Written by Scott Novak
Our culture tells us that political debates should be off the table for polite discussions. But Scott Novak argues that in a time of fervent polarization, increased political dialogue between friends and family may be exactly what we need to save our democracy from itself.
There are two subjects American etiquette tells us to avoid in so-called ‘polite conversation’: religion and politics.
My extended family ranges on the political spectrum from conservatives who attend the Conservative Political Action Conference each year to liberals who consider President Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father one of the best books they have ever read. There are some who are more moderate in their ideological alliances, as well as those who remain apathetic, put off by the intense level of partisanship in today’s American politics; but for the most part, my father’s side of the family is Republican, whereas my mother’s side is Democratic.
Given this range of views, my mother usually warns me before holiday gatherings to “avoid any political discussions.” I understand why she does this, of course. As anyone who has sat around the proverbial Thanksgiving dinner table knows, political talk with family members is often — to borrow a phrase Thomas Hobbes uses in The Leviathan when describing the life of man in the state of nature — “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The solitariness of these tense conversations emerges from each person lying firmly ensconced in their particular ideology; the poorness, from the quality of a discussion reduced to simplistic talking points; the nastiness and brutishness, from how these discussions quickly become personal and accusatory; and the shortness, from how these discussions end after a minute or so of a back-and-forth that is uncomfortable for everyone at the table.
I also understand why my mother’s holiday warning is always directed specifically at me. Ever since it dawned upon me in high school that, as a gay teenager, I did not have the same rights to marriage and protection from discrimination as my classmates, I have known that political decisions have the capacity to impact millions of lives, for better or worse. So naturally, I had few qualms about informing as many people as possible that a vote for a Republican president in 2012 was a vote against my rights, a vote against my future.
Around the same time, I penned a pro-choice column for my Catholic high school’s newspaper, a controversy that traveled all the way up to the Superintendent of the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It also inspired three faculty members, as well as the school principal, to write aggressive letters that condemned not only my views, but also me as an individual for holding such views. (Later, the principal issued a public apology for her personal attacks.) Although I did not savor the ad hominem arguments in some of the letters, I did value the many intense discussions on abortion the column sparked within the school.
I now work for a progressive political consulting and design company called You Should Run that refuses to advise any candidate whom would vote against a woman’s right to safe reproductive healthcare; so, not too much has changed. My mother’s warning applies now more than ever, and even though I do love political debates, I engage in political discussion at the Thanksgiving dinner table only if a family member says something politically ignorant first; for once someone flings open the doors of discrimination and bigotry, it is impossible for me to remain silent. On most occasions, this condition for me to enter into a political discussion does not occur, and I suppose that is for the best.
Nevertheless, although a social etiquette that demands everyone be too polite for politics may indeed ensure the smoothness of family gatherings, I believe this taboo on political discussions is toxic to a well-functioning democracy. As political scientists have observed for many years now, the American populace (and by extension, our two-party political system) has grown increasingly polarized. Thanks in part to this intellectually poisonous politesse, the bubble around each of us grows denser by the day.
However, there exist other factors that increase the bubble’s impermeability as well. For example, the technological revolution of the Internet has produced Facebook algorithms that show us more of what we ‘like’ to see and less of what we don’t on our newsfeed. It is also not uncommon for people to ‘unfriend’ someone whom posts a political idea with which they do not agree.
The news media exacerbates this polarization by emphasizing stories that match their ideological color and spinning the ones that don’t. Furthermore, most of the media Americans consume happens to align with their own political preferences. A 2014 Pew Research Center study found that 47 percent of consistent conservatives count on Fox News as their primary source for government and political news, as do almost 31 percent of those who hold mostly conservative views. Compared to Fox News, “no other sources come close,” the study says. On the other hand, consistent liberals had a wider range of main sources for political news. No source was named by more than 15 percent of consistent liberals and 20 percent of those who identify as mostly liberal. Despite this fact, the researchers do note that “consistent liberals are more than twice as likely as web-using adults overall to name NPR (13 percent vs. 5 percent), MSNBC (12 percent vs. 4 percent) and the New York Times (10 percent vs. 3 percent) as their top source for political news.”
This same study also found that we are significantly more likely than in the past to share similar political preferences to the people we marry, befriend, and live around geographically. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study documented our personal and political polarization to be at a 20-year high.
