Like many adults who achieve bilingual fluency, Lupia started learning both languages at a young age. “My parents got divorced when I was very young. I spent the winters in Buffalo and the summers in El Paso, Texas. One side of my family is quite liberal. The other side usually has Fox News on in the background. So, for me, bipartisanship is not just an interesting topic,” he says, laughing, “it is a survival skill.”
Bipartisanship has helped to guide Lupia in life, and it’s one of the principles behind his research, too. Lupia studies persuasion, examining the way people make decisions and the way they manage complex information—all topics that affect our growing political divide. One subject that has particularly piqued his recent interest is the way in which researchers can benefit society.
“I am really driven by quality-of-life questions,” says Lupia. “What can we do to improve the quality of life for people around us? There aren’t easy solutions, which makes me want to get all hands on deck. And it is hard to get people to work together if you’re telling half of them that they’re stupid.”
By their nature, political parties don’t typically see things the same way. Over the last 50 years, the gulf between Republicans and Democrats has widened. As Democrats have moved further left, Republicans have responded by moving further right. In 1994, a Pew report found that 64 percent of Republicans were more conservative than the median Democrat. By 2014, they found that number had climbed to 92 percent.
It’s a discouraging trend, and it made Lupia wonder what would happen if people shifted their focus away from their differences and toward the challenges and aspirations that all of them recognize.
“I really wasn’t sure how many problems we could find that members of both parties agreed on,” Lupia admits. “I looked at the best available data to see if there were problems that both 80 percent of Republicans and 80 percent of Democrats recognize. My pitch to U-M leadership was, we’re in a swing state and we’re at this amazing public university. What if our campus focused on the big problems that the political parties and the news media are ignoring because they are busy emphasizing conflict instead?”
Lupia’s pitch led to an undergraduate course called “Beyond Partisanship.” For the class, Lupia found four things which Democrats and Republicans could agree were problems, and he found speakers from both sides of the aisle who would come to campus to speak about them. The issues were opioids, housing security, making life better for Michigan, and encouraging public service. Students in the class were charged with figuring out what they could do on these topics to improve quality of life for the diverse communities of people the University of Michigan seeks to serve.
The “Beyond Partisanship” class comprised two separate groups of students: a group of 40 advanced political science students who met twice per week, and a group of 140 students who met to hear the four guest speakers talk about their experiences working on issues using a bipartisan approach.
The guest speakers each focused on a specific topic. U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) talked to the students about the opioid crisis. Beth Myers, a GOP strategist who led campaigns for Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, focused on homelessness and housing security. Former U.S. Representative Brian Baird (D-Washington) talked about how to inspire people to commit to public service. Craig Ruff and Bill Rustem from Public Sector Consultants, who come from opposite sides of the political spectrum themselves and have worked for multiple Republican governors, focused on how to improve the quality of life for people in Michigan.
For each of the four topics, Lupia and the graduate students that he works with identified 40 stakeholder roles. With opioids, for example, the stakeholder roles included addicts and their families, faith leaders working with addicts, doctors, community leaders, and politicians. Using software developed by Ford School of Public Policy Professor Elisabeth Gerber and U-M’s Office of Academic Innovation, the class randomly assigned these stakeholder roles to each of the 40 students in the advanced class without regard to gender or political persuasion. That meant students had to learn and understand other people’s points of view well enough to champion them.
Once the students knew their roles, Lupia ran the class as if it were a 90-minute focus group, and each student had to represent and advocate for the role they had been assigned. In the opioid scenario, for example, a student who had been assigned to portray a local politician explained her thoughts about a proposed policy. “And I’d say, ‘Well, that’s interesting, because that’s the same thing this faith leader or counselor has been doing,’” Lupia explains, “which helped students realize how much different people had in common and how to use that knowledge to make progress solving very difficult problems.”
“It’s easy to get passionate about your perspective and not empathize with someone else’s beliefs,” explains junior Romaer Chopra. “The class made us look at the same issue from different angles and ask, ‘How would the other side think about this? What’s their perspective?’”
“It is hard to be assigned a specific role from a political point of view that isn’t yours,” LSA senior Max Rysztak says. “You have to really think through that perspective and get out of your own mindset to understand what this hypothetical person wants. It takes the politics out of policy and gets you away from thinking it’s a zero-sum game. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed my mind about my own principles and beliefs, but I’ve definitely learned how to work with other people.
“The course pushes us to get out of ourselves,” continues Rysztak, “to recognize our partisanship, and then to go beyond that.”
When people argue about politics, they often become self-referential. People tend to focus on winning the argument instead of thinking about how to work together to help others. Lupia was looking for a different approach that would lead to better outcomes.
“If you ever want to build a coalition around an idea, particularly with people who don’t agree with each other at first,” Lupia says, “it’s important conversationally to lay out a welcome mat. In class, we focused on questions like: Can we all see this vulnerable population? Can our friends on the Right and our friends on the Left see that these people are in trouble? Do we all agree that this is a problem? If so, what can we do about it?”
As the students learned the nuances that make these issues so difficult to solve, they also learned to build surprising and effective coalitions. In the opioid example, the students heard their classmates speak as stakeholders who had first-hand experience with addiction or who had lost a son or a cousin to an overdose. They heard their peers advocate for different treatment models and law enforcement strategies. “The students were using the simulation to crowdsource a knowledge base of different ways people can look at these issues,” Lupia explains. “And then they used that knowledge base to develop original solutions.
“As a result, everyone in the advanced class had a deep understanding of each of the issues,” Lupia continues. “These simulations typically happened a few days before the guest speakers arrived and addressed that topic. When the guests arrived, the students asked very thoughtful and constructive questions as a result of their crowdsourcing.”
The highly partisan wave that’s moved through the country has left ripples at U-M, too. Just as learning to collaborate with people from across the political spectrum is essential in Washington, D.C., it also feels important to improve the campus climate at U-M—especially after the 2016 presidential election.
“There was this monumental event, this election, that felt like the biggest one in something like 30 years,” says Romaer Chopra, “and we were here on a huge college campus that had an equally huge divide. It’s really hard to facilitate that kind of conversation, but it is important for us to do it at U-M. It’s relevant to everyone on campus, and I really want to be part of that conversation. This class felt like a way to start.”
LSA junior Danielle Jahnke found that the class not only helped to initiate conversations across the political divide, but it helped to start conversations that could include people in different kinds of places. Jahnke, who comes from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, says, “A lot of proposals can only target communities with access. Opioids are also a prominent issue in places like my hometown, so I wanted to make something that could work as well in Marquette as it would in Washtenaw County.”
Jahnke feels the process of creating these proposals is transferable to other issues, too. “I also have a real focus on preventing sexual violence, which is another non-partisan issue. It has helped me think about creating and conveying a message more effectively.”
Lupia sees the class as the first step in what he calls the Michigan Initiative, which creates systems and structures that will bring people from all political parties to work on problems together.
“By the end of the semester,” he continues, “everyone in that room was part of a plan to work on these problems, and not just in a dreamlike way. They all had something they could walk out of the classroom and actually do right here on campus. Sure, there’s room for blue-sky stuff and if someone won the lottery and all that, but that’s not the way we’re thinking about it.
“Throughout the semester,” Lupia says, “we had a mantra. It’s not about tomorrow, it’s about today. It’s not about somebody else, it’s about you and me right now.”