How to Have the Uncomfortable Political Conversations Democracy Demands
Yesterday, Chileans voted to write a new national constitution, replacing the current one that dates to the military rule of General Augusto Pinochet. This transformative vote began over a year ago with mass (and sometimes destructive) protests. An opportunity for Chileans, the rewriting of the constitution now demands a transition: from protesting to discussing and debating what vision to put forth for Chile.
Regardless of what happens on November 3, 2020, afterwards the United States should enter a similar process of discussion and debate about its future. However, I fear that we are ill-equipped for that vital task.
We have allowed our muscles of debate, discussion, and deliberation to atrophy. More than half of us find it “stressful and frustrating” rather than “fascinating and interesting” to talk about politics with people we disagree with, a Pew survey finds. Roughly half of us would be “uncomfortable” discussing politics with someone we don’t know well. 40% of us avoid talking about politics with our families.
Apparently, we are afraid of the discomfort that is inherent to a meaningful political conversation. This fear is contributing to civic dysfunction.
As I’ve written previously, an alarming majority of Americans report being angry at their political establishment, confused about fact and fiction, distrustful of government and each other, and fearful of expressing their true political views. I identify these traits with political actors I call New Citizens — ideologically insulated activists who self-organize on social media platforms but rarely formulate or achieve policy objectives.
Our unwillingness to have political discussions — coupled with anger, confusion, distrust, self-censorship, and the undisciplined activism of New Citizens — undermines what public opinion researcher Daniel Yankelovich called “public judgment.” Whereas mass opinion is fickle and unformed, public judgment is a high-quality state of public opinion that demonstrates thoughtfulness, awareness of tradeoffs, and the acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of our viewpoints.
Debate and discussion should help us form public judgment, especially if we engage with people who hold views different from our own. Unfortunately, we are becoming voyeurs to political conversations rather than participants in them.
The average American now spends 11 hours a day watching, reading, and listening to media according to Nielsen. Notice the popularity of political talk shows hosted by partisans like Sean Hannity, Chris Cuomo, Laura Ingraham, and Rachel Maddow. Notice that the top 20 podcasts include The Daily, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Ben Shapiro Show, and Pod Save America. We spend countless hours watching other people talk about politics!
In political dialogues held on TV and digital media, rarely does anyone express empathy for the other side or curiosity in its viewpoints. Rather, our pundits focus on destroying opponents, dismissing their ideas, and virtue signaling to their identitarian audiences, which tune in to have their views validated (as Vox co-founder Ezra Klein argues in his book Why We’re Polarized). Not only are we abstaining from political conversations, we’re binging poor models of how to have such conversations.
To revive public judgement, we need to stop being voyeurs and start having political conversations. However, let’s not emulate the entertaining but vacuous conversations we see in our media. I’d like to offer a better approach.
In my view, a quality political conversation is about discussing what you and your interlocutors want for your friends, family, colleagues, and fellow citizens. It is about understanding and empathizing with what other people value. It is an exercise of curiosity through which you may discover new perspectives and also find the flaws, contradictions, and blind spots in your own stances.
I hope you find yourself in conversation with someone who plans to vote for a different candidate than you in the 2020 election. You may feel tempted to chastise their decision or abort the conversation before it heats up. Instead, make this engagement fruitful by asking questions nonjudgmentally and seeking to understand rather than influence their views.
Such questions include:
- What do you find most compelling and most concerning about your candidate?
- Which of their policies and initiatives are you most excited about and why?
- What do you think should be the highest priority for the winning candidate?
- Once in office, how might your candidate help you, your family, and friends with their struggles?
Your partner might make a questionable, false, or misleading claim. Don’t attack. Just ask more questions:
- Interesting, can you teach me more about that subject? What is the evidence for ____?
- Do you know of any data to support that position?
- Is there a video or transcript where ____says that? I’d like to check it out.
If your partner tries to “shut you down” (in person or on social media) don’t counterpunch. Instead, invite their point of view. For example:
- I don’t willfully close my eyes. Please educate me on this topic.
These days, a welcoming response to an incendiary comment is so surprising that it tends to disarm the attacker. You can redirect them to a healthier discussion that leaves both of you more aware and less anxious about the exchange.
Remember, when you ask someone open-ended questions about their views — why do you think this, what’s your evidence for that, how did you arrive at the conclusion — you create space for that person to self-examine without becoming defensive. You can serve as mirrors for each other’s deepest-held values.
Political conversations are not nearly as stressful when you conduct them this way. The anger, confusion, distrust, and self-censorship we suffer can be overcome through this style of conversation. We can work together towards public judgment and a healthier civic discourse than the one we observe in our media and amongst New Citizens.
I challenge you: from now until election, reach out to people with whom you disagree. Have the conversation I modeled above. Tell me how it goes for you.