Advice For Holiday Harmony: Debate, Denison Style

By Eric Buehler and Paul A. Djupe

Winter break is upon us and with it the risk of political debate with relatives, be it your uncle, who is convinced the government is trying to take his guns, or your vegan cousin, who insists on the curative properties of Bragg’s Liquid Aminos. We’re aware of this risk at OneTwentySeven and want to provide you with some tips on how Denison students debate, so that you can catch yourself before you enter a charged debate with one of your relatives. For example, does debate increase Denison students’ disgust or love of political parties? And, if so, are there any factors that influence this increased love or disgust?

Lucky for us, Djupe’s senior seminar took a look at how Denison students debate by asking a group of civic-minded students to discuss whether or not we should have security cameras on campus. OneTwentySeven took a look at some of these results here. What remains remarkable about them is that participants didn’t go to extremes and double down, but instead moderated their views.

Through this deliberative experience, would participants come to appreciate the other partisan side too?

To figure this out, we can compare their feelings toward the Denison Democrats and Denison Republicans before and after the forum using a feeling thermometer (running from 0 “cold” to 100 “warm”). Did they polarize their view and become more extreme toward the other side, or did they moderate their views? Just like in American politics more generally, Democrats don’t really like (campus) Republicans and Republicans don’t really like (campus) Democrats – both groups gave the other side a 37 in the October survey, a ‘cool’ (as in not cool, not positive) rating.

But after the forum, participants changed their views a lot – the average was a 15 point swing for both groups. The figure below shows the direction of that change given where they started in October. The left panel shows views toward Denison Democrats, the right panel toward Denison Republicans. If they polarized, then the graph would show a line from lower left (cold gets colder) to the upper right (warm get warmer). Obviously, the evidence points in the other direction – the cold get warmer, and the warm get colder after participating in the forum. The evidence is a bit messier in the case of feelings toward Republicans (and hence is statistically marginal evidence), but the general pattern is the same.

It’s hard to overstate just how uncommon this is, especially when considering how much partisans appear to hate the other side and the overwhelming attention given to radically opinionated college students on liberal arts campuses. So, to see evidence of bridging this divide by talking through a policy issue that is not partisan is remarkable.

But, if rare, it is also not unexpected. One of the most extensively documented processes for bridging such deep social divides is bringing diverse sides together to work on a common project. One reason given for why attitudes toward gay rights changed so rapidly in almost every corner of America is that random dispersion in American society means most people can point to contact with an LGBT family member or friend.

But not everyone changed their mind and some student participants polarized. Why? Well, one reason is that not everybody got on the moderation program. Strong partisans, in particular, went the other way. Strong Democrats, in particular, felt better about themselves and even more coolly toward Republicans after the forum. Perhaps because of the large number of Democrats present at the deliberation, the strongest Democrats experienced a bit of an echo chamber (though remember that almost everyone moderated their views on cameras). Republicans (there weren’t really enough of them to parse out the strength of identification) did the opposite – they moderated. This is consistent with how conservatives are treated on campus, but it also squares with the fact that strong Republicans are more committed to democratic norms on campus — being open to all sides. There’s also some hint, too, that women grew more positive toward the other side (by about 13 points) compared to men.

There’s one last piece of evidence we thought was interesting to consider. Moderators rated each small deliberating group according to how “productive” it was. How that rating was connected to changes in feelings toward the other partisan group is shown below. According to the paradigm above, working together on common projects is linked to more positive feelings, but in this case, people in less productive groups grew more positive toward the other side.[note 1] One possibility is that they worked less at achieving a particular policy outcome and more on just hearing each other, creating a more humanizing, albeit less effective environment for deliberation. Whether that suggests a tradeoff in this process – either pursue understanding or policy outcomes – is not exactly clear.

Despite the perception of over-reacting college students across the United States, it appears that Denison students defy the odds and prove amiable in debate by moderating their own opinions. It also seems that less goal oriented deliberation might be a key in reaching a common ground. So as you head home for winter break, remember, you might be better equipped than you think to handle that conversation with your politically radical aunt or uncle. After all, you are a Denison student. It also might not hurt to try to avoid proving your relative is a paranoid anarchist (which they probably are). Rather, stick to a conversation about the new Star Wars movie or an innocuous Biden meme.

Eric Buehler is one of those Data Analytics students who hopes to be employed one day. In the meantime, you can find him writing about student behavior at Denison.

Paul Djupe is a local cyclist who happens to have taught political science at Denison since the Harry Potter series was first published. You can learn more about his work at pauldjupe.com.


Notes

1. And this is not just a function of having a greater diversity of partisans in the group either. We controlled for that using the standard deviation of partisanship in the group.

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