Finding Political Understanding with a Single Question

Disruption. Innovation. Disruptive innovation.

These oft-cited drivers of sustained and meaningful change will not lead Americans to a better democracy. We do not need to call upon an external agent, an ‘Uber for American politics,’ to save us. Rather, we need to take it upon ourselves to be better communicators. It starts with asking a simple question when speaking with anyone who holds a difficult, uncomfortable view.

Before jumping to a conclusion or typecasting the person’s view into an established camp of thought, ask this question: What experiences in your life led you to that view?

I implemented this practice as a student at the University of Notre Dame, where we founded a student movement called bridgeND that is now expanding nationwide. We convene students of all beliefs in transpartisan dialogue on the biggest issues facing young Americans. We create spaces where people with different backgrounds can come to know one another. Our model stresses patience to dig into why we and our opponent-of-the-moment hold the views we do. In turn, we learn the authentic needs and interests in others and the self-awareness to identify what led us to the views we hold.

It is vital to ask the question on big, sticky issues. For example, why did my college roommate so vehemently oppose abortion? What experiences in my roommate’s life led him to that view? As I learned, my roommate is the youngest of three. His mother unknowingly carried a recessive gene for a rare genetic syndrome that limits a child’s mental growth to that of a six-year-old. The mother’s first two children, both boys, were born with the syndrome. When the mother found out that she was pregnant with a third son (the syndrome is most prevalent among boys), the parents weighed an abortion to spare their child an unfulfilled life. They ultimately decided against it and the child—my roommate and one of my closest friends—was born completely healthy.

To me, abortion meant something different. My mother works to promote health around the world for women and girls. Growing up, she told me about her time teaching at an all-girls school in a remote village in the Congo. Her freshman class usually had about 50 girls. By senior year, only 13 girls stood ready to graduate, the rest having dropped out of school due to early pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and child marriages.

To me, an abortion meant a woman’s right to control her body, wellbeing, and future. To my roommate, abortion meant a life he would have never lived.

Any proper response to my roommate’s position must address his authentic need to promote policies that encourage more women to say, “Yes. I want to bring this child into the world.” Rather than typecast my roommate as ‘pro-life,’ it was vital to ask: What experiences in your life led you to that view?

It is equally vital to ask the question on small issues. Why do I think that increasing the salaries of congressional staff is one of the most consequential ways to improve our democracy? In my opinion, doubling the salaries of congressional staff would drastically improve our government, retaining wisdom and expertise in our nation’s lawmaking bodies.What experiences in my life led me to this view?

My parents met on a congressional delegation to El Salvador as staffers working for members of Congress on opposite sides of the political aisle. Before I started kindergarten, my parents decided to move my brother and me to a wealthy suburb of Washington, D.C. so we could attend better schools. The move required certain sacrifices. My father left his dream job—staff director on a prestigious committee in the United States Senate—to become a lobbyist, where his salary tripled. My father would say how much he loved a congressional staffer’s ability to positively impact lives at scale and how he would have stayed in his previous role—making less than he currently pays in taxes—if supporting his children had been no obstacle. Those with a hunger for politics, like my father, will always be around government. We might as well pay them more to keep them working for the public interest rather than for special interests.

Sharing the personal experiences behind our perspectives is uncomfortable. It exposes our vulnerability to others and requires self-awareness. It takes practice, but that practice occurs each time we ask the question: What experiences in your life led you to that view? Sharing is much easier, however, than many alternatives. We do not need empathy—to know first-hand what it is like to be in another’s shoes or feel what the other feels. Rather, we only need genuine sympathy. This means showing that we understand the ‘other’ and that learning their experiences has impacted the way we approach confronting a problem together.

Asking this question—What experiences in your life led you to that view?—requires no law or government intervention, only individual action and a willingness to engage in earnest self-reflection. Rather than start in a defensive or judging position, it puts us in an opening position of listening to understand. Shared vulnerability breeds trust, making these conversations easier in the future. That is how we begin to know one another and bring our worlds closer together.