Alexandria.001 determined that media, tribalism, and the false belief in facts alone are three issues contributing to what’s wrong with American politics today. Participants noted how BPS salons address each issue through structured cross-partisan dialogue. Leveraging core values of inclusiveness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and humility, BPS salons enable citizens to break out of their echo chambers, build fellowship with people not normally part of their tribes, and gain exposure to facts and data from a trustworthy source.

Next steps. Participants decided to hold their meetings on the first Monday of the month. They will divide the meetings into three segments. First, the social hour. Second, learning a new skill (such as active listening). Finally, after the group has learned the basics of the new skill, they plan to apply that skill during a discussion regarding some of the complex challenges facing our nation.