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Brian D. Rude, 2005
Many families and friends have a rule, often explicitly acknowledged, never to talk politics or religion. This is one way of coping with the dissension that such topics can cause, but aren’t we losing something with this solution? Wouldn’t it be better if we actually could talk politics and religion? I will not address talking religion at the moment, but I do have a few thoughts about talking politics.
I once mentioned among friends that it’s standard practice in political campaigning to distort your opponents’ position as much as you can get away with. My friends seemed taken aback by this, if not actually offended. Perhaps they thought I was advocating distortion. That is not the case. I do not like distortion. I am simply trying to describe what I see. In any political campaign I see a lot of distortion. This is understandable, I suppose. Politics involve passion. When one is in what we might call the “campaign mode”, one attacks the opposition and defends one’s own side. Distortion is a part of this. One distorts as much as one can get away with. One rationalizes in any way one can.
Distortion may give a practical advantage. When campaigning one wants votes. Other ideals, such as understanding, good will, the public good, and perhaps others, may be motivating to one degree or another to campaigners, but votes are what really count. If distortion will bring votes, then distortion will be used, as much as we can get away with.
Campaigns are always with us, and campaigns obviously form a model for people to use when talking politics with their friends. It is a model that it helps people form their thoughts into words. But it is a bad model, in at least some ways, because it is full of distortions. People have a certain amount of passion for certain issues. And they have their face involved, which fuels their passions. They act in terms of ingroups and outgroups. The distortions in the campaign rhetoric of the opposition offends them, so whenever they get the chance they retaliate with the distortions presented by their side. The net result can be a situation that is undesirable in many ways.
I would argue that professional campaigners distort as a matter of cold calculation. They see it as a way to get votes. But I would also expect that the passion in politics colors even the coldest of calculations. I have no way of knowing, but I doubt that many professionals campaigners admit to themselves that they are distorting anything. I suspect most of them admit only to “spin”. They see their jobs as putting the best “spin” on the facts, but probably insist that their view of things is fair and accurate. It is up to the opposition to challenge the distortions.
So distortion and rationalization are a regular part of politics. But there is a down side to distortion and rationalization. In a relatively open and educated society, too much distortion can backfire. When campaigners go too far and see that it is counterproductive, they rein in their distortions. But my subject here is not what political campaigners ought to do to get votes. My subject is what everyday people ought to do to be able to talk politics with each other and not have it be a negative experience. The amount of distortion that gets votes in an election is an amount of distortion that can cause damage in interpersonal relations. People take offense at distortion and rationalization that they feel is unfair. This may not matter to professional campaigners. At most it is just one more element in their political calculus. But it does matter in interpersonal relationships.
My thesis is that there are very great benefits to be gained by breaking out of the “campaign mode”, even when it is hard to do so. There are very great benefits to be gained by resisting the temptation to distort and rationalize. I am basing this thesis on the idea that generally one's political opponents are not devils, nuts, dupes or sycophants. They simply have different perspectives. An understanding of their differing perspectives can be valuable, even healing. An understanding of the values and perspectives of one's opponents does not come easily or quickly. It generally comes only through a great deal of effort. As much as anything this means one has to listen to one's opponents - actually listen, not argue. That can be hard to do, especially if one's opponent is in the campaign mode. And if you want to get your opponent out of the campaign mode (which admittedly may be impossible), you have to be able to step out of the campaign mode yourself.
I will be the first to admit that you can’t get every political opponent out of the campaign mode. You can’t talk politics with every political opponent. But you can with some. Every once in a while it happens, and it can be very rewarding. When I say “talk politics” in this context of course I am talking about a good quality conversation. If you just want to butt heads with an obstinate opponent, as apparently many people like to do, there are plenty of opportunities.
Why is there passion in politics? I don’t think I can give a complete answer to this. But an important part of the answer is that people often have their face involved. A simple disagreement about facts, or the interpretation of facts, or the consequences of facts, is often seen not as a simple disagreement, but as an insult, as an offense against face, either individual or collective, as a profanation of the sacred. This is silly, of course, at least on one level. We should not expect everyone to agree with us, and a disagreement should not be taken as an insult. But the evidence that disagreements are taken as insults is the passion that disagreements engender. The solution, then, is to take the passion out. Or at least we need to take out the inappropriate passion. It is fine to believe deeply in a cause, but it is not fine to attack another who happens to disagree with you. And it is not fine to treat every disagreement as a personal insult. So I will talk a moment about face in general terms.
When circumstances make us look bad, or when we perceive that someone wants to make us look bad, we defend ourselves. The importance of face is seen in the vigor we put into defense of face. One form this defense of face may take is positive. We may try to explain that we are not really bad, that we indeed are good, that the wrong impression was somehow given, that we are justified in our actions. If explanation is not enough we rationalize. Rationalization usually means distortion to one degree or another.
