Our Increasingly Stressful Disagreements

Thomas Jefferson had more than his share of debates in his lifetime, but he claimed to have tried to keep those discussions from affecting his personal feelings.  “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend,” Jefferson said.

But not all of us can follow Jefferson’s advice. New data from Pew Research show Republicans and Democrats alike are increasingly finding their disagreements, well, disagreeable.

“The share of Americans who say having political conversations with those they disagree with is ‘stressful and frustrating’ has increased in recent years,” Pew reports.  “Nearly six-in-ten U.S. adults (59 percent) say they find these conversations stressful, up from 50 percent in May 2019.”

The increase in stress level is the same among Democrats and Republicans—six out of ten.

The angst level goes even higher when individuals believe there are value differences.  “About  two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) who say people who supported a different candidate in 2020 probably don’t share their other values say they find talking politics with those who disagree with them to be stressful.”

If individuals believe the other person does share their values, the stress level declines somewhat.

These findings are not surprising given the tenor of the political debate in this country today.  Gone are the days for many when you could “disagree without being disagreeable.” Political arguments are cast as winning or losing propositions.

We in the media are too often contributors to the malice because conflict will draw listeners, readers and viewers like moths to a flame.  And the increasing harshness of tone makes the flame burn even brighter.

That is too bad because a Democracy, which values individual freedom and liberty, must have consensus to survive.  Without it, we govern with the pendulum swing of extremes, which creates even more stress among voters.

Who can blame voters for failing to find rational common ground with people they disagree with if our elected officials can’t or won’t?

Jefferson had  profound disagreements with fellow Founding Father John Adams, but the duo eventually patched up their differences and became devoted collaborators later in life.   Their relationship was a testament to how two individuals who often had opposing opinions could be not only respectful, but also friendly toward one another.

It is possible, but sadly this latest poll shows it’s not probable because, in today’s environment, it is just too stressful.

*(Editor’s note: After a suggestion from a reader I have done a little more research and I have revised the ending of this commentary.)

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