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As we wrap up the year at The Masthead, we’re reflecting on how this ongoing experiment in community-oriented journalism is going. One of the most meaningful projects for us has been the debate we conducted on gun control after the mass violence in Las Vegas. In this issue, I’ll lay out some of the lingering questions the project raised for how political discourse is conducted today.

Which came first, the political dysfunction or the partisan divide?

Events like this week’s party-line vote on tax policy can make it feel like politics are dividing us even further. But that causation may be reversed. According to Pew Research’s Carroll Doherty, a growing divide in the population on issues like gun control is driving legislators to take more polarized positions. “These gaps on these fundamental values are underlying some of the divisions you see between Democrats and Republicans in Congress when they debate specific issues,” he told NPR.

What’s making those gaps grow? For one, as our debates go online, Americans talk to each other less and less. And that frustrates a lot of people. One of the first comments when The Masthead launched came from Jon Schatz, a member who asked, “How do Americans learn how to compromise again?” Our daily conversations take place in an echo chamber, he wrote. “However, the future of this country (just like the past) relies on the ability to have constructive debate, and progressive compromise. How do we overcome our own growing lack of empathy?”

Should persuasion be the point?

The dominant model of intellectual debate today, according to the philosopher Daniel Cohen, is the “argument as war.” Two sides engage in intellectual combat, and only one emerges the winner. But that way of approaching argumentation is deeply flawed, says Cohen. “It makes it adversarial; it's polarizing. And the only foreseeable outcomes are triumph—glorious triumph—or abject, ignominious defeat.” Worse, it mixes up the goals of argument. Imagine we’re debating, and you persuade me that your side is right. “The war metaphor forces us into thinking that you're the winner and I lost, even though I gained. And there's something wrong with that picture.”

Instead of trying to score intellectual points, we need to do something more elemental, according to Kern Beare, a professional communicator who has been leading a series of workshops on having difficult conversations since the 2016 election. “We have to learn to prioritize relationship,” says Beare, who spoke on our Masthead conference call Monday. “We actually have to make the relationship more important than the topic. If the relationship is broken, change never occurs. Education never occurs.” A productive conversation doesn’t need to change minds, he said. “It doesn't need to end in agreement.”

Can we use wedge issues to forge understanding or consensus?

Politicians, of course, have long known that they can’t change everyone’s mind, particularly on issues like gun control, where the battle lines have been drawn for years. In those cases, skilled political tacticians often resort to “wedge issues,” where reframing a familiar issue can split an existing political bloc. Wedge issues, the political scientist Omar H. Ali told The Masthead, “can create a conversation that’s important—to the extent that it can even be beneficial. When politicians can’t gloss over it, you get people to hop off the fence.”

In our gun control debate, Justin Robinson offered advocates of tightened gun laws a series of of wedges to crack the gun-rights coalition. Instead of shutting down the conversation by jumping straight to the idea of confiscating guns, he said, focus on a few more achievable policies that gun-owners are more likely to back. “The thing that maybe we don't say out loud enough,” Robinson said in a follow-up call after our debate, is that guns are dangerous. “It's a thing that we will acknowledge among ourselves,” which is why, he said, learning the etiquette of firearms is a requirement for participating in gun culture at shooting ranges and competitions. That suggests gun advocates may be more open than opponents might think to the idea of penalizing gun owners for negligent behavior, like improperly storing their guns. “Why don't you hear gun rights advocates bringing that to the table in a conversation? The reason you don't is that they're afraid that if they make a concession, the conversation is gonna go straight to 100 percent confiscation.” But if we have a better conversation, we might make more progress with ideas like that.

Does the medium matter?

After the recent Masthead debate on gun control, we undertook a small experiment. I asked two of the participants in that debate, Jon Spoon, an advocate of tighter gun control, and Justin Robinson, who wanted to protect the right to self-defense, to talk to each other on the phone to see if, after having debated with one another in writing, speaking could help them find common ground. The goal was to get them to engage with each other as people, and then work out from there to a point of mutual policy preferences. They agreed to let us share an edited excerpt of their discussion.

I sent the transcript of their phone call to Celeste Headlee, a public radio host and the author of We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter. She pointed to recent research by the behavioral scientists Juliana Schroeder and Nicholas Epley that found reading another person’s ideas, instead of hearing them spoken aloud, caused people to dehumanize others. When we start from the written word, the researchers explain, “we’re unable to directly experience another person’s mind compared to our own. Instead, we have to work backwards from another person’s known belief (say, ‘Gun control is bad’) to his or her unknown thinking or reasoning. A seemingly nonsensical belief, the inference process goes, comes from a nonsensical mind.”

To build the empathy our early member asked for, said Headlee, people need to have conversations—real ones. “We seem to think that exchanges on social media or on Twitter, even if they’re respectful, are a conversation, and they’re very much not. And I’m not just talking about metaphorically, I mean, neurologically, emotionally, physiologically, they’re not.” Like Beare, she recommends a focus on the relationship. Starting with the relationship is how television gets us to care so much about despicable characters, she said. “You don’t immediately go to Don Draper and ask him how he sees women in the workplace. You ask him other stuff. His hopes and dreams, the things he cares about, all that kind of stuff. And that creates that emphatic bond, and then you can work your way around to the other stuff.”

At least a few of these prescriptions point in a similar direction. Beginning with issues may in fact be the wrong way to find consensus. What are the implications of that idea for conversations, like ours on gun control? Here at The Masthead we’ll be thinking about these issues well into 2018.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: What issues should we be discussing and debating in 2018? Let us know.
  • What’s coming: Tomorrow, we’ll share a long update from the journalist Jonathan Rosen about how an election in Africa had big consequences for the way technology is used in voting.
  • Your feedback: Please take our winter survey. It’s a little more involved than our usual short questionnaire, and we’d love to hear your thoughts.  

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