But wait, there’s more! We not only isolate ourselves from each other more than in the past—we also apparently hate those who disagree with us more, too. Democratic attitudes regarding the Republican Party went from 16 percent as very unfavorable in 1994 to 38 percent in 2014. Likewise, Republican attitudes regarding the Democratic Party went from 17 percent as very unfavorable to 43 percent in those same years.
All of these data are extremely concerning for the state of our democracy. In this two-party system, good governance is not possible without measured compromise. The number of bills passed by the 112th Congress was 283, the lowest recorded total in congressional history. A close second in terms of being the least productive Congress in history is the 113th Congress, which ended in 2014, passing 296 bills. As the American people have witnessed, if some form of compromise between the two parties is not eventually reached, the government can literally shut down, lacking an approved budget.
The extremism within one political bubble has reached such heights that a reality television star who has repeatedly degraded women, Mexicans, Muslims, and the physically disabled through both his rhetoric and proposed policies now has a serious shot at winning the presidency.
We cannot continue on in this deplorable manner. Now is not the time for silence on either side. But instead of shouting into the air about how the side opposite of us is bigoted or corrupt, we need to start talking to each other in a respectful manner. We need to listen to where the other side is coming from and engage in their views in a way beyond spitting back at them the preconceived sound bites we hear on television. Last but not least, we need to not be ashamed to admit we are wrong and willingly change our views when they do not align with the current evidence.
Of course, these words are easy to write, but how does this look in practice? For conservatives, it may be the act of listening to why a Sanders supporter does not think carpet-bombing the Middle East would be effective or moral, rather than calling the supporter a dirty socialist and walking away. For liberals, it may be the act of listening to a Trump supporter explain how they back this candidate because of the economic hardships they have experienced, and then responding directly to those fears, rather than calling them a bigot from the start of the conversation. If the label of bigot does apply, then it means explaining how Trump’s policies would negatively affect our fellow Americans instead of launching a personal attack on the person’s character. Personal attacks may be morally justified, but if your goal is to open the person’s mind, such methods will probably only succeed in making the person feel more threatened by, and thereby more closed to, your ideas.
Another way to build successful discussions with those who hold opposing views from you is to find the interests and values that you do share with them. As two human beings living on the same planet, there must be at least a few things that you can both agree upon.
The Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) is an inspiring example of what is possible when vastly different political constituencies work together to create positive change. SACE consists of a diverse coalition of Tea Party activists, environmental groups like the Sierra Club, retail and restaurant groups, and religious organizations like the Christian Coalition of America. In 2015, SACE put together a $2 million campaign for the Solar Choice amendment here in Florida, a state constitutional amendment that would have ended the state law that prohibits citizens from buying electricity from anyone other than a utility. Because of this law, only those who have the capital on-hand to invest in solar panels can build them. This amendment would make solar panels more accessible by repealing this law and allowing Floridians to install leased solar panels on their rooftops at no upfront expense.
Although the amendment did not get enough petition signatures to qualify for the 2016 ballot thanks to a deceptive ‘Smart Solar’ campaign launched against them by the powerful utility industry, SACE plans to have their amendment on the ballot in 2018. Debbie Dooley, a SACE member who helped found the Tea Party and directs Conservatives for Energy Freedom, explained her support for clean energy environmental initiatives in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying, “Conservatives champion free-market choice, not government monopolies that stifle competition.” Maybe it would be more productive for liberals to build on this value of market choice rather than label Tea Partiers anti-science when it comes to the issue of climate change.
Although a social etiquette that demands everyone be too polite for politics may indeed ensure the smoothness of family gatherings, I believe this taboo on political discussions is toxic to a well-functioning democracy . . . Thanks in part to this intellectually poisonous politesse, the bubble around each of us grows denser by the day.
If you do decide that you no longer want to be too polite for politics any longer, you will probably get into some heated discussions. But that’s okay. The point is to start understanding the lived experiences and perspectives of the other side, even if that sometimes causes moments of discomfort. So long as the discussion does not devolve into personal attacks, debate is essential for the upkeep of an educated democracy.
We must work to overcome this cultural anti-intellectualism, this juvenile fear of sharing with each other ideas that matter. In a time of increasingly dangerous divisions, facilitating political dialogue between friends and family may be the only thing that can save us from the tyranny of our bubbles.