Department of Conflict Resolution Studies Theses and Dissertations

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences – Department of Conflict Resolution Studies

First Advisor

Elena Bastidas

Second Advisor

Robin Cooper

Third Advisor

Cheryl Duckworth


conflict dynamics, dialogue, interpersonal communication, polarization, political talk


Americans are increasingly reluctant to talk across the political divide, a problematic situation for a system predicated on a citizenry exploring a marketplace of ideas and arriving at policy consensus. This study seeks to illuminate this problem through a qualitative, exploratory study around the research question of how conservatives and liberals experience communicating across the political divide. Results are examined through a research framework that first posits the benefit of deliberative democracy (Habermas, 1996), then identifies two major challenges to such – the tendency to avoid uncomfortable political discussions (Eliasoph, 1998) and the emotional, identity-driven process of polarization (Iyengar and Westwood, 2015) – and finally turns to dialogic engagement (Nagda, 2006) for possible solutions. Interviews with 15 conservatives and 15 liberals are analyzed thematically and narratively. Findings are that actual cross-divide conversations occurred only rarely, as participants avoided them out of fear of jeopardizing relationships or reputation. When participants did interact across the divide, the interactions tended to be highly emotional assertions of identity and values rather than rational policy-oriented discussions. In an already divided context, these interactions contributed to escalating conflict dynamics. Participants nonetheless indicated a desire to talk across the divide and described factors that would assist them to do so, as well as examples of micro-cultures where such respectful conversations were a norm. A conclusion is that a quest for safety and comfort (cognitive, social, emotional, and physical) both drives the polarization and can help shape interventions to overcome it.