George Mason University

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Analyzing a political divide, in hopes of building a bridge

January 11, 2018   /   by Buzz McClain

A team of graduate students from George Mason University’s School for Conflict Analysis and Resolution set out to learn what causes the political divide in American democracy and what could possibly be done to bridge it.

The class, Conflict 610 Conflict Inquiry, designed by Mason professor Karina Korostelina, was a semester-long exercise to learn the intricate techniques of in-depth social science research. What they discovered was a bridge across today’s divide will be difficult to build.

“We were shocked to see that some people who want to [bridge the divide] are afraid to because of having possibly debilitating conversations,” said Kelly Christine Benedicto, a master’s student at S-CAR from St. Louis and a graduate admissions liaison at Mason’s College of Health and Human Services. “There’s just so much emotion in these conversations these days that people would rather avoid them.”

The nine students in the class each had an aspect to the survey, when put together with the findings of others, would create a picture of behavior in a political conflict. Immigration, religion, race, age, education and media exposure are factors that contribute to a lack of common understanding of political beliefs, said Korostelina.

After interviews with more than 50 subjects across the social spectrum, the students coded and analyzed the results.

Among the findings:

  • Those with conservative leanings were less eager to discuss politics, Benedicto said, “because some [conservatives] in power are looked down on.” A perceived lack of respect for leadership inhibits conversation.
  • A majority of those who identified as liberal did not want to discuss politics with conservatives because the conversations were “just too overwhelming.”
  • Half of respondents across all demographics said that if a political protest turns violent, they are turned off by the message of those committing the violence. Nationalism, antifa and events in Charlottesville were mentioned as reasons to withdraw support from a group.
  • Right-leaning respondents said they were more likely to fact-check political statements and seek primary sources to verify news.

Students did find that a political divide increases political activity and inspires motivation.

“Some people interviewed were definitely too hesitant or confident in their thoughts to want to reach across the political divide,” Benedictio said. “But we found that most people would set aside differences to bridge the gap.”