The Q&A: Political Communication Expert, Prof. Endress, Discusses How to Heal the Partisan Divide

Valerie Endress standing outside building

TV, radio and print news have long turned to Prof. Endress for political commentary. At RIC, students are lucky enough to get to learn from her in the classroom.

RIC Associate Professor of Communication Valerie Endress is a frequent political analyst during campaign season on NBC 10, GoLocalProv and a variety of other media outlets. She’s a Rhode Island political forecaster for national publications and a regular guest on “Rethink the Week,” a nationally syndicated radio show about national politics.

Along with teaching courses on political communication and civic engagement, Endress leads the American Democracy Project at RIC and the Congress to Campus program, which is a unique opportunity for students to engage in frank dialogues with former and current members of Congress.

In this Q&A, Endress discusses the hostility and divisiveness in American politics and how she is training RIC students in critical thinking and “civil” discourse.

Endress believes it is imperative that students have experiences with democratic processes and that they learn civic skills such as critical thinking and active listening, particularly when there are opposing views and perspectives.

“Higher education was designed to make us better citizens,” she says. “It wasn’t originally designed to get us a good job.” Therefore, it is imperative, she says, that higher education prepare students with the knowledge, skills and experiences to be fully engaged and informed, ready to tackle current and future societal issues.

QUESTION: In the last few years, we’ve seen some of the most shocking threats and acts of violence in contemporary American politics. In 2017 a gunman walked onto a baseball field where Republicans were practicing for a game for charity and opened fire, wounding five. In 2020 heavily armed pro-Trump supporters converged on Michigan’s State Capitol, protesting the governor’s lock-down due to the coronavirus. Weeks later, pro-Trump supporters entered the galley of Michigan’s Senate chamber carrying semiautomatic rifles after Trump tweeted “Liberate Michigan.” Following his failed election in 2021, pro-Trump loyalists staged a deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol after Trump urged them to march on the Capitol in protest. Recently former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband was beaten by an assailant who broke into their home intending to assault her. How did we get to this place of anarchy and violence?

ENDRESS: I think we have this abiding belief in American exceptionalism, that we’re different from other countries, that we don’t respond to authoritarianism. The people who heeded Trump’s call were responding in the same way other people have responded to authoritarian leaders throughout the world. In Nazi Germany, the German people held a blind allegiance to Hitler and justified their acts of violence by saying it was for the greater good. We believe we’re better than that, and I honestly don’t know that we are.

Violence isn’t new to America. The United States has a very violent history. This is the country that committed genocide of Indigenous tribes in the name of Westward expansion. This is the country that validated slavery, that validated Jim Crow and that is still discriminating against people of differing races, sexual identities and ethnicities.

QUESTION: Yet there was a time when both Democrats and Republicans could work across party lines. There were moderate-to-liberal Republicans who could find common ground with moderate-to-conservative Democrats to get a bill passed. How did this ability to compromise break down over the years leaving the two parties and their constituents more and more polarized?

ENDRESS: Since the time of Newt Gingrich [who engineered the Republican takeover of the House in 1994, served as Speaker of the House from 1994-99 and is credited with amplifying ruthless partisan politics], there have been deliberate acts to remove moderates from office. Today, if you’re a moderate in the Republican Party, you virtually stand alone. Unless you vote with your congressional caucus, it means that you are likely to face a primary challenge that was orchestrated by your own party.  It’s a signal that you’re going to lose your job.

That’s one of the reasons for the polarization we see today. We’ve also lost our sense of community. We’re more isolated from one another, which is exacerbated by social media. Many of our media outlets are partisan oriented, so we choose only the information that most closely fits our ideological perspective and stay in our isolated bubble. On top of that we have a lot of misinformation. And there’s gerrymandering, where you carve out congressional districts so you can be guaranteed an election for the party of your choice. The result? it doesn’t matter who you elect, just as long as it’s a Democrat or a Republican.

QUESTION: From a general policy standpoint, we know that the Republican Party supports right-leaning, conservative ideologies. They broadly advocate for a low degree of government interference, are against gun control, support pro-life, value a powerful national defense and a strong military.

The Democratic Party generally represents left-leaning, liberal ideologies. They advocate for government intervention, regulation of business, tightening of gun legislation, a woman’s legal right to a free abortion as well as equal treatment of LGBTQ+ individuals under the law.

How do they put aside such stark differences?

ENDRESS: They must learn to adopt the moral language of the other side. For example, Republicans could explain to Democrats that we have to make government smaller and stop raising the national debt because we’re passing that on to future generations and to people who can least afford it.

And Democrats could talk to Republicans about the importance of wearing masks during a pandemic by connecting it to homeland security. We, as a country, make ourselves vulnerable when we have to shut down our economy because people refuse to wear masks. That hurts our standing and our power.

QUESTION: In other words, try to connect what I care about with what you care about?

ENDRESS: Exactly. And that’s a really simple thing to do, but we don’t pay enough attention to it.

QUESTION: For some extremists it’s not about reaching across the aisle and trying to work together. It’s about disrupting government completely. It’s about anarchy.

ENDRESS: Ultimately, it’s about power. Even anarchy is about power. It’s about who is in control and who has the power. It’s about preserving your own personal power and the power of the party.

QUESTION: There are political leaders who say our very democracy is at risk. What do you say?

ENDRESS: I think we are at risk. I’m worried about 2024. I’m very worried. But I have a lot of faith in the new generation. I believe with every generation we become more enlightened.

QUESTION: How do you teach your own students to engage in “civil” political discourse?

ENDRESS: One of the things higher education institutions have to do is produce good critical thinkers. It’s really on us [to create that kind of citizenry]. In my political communication course, I begin with a basic civics lesson: Here’s what the legislature does. Here are the powers of the presidency, etc. Then we talk about how you join a conversation when the left and right are going at each other and they’re both calling each other liars.

First of all, you can’t join a conversation if you have no idea what anyone’s talking about. I teach my students to first do the research to fully understand the issue. For instance, there was a news article about the debt ceiling that began with a primer on what the debt ceiling is and why it matters. That’s the kind of information you need before you enter a conversation. Basic research skills are at the heart of critical thinking.

This fall we will be training a group of students on how to lead difficult conversations and teach faculty how to conduct difficult conversations in the classroom. Faculty dread these conversations because without proper training, you can do more harm than good. But as a society, it’s essential that we engage.  We have to talk about issues around abortion, race, sexual identity and other issues. We can’t be afraid of these conversations, nor can our students.

The day after Trump was elected, I was trying to figure out how to talk about it to my students, some of whom were absolutely devastated and others who were elated. A lot of the training has to do with active listening, letting students share their perspective. Quite frankly, I think members of Congress need this kind of training, as well.

In the fall I’ll be leading a Congress to Campus event at Rhode Island College. We’ll be bringing in former members of Congress – one Republican and one Democrat – to talk about healing the partisan divide. I want to put their feet to the fire on this issue. We’re also hoping to bring in our own congressional delegation. I’m hoping the two former members will hold our present members accountable. I think they need to be asked hard questions, and my students are just the ones to ask those questions.

Also see, “Prof. Endress Discusses How the Online World of Misinformation Feeds into Political Polarization.

See Rhode Island College’s Department of Communication, for information about our major and concentrations.