I came across an article on HuffPost the other day about what it’s like to have a conversation about politics in America. The author, Kayla Chadwick, stated that there are fundamental disagreements between people about the way our government should run and to what degree people should care about the welfare of their fellow citizens. These disagreements have then resulted in the ongoing arguments and bickering about healthcare legislation, tax reform and immigration law, among others.
While these debates are hardly a new feature in politics, American or otherwise, the attitude she brings to the discussion is symptomatic of the way political discourse seems to run nowadays. Her main point is that she is no longer willing to try to engage in conversation with conservative politicians or the citizens that subscribe to similar ideals because they lack basic empathy for other people. The article drips with her disdain for a number recent Republican bill proposals, Trumpcare being simply the tip of the iceberg. The title of her article serves as a clear summary of her view: “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” She says that any person who would propose a bill that would take health insurance away from millions of people, vote against laws that increase funding for public schools or allow the working poor to earn a living wage, clearly has no capacity for considering the welfare of others.
I appreciate Chadwick’s candor and I will even admit to sharing some of her hesitation in striking up a conversation with someone who is so far on the other side of the political spectrum. It would be particularly difficult, for instance, for me to be convinced that access to useful healthcare coverage and medical services should be anything other than basic human rights, as opposed to only rights of humans who can afford them. Furthermore, I could not guarantee that my opinion of a person would be unaffected if I heard someone try to push such an agenda. As much as I may want to engage in a substantive discussion about the merits – or lack thereof – of proposed legislation, it would be a challenge for me to get past that hurdle.
That being said, I think there are aspects of these kinds of arguments that Chadwick is missing. For one thing, Chadwick does not seem interested in reaching any sort of compromise. I don’t necessarily blame her; as she says at the start of the article, many of us have reached “arguing-about-politics fatigue,” so any conversation that starts from a point of disagreement seems doomed to devolve into the shouting, noisy stalemate often portrayed on cable news shows. Even civil conversations often end up sinking to the level of personal insults. Not only is there no “winner,” we end up so angry at each other that we don’t even want to hear each other’s opinions, leaving preciously small hope for any sort of resolution.
The problem with the view of any effort being useless since the goal is unattainable1 is twofold. First, it overlooks the idea of earning partial credit. Senator Bernie Sanders didn’t gain the Democratic Party nomination in the 2016 Presidential election, but he did succeed in pushing the party’s agenda much farther to the left than it had ever been. That is a meaningful achievement, even if he did not win the nomination. Chadwick may not be able to convince a conservative person to flip their entire ideology and become a Democrat but, at least by remaining open to conversation, she may be able to convince them to reevaluate the policies they are defending.
The other problem with reducing the approach to political discourse to the black and white terms of success or failure is that doing so reinforces the isolation of the various groups in our country with their own ideals. “The “I’ve got mine, so screw you,” attitude has been oozing from the American right wing for decades,” Chadwick notes, but she is leaving out the idea that the left has been just as obstinate; we simply replaced selfishness with self-righteousness. We decided that we knew what was best for the country and labeled anyone who disagreed as immoral, uncaring or racist.
I would argue that it is still worthwhile to engage in political conversations with people who do not share our views but that we have to modify our goals. As I said earlier, I agree with Chadwick that fundamental disagreements are extremely unlikely to change; that’s what makes them fundamental. A Republican is not going to suddenly become a Democrat just because I make a good argument, just like I’m not suddenly going to alter my views because I hear a persuasive defense of conservatism. If our objective is to understand each other, however, rather than convince each other, I think we can actually make some headway.
The main reason we often reach stalemates in these conversations is because people don’t want to be told that they are wrong. Most people are more likely to cling to their beliefs, even in the face of irrefutable2 evidence, rather than admit that they might have made a mistake. That’s why starting the discussion with the objective of trying to change someone’s mind is misguided; someone who has decided they are right is extremely unlikely to then decide otherwise.
On the other hand, if we start from a position of trying to understand the other side, rather than change it, we actually have a chance to achieve something much more meaningful. We have become so accustomed to keeping ourselves separated by labels that we have stopped viewing each other as actual human beings.3 The right ridicules liberals for being melodramatic and for not being fiscally conscious. Meanwhile, the coastal elites who campaigned for Hillary labeled Trump voters as uneducated racists, rather than trying to understand the reasons behind their decision to back him.
The best course of action – for all of us – is to talk less, listen more and to start from a place of agreement, rather than a place of conflict. Find out what you have in common with someone from the other side – allegiance to a sports team, family makeup, movie interests, etc. Ask them questions about themselves, their family and their interests. Ask how their background brought them to hold their current political views. Get as deep as you can in understanding where a person is coming from and then – this is the hard part – allow them to keep their beliefs.4 We don’t necessarily all need to agree; in fact, one of the primary tenets of our country is that we are able to move forward, even when we have differing opinions. But, as long as we can continue communicating, we can have a better understanding of each other’s opinions and work to reach some common ground about where our country is heading.
2. “Irrefutable” is significantly less iron-clad than it used to be, thanks to the knee-jerk reaction of calling a report “Fake News.”↩
3. We can thank the media – both mainstream and social – for this dynamic.↩
4. Ana Marie Cox, political correspondent for MTV news and host of the Crooked Media Podcast, “With Friends Like These,” conducted a number of these kinds of interviews with Trump supporters at a rally in Iowa with fascinating results.↩