Is political discourse dead?


One political point that most people agree on these days is that political discourse has become increasingly coarse and hyperbolic. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one whose Thanksgiving dinner conversation stayed strictly away from anything even remotely political. Politics has become so emotionally charged that is often considered rude to even mention it.

There are many obvious reasons for this. Our two-party system lends more attention to those on the extremes of both parties. The media and technology culture we live in emphasizes short and stinging “clickbait.” We are generally overstimulated and hyper-distracted.  It is much harder to produce and sell any political content that does not cater to these trends. And the media to which so many of us are increasingly addicted are in business to make money.

The results are not pretty, and it is not uncommon to hear people calling for a “return to civility.” While we can debate whether our political discourse was ever actually civil, it is worth focusing, if only for just a minute, on how we might ourselves “be the change we would like to see in the world,” as the expression attributed to Gandhi so eloquently states. What could we do to make our political discourse more civil, more pleasant, and perhaps more interesting?

We could start by being more clear about the intention of the conversations in which we engage. Are we hoping to persuade someone of something we believe in or an opinion we hold, or are we hoping to learn something from the other person? Do both people in the conversation share the same intentions? Would it be more productive if they did?

Distinguishing between politics and policy would also be very helpful: are we discussing a worldview or a plan to resolve a problem? Politics tends to be about gaining influence and power, whereas public policy tends to be more about problem solving. Well-intentioned politicians often work hard to craft effective public policy, only to find themselves engaged in disingenuous dialogue in order to “sell” the policy to the public during media engagements and public debates.

Using honest and less political language could also be another helpful objective. This requires making an effort to avoid politically charged rhetoric and slogans around which most people are predisposed to react emotionally. Talk about pollution rather than “climate change” or “global warming.” Talk about specific research rather than “settled science.” Talk about immigration in terms of law enforcement and reform rather than racism, xenophobia, and nationalism.

Encouraging one another to think about concepts, like how we see the role of government vs. relying heavily on labels like fascism, socialism and communism, would likely keep things more thoughtful than contentious. When talking about economic policy, avoiding terms like “class warfare”, “living wages”, and “trickle-down economics” is probably more likely to produce positive results.  That is not to suggest that these terms are not valid, but they tend to evoke a more charged and pre-conceived reaction than might be helpful, if the goal is to have a positive interaction.

Setting ground rules for statistics, while challenging, may very well save the day. If we’re going to base an argument on an opinion, we should have some research to back it up. Ideally, we could agree in advance to share one set of data for the conversation. Use something easily referenced, ostensibly bi-partisan, and generally recognized by most political experts like The Congressional Budget Office or The Bureau of Labor Statistics. If we are discussing public opinion, using one agreed-upon poll for the duration of the discussion, would make things a lot more productive.

Facts are different than opinions. If we can’t agree on the facts, then we won’t likely hear or learn anything from one another, as we will instinctively dismiss each-others’ opinions as biased.

If we really want to know what people think, we should ask them. Then listen to them. If we want people to know what we think, maybe we should try some of these ways to engage.

There’s no guarantee that any of these ideas will work even a little bit. I’m the first to admit that most of the time I engage in political discourse, my objective is more to persuade than to learn.

But Christmas dinner is less than a month away, and it might be a lot more interesting to try the civility approach than be stuck talking about the weather the whole time.

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