We Should Talk About Politics

Our listener, Erika, suggested that we turn our Polite Company discussion into a blog post.  Here you go, Erika, and thanks to listener Lindsey for the inspiration. 

As we move into a contentious general election process, it’s tempting to revert to the old adage, “Never talk about politics or religion.” But that adage got us here. We face a general election in which the presumptive nominees for our two major parties have historically low favorability ratings. Protests at campaign events turn violent so regularly we hardly notice.  And most of us can’t turn on cable news or scroll our social media feeds without feeling personally insulted by the vitriol coming from both sides. 

Politics as team sports brought us here. As long as we continue to buy (literally and metaphorically) a culture of us versus them, we’ll become more disillusioned with our government and disengaged from its work. We’ll have Democrats versus Republicans.  Lawmakers versus their constituents. Experts versus lay-people. Elitists versus salt-of-the-earth. We can continue to divide ourselves by race, religion, gender, ideology, how much money we make, who we love, who we are--but that’s not what we’d want for our children, and it shouldn’t be what we want for ourselves. 

We should talk about politics. Regular people--people who aren’t seeking power or the money that now reflexively follows power, people who view domestic policy in the context of gas prices and a 401k and laundry and daycare, people who view international policy in the context of the draft and the uncle who died in Afghanistan and the friend who studied abroad in Spain--we should talk about politics as often as possible. 

And we should talk about it as ourselves. Rather than mirroring click-baiting, hyped-up, celebrity-journalist polititainment, we should talk about politics in a way that we’d want our children to hear and learn from. We should talk about politics as though we are trying to build relationships with our fellow citizens and collectively work to solve problems and seize opportunities. 

That’s our intention in our podcasts. Sarah and I have a close friendship, mutual respect for each other, and well-known differences. With each topic we discuss, we try to bridge our differences to solve a problem. In the course of our conversations, we’ve come to understand these foundational principles for respectful discussion: 

1. Be comfortable with being uncomfortable. As a moderate Republican, I actively seek out sources of information that will push my thinking. I watch MSNBC and read Salon and scour the internet for the most liberal perspectives I can find. Echo chambers don’t produce good thinkers. 

2. Make understanding your sole goal. Somewhere along the way, we carried debate team into our regular lives. We don’t have to score points, be clever, or persuade anyone of anything when we discuss politics. We’ll start to have good conversations when we rediscover our curiosity.  We can be fascinated with each other.  We can channel our inner Oprahs and really interview each other without any disdain or condescension or judgment. I will never vote for Donald Trump, but I can learn all kinds of interesting and useful, important things from his supporters if I’m willing to listen. People who will forever eschew Paul Ryan can learn interesting and useful, important things by talking to me about conservative economic policy. When the only goal is to understand each other, conversations can uplift all participants. 

3. Avoid hyperbole. Exactly zero Trump supporters will be moved by characterizations of Trump as a fascist, and exactly zero Clinton supporters believe the former Secretary belongs in prison.  Our nation is not going to collapse.  The apocalypse is not upon us.  We have to settle down.  That doesn’t mean that we cast passion aside.  It means that we channel passion into focused and effective thoughts, and we recognize that our thoughts don’t have to be pure or perfect or the only thoughts in the room.  

4. Challenge yourself. Your deeply-held belief that Donald Trump is dangerous--what if you’re wrong? Your certainty that Hillary Clinton would expand government in ways that would threaten our republic--what if you’re wrong? It doesn’t hurt us, at all, to seriously reflect on our own views. It doesn’t even hurt us to change our minds. Reflecting on the possibility that we are mere mortals who could be missing a piece of key insight into, say, the Syrian civil war, doesn’t threaten our status as good, intelligent, caring humans who are just doing the best we can in the world. It’s also perfectly fine to conclude over and over that you aren’t wrong.  You’ll be better for having asked the question. 

5. Volunteer the problems with your position. The most credible thing you can do in a conversation about politics is admit that your position or your candidate is imperfect. When you do so, you lead by example. You invite others to reflect on the problems in their thinking. You open a door to deeper understanding, and that understanding is a gateway to consensus. If you believe in every cell of your body that a Trump presidency is bad for America, your time is best spent breaking bread with Trump supporters and undecided voters talking about how you understand that Hillary Clinton (or Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson or whomever) is flawed. Be specific about those flaws.  Get granular about the ways in which you understand how hard it is to be persuaded. The more you give, the more respected the person across the table will feel and the more that person might be willing to give and reflect, too. 

6. Be generous. Something about social media sucks the grace out of us. We need to recapture that grace in discussions about politics. You don’t need to critique a person’s grammar to understand her valid position on social security. Congrats on knowing the difference between fewer and less; now exhibit enough humanity to read and reflect on your neighbor’s very real fears about the economy without highlighting his error. Your ego can survive passing on an opportunity to label a logical fallacy. You can be trolled on Twitter without counter-shaming. We’re at our best as individuals when we assume the best in others and when we give them and ourselves a break. Assume that people who disagree with you are patriots, that they love America as much as you do, that they care about poverty and illness and fairness. People will care about what you have to say when you care about how they feel when they hear it.