Political Disengagement May Be Bigger Problem Than Political Differences: Revisiting Project Divided

Feb 28, 2020

The co-founders of a nonprofit encouraging civil conversation across political divides spent several months in Smithville, Texas to put some of their online work into practice in the community. They say their thinking has shifted about how to help a polarized electorate come together.

Marley Duchovnay and Casey Moore started Project Divided after their recent graduation from the University of Delaware. They say their goal is to solve problems "from the local level up" by bringing "lots of different perspectives and backgrounds together to first start the conversation." They spearhead political discussions on their website and social media channels and host conversations within the community.

Duchovnay and Moore say their time in Smithville has helped them expand their thinking about the most effective ways to tackle contentious issues.

Duchovnay says talk is great, "but we need to be acting as well. We also need to do our homework."

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She believes it pays to remember that "we're all imperfect humans, that we all fall into the same kind of thinking traps and flaws" when discussing politics — even though we are more likely to see the flaws in others' arguments than in our own.

Moore suggests abandoning assumptions about someone's beliefs based solely on political party affiliation, noting that "labels can be so misleading and people don't fall into just Democrat or Republican. There are lots of different things in between or not included in those two camps at all."

Perhaps the biggest lesson the two say they have learned is actually not that new.

All politics is local.

Listen to the interview or read the transcript below to learn more about the local focus Duchovnay and Moore believe is critical to countering both the inertia and dejection that can come along with politics. They also discuss how that local action can lead to more positive political engagement.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Casey Moore: Yes, it's great to have these conversations, but we need to be acting as well. We also need to do our homework. I think that when we come to the table to have a conversation, we sometimes need to make sure that we're also doing our work beforehand to inform ourselves. It's not all learning on the job. Although some of it can be.

KUT: What would you say has surprised you the most about your work in Smithville and the conversations that you've been part of and what you've seen during your time there?

Marley Duchovnay: I think that when we talk about politics, we forget sometimes that we're all imperfect humans, that we all fall into the same kind of thinking traps and flaws. And if I'm going to think about my views, I'm going to think that I'm perfectly logical. Everything adds up. And then I'm going to suddenly, when I talk to someone else, hear all of these logical flaws and start calling them out on it. And I think that a certain perspective that we need to keep in mind is that we're not perfect when we're talking about politics. And that's also why we like to focus on individual stories, experiences and values, because that can kind of help you understand the core of why you feel certain things.

Moore: Before coming to Smithville and starting this work, I myself was guilty about only viewing people as either Democrat or Republican and nothing in between or, like, these two camps that are very ideologically battling. And people are just sorted into boxes in that way. Labels can be so misleading and people don't fall into just Democrat or Republican. There are lots of different things in between or not included in those two camps at all. So I think I've been challenged with my own perspectives. You know, looking at someone and thinking oh, they have to believe this.

KUT: Will you all change anything about Project Divided or about your work or about how you approach encouraging and coaching these kinds of cross political and cross-ideological conversations, based on your experiences on the ground in Smithville?  

Duchovnay: I think we've actually changed our approach a lot over the past six months when we first started. There was a high emphasis on polarization and we were really getting into the weeds, learning about all of these different value theories and things like that. And that has been very valuable when we're interpreting situations. But I think that over time, what we've realized is that the problem isn't necessarily difference. I think that we should be acknowledging difference and talking about that. The problem is more, I think, the fact that we are becoming politically disengaged. And I think that's the result of this overwhelming state. And what we really want to do is focus on these conversations through an actionable, problem-solving lens. And I think that's how we've changed. We've moved a lot more into being about how we can sit and try to fix something.  

Moore: We came into this work knowing that we wanted to have a focus on the local level. But I think, if anything, throughout doing this work on the ground that has just been emphasized more and more. For example, we brought together people around the community — some health care professionals, some non-health care professionals in Smithville — and had a shared meal. And we talked about health care needs. And I think that issue specifically highlighted the importance of focusing on the local level, because you had people there from the free clinic and you had people there who wanted to start a co-op. And I think they were able to talk about what specifically Smithville needed and Bastrop County.

KUT: All politics is local?

Duchovnay: I cannot agree with that more. The best way that each of us can kind of counteract this feeling of, oh, I can't do anything to impact change is to really look at what is present in our communities and what we can do to impact some of the issues that we're passionate about but at the local level.

KUT: If you go on social media or you drive around and see bumper stickers, it looks like everybody is — we're all talking about politics. It seems like people are pretty engaged. But you're saying that's not what you guys think is going on.  

Duchovnay: I think through my perspective, the two things are connected. The polarization, I think is feeding the political disengagement because I know personally — I'm human. I look online and I see all of these pretty argumentative posts and it seems like everyone hates each other. And I think that human beings we get really overwhelmed — our minds, can only handle so much. And so we protect ourselves and we take a step back and we don't want to see it. We're overwhelmed by it. And so I think the thing that I fear is that I don't want us, especially our generation, which needs to solve pressing issues - I don't want us to be so overwhelmed that we no longer act.

Moore: I think we're exploited by a lot of these differences. And I think what we've learned in our work is that at the end of the day, most Americans actually want the same things: a decent job where they have dignity and respect. They want to raise their families in a safe and healthy environment. A lot of the times we get distracted by these differences between us. In some cases they're real and they have huge impacts and effects on people's lives. And we shouldn't ignore that in any sense. But I think we do get distracted a lot of the time. People a lot of times are working towards the same things or they're confused about the same things. That's why we need more communication and we need to have these conversations, because then at the end of the day, we can find these common interests between us.