McCormack Speaks

How Can We Explain Political Change?

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by Enrico E. Manalo, McCormack Graduate School student

Ribuc's CubeAh, April of a post-election year; a time when campaigning has come to an end, a time when life goes on, a time when we can look forward to settling into the groove of things. What’s that? My apologies, I appear to be thinking of another year. Whether you voted democrat or republican (or not at all), this March we in the United States are still talking about the outcomes of the 2016 presidential election. In any case, change is in the air and what exactly that will look like over the next few years is anyone’s guess.

In the United States, we expect change; it is what this country was founded on and the changing demographics, opinions, and lifestyles continue to reflect that. How curious then, that politically we are represented by two seeming monoliths: the Republican and Democratic parties. But are those two stalwarts of American politics truly so monolithic?  Under President Obama we saw the emergence of the Tea Party on the right and more recently, the emergence of what some have referred to as “Berniecrats” and “Trumpers”—in any case, it is clear that there is change occurring within the two major parties.

It is no great surprise that in any group, a variety of opinions will be represented, even if they exist under a superordinate identity. For example, a group of people who all identify as “friends” might not all agree on what constitutes “good pizza.”  In the political sphere, though the voting public may all identify as Americans, it is clear that people have very different views of how the country should be governed.

The identity of “American” is an inclusive one and historically Americans have worked hard to create that inclusivity, but under that superordinate identity exists a universe of identities, from which any single American picks and chooses. However, people don’t only identify themselves by what they are, they also identify themselves by what they are not.

Within all of us exist the need for inclusion and also for differentiation. This is the premise of Optimal Distinctiveness Theory (ODT), which was initially conceived by Marilynn B. Brewer.  Essentially, if a given person feels that an identity group is too inclusive, this triggers the need for differentiation and vice versa. Teenagers for example, will begin to feel the need to dress differently than their parents or than younger children, not only to distinguish themselves but also to identify with their peer group.  ODT posits that this is directly related to self-esteem. In other words, if I am “just another face in the crowd,” I may be motivated to distinguish myself, whereas if I am singled out for my uniqueness, I may then feel the need to find others who can relate to me.

In our most recent election it was clear that on both sides there existed candidates who did not capture the hearts and minds of significant numbers of their prospective constituents and as a result, there was greater than expected support for “alternative” candidates such as Mr. Trump and Senator Sanders. If nothing else, this election did prove to all of us that engaging in the political process can indeed create change. Already, we are seeing people engaging in protests, planning to run for political office, and having conversations about what they would like to see happen next.

But, as “optimal distinctiveness” suggests, there can be too much distinctiveness, which we see realized as an undesirable social identity, which can result in stigma. In the American political context, we certainly have seen the stigmatization of one side or the other in the news media to the point where certain media outlets have been construed as “echo-chambers” wherein opinions bounce back and forth between like-minded people, reinforcing particular worldviews. These parallel narratives may feed the self-esteem of people who identify as Democrat or Republican, but they certainly don’t give us a clear picture of what is motivating people who belong to the other group. This is in no way, “optimal”.

That said, it seems to me that there are a great many people who are less than satisfied with the way things have been going and that people with many political views have dedicated or re-dedicated themselves to standing up for those views and demanding the kind of change that they want to see. ODT is a great theory for explaining that change, and as long as people are able to find that balance between inclusion and differentiation, that change can be a positive thing. However, it will certainly take the engagement of the public to ensure that positive change does occur. What exactly that will look like remains largely up to us, but engaging positively with each other is a great way to start.

“How can we begin engaging with each other in a positive manner” you ask?  This past semester I had the pleasure of participating in a mediation internship at the Dorchester District Court as part of my master’s in conflict resolution.  Our professor, Jeanne Cleary encouraged us time and time again to “go curious,” to get the perspectives of those in mediation, to put ourselves in their shoes, to try to deeply understand what it was in their lives that made them see the conflict in that way in the first place.

Another mediator I met along the way told me that often when people are in dispute, it’s not because they’re not seeing the same things, it’s that they’re seeing different parts of the thing, with neither seeing its entirety. “What America needs” looks different in Massachusetts than it does in Florida, California, North Dakota, and so on. Why is that? What exactly are we looking at? Why do I think the things that I do? Why do you think the things that you do? What can we all do about it?  How can I help?  Over the next few years I hope to answer these questions and I hope others will go curious too.

Enrico ManaloEnrico E. Manalo studies conflict resolution at the McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies. He currently teaches English as a second language. His love of language and of opportunity revealed by breakdowns in communication and conflict continues to shape both his writing and his interest in conflict resolution.

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