But another form that defense of face may take is negative. We attack, or we counterattack. We attack the face of the person we perceive has attacked ours. We try to make him look bad. Often this is not a thought out response. We just do it. It just comes naturally.
Facework on an individual basis has its collective counterpart. There is such a thing as collective face. There is a deep urge in people to defend their collective face, to defend their groups. This results in “in-groups” and “outgroups”. Politics elicits this “in-group/out-group” feeling. We rationalize to defend our collective face just as we rationalize to defend our individual faces. And we counterattack to defend our collective face just as we counterattack to defend our individual faces.
People can talk about many things without having their face involved. When we talk about the weather, or when we talk about cars, or when we talk about gardening, we normally do not have our face involved. We do not take a disagreement as an insult which needs to be returned in kind. I am not offended if you say tulips are more beautiful than daffodils. And you are not offended if I say that throttle body fuel injection is better than multipoint fuel injection. Of course it is possible for someone to have their face involved in any of these subjects. Every now and then it happens that a person starts talking about what he thinks is a neutral subject only to discover that the other guy is very sensitive about that subject. With a great variety of everyday subjects we are not sensitive. But with politics it seems that not being sensitive is the exception, not the rule. The general rule seems to be that people have their face involved. It is very easy to give offense, which elicits offense in return.
One common way that offense is given is by thinking and speaking in terms of blame and censure. Instead of simply expressing disagreement with a leader’s policies or decisions, for example, one is likely to say negative things about his values or intentions. Statements such as “He’s going to ruin the country.”, or “He doesn’t do anything that doesn’t pad his own pockets, or his friends.”, or “He doesn’t care about poor people, only his rich friends.” It is not surprising that such blanket condemnations will be resented by supporters of such a leader.
But beyond that there seems to be a general characteristic of ideological thought and behavior that simple disagreement, of itself, causes resentment. This is a little hard to understand, but easy to observe. We see it everyday.
That politics involves face is, I think, widely recognized at some level, though seldom explicitly stated or analyzed. The result is that political discussion very often consists of verbal combat. That is not pleasant. For most of us our way of coping with the problem is to avoid it. We learn not to talk politics in many situations. But instead of always avoiding politics, isn’t it possible to work to make it a more neutral subject, so that we can discuss it in some form other than attack and counterattack? This requires taking out the inappropriate passion, and that is not easy to do.
I have spoken repeatedly about being in the campaign mode, and argued that we should want to get out of it. Now I want to refine that a bit. I will replace the two part classification (campaign mode or not) with three perspectives, or three "modes of discourse”. First there is debate, either formal or informal. Second there is persuasion, and third, there is what I will call, for lack of a better term, “sharing”.
I don't know much about how formal debate works as an activity in high school or college, but I presume there is a scorekeeper who somehow awards points to one side or the other depending on what they say and how they say it. If you can put your opponent on the spot in some way, present him with a challenge that he cannot easily turn aside, you gain a point. If you allow yourself to be boxed in by your opponent you lose a point. At the end of the debate one side has more points than the other and is the winner. I presume that attacking the face of one’s opponent - an “ad hominem” attack - is out of bounds in formal debate. So in that sense we could say that the formal debate is not quite the same as the campaign mode. Indeed for many people it seems that campaigning is primarily a matter of attacking the character and motivations of the opposition.
In persuasion things are not so formal. The goal is to change minds, and winning debating points may or may not change minds. A very good debater might be seen as bullying an opponent, so his "points" might be counterproductive to the goal of genuine persuasion. A salesman has to be a good persuader, but not necessarily a good debater. An aggressive move that might win admiration in a formal debate may only harden the opposition of a potential customer. I have met salesmen that I just wanted to get away from, salesmen who don’t mind harassing me into making a purchase that I definitely don't want. The goal in persuasion is different. The goal of persuasion is to affect an honest change of mind, a change of mind with a solid basis that is stable and dependable. A good persuader will not attack the ego of the opposition. In fact a good persuader will support the ego of the opponent. A good persuader will try to understand the other person’s position. Good salesmen have always done this.
"Sharing" is perhaps not the best term for the third mode of discourse, but for want of a better term I will use it. What I am talking about here is somewhat like persuasion, but the goal is more modest. The goal is better understanding of the other person’s perspective, not to change his mind. If understanding is achieved then the encounter is a success. Persuasion may be much desired, but not required for success. In a sharing no one wins points, no one keeps score. The encounter is structured to exclude the idea of winners and losers. To achieve this kind of discourse one must be interested in, and take steps to elicit, whatever it is in the other person’s knowledge or experience that shapes his thinking. People can, at least at times, identify significant ideas or experiences that have a strong influence in their thinking. Sometimes it then becomes easy to understand why the person must have certain attitudes and values, and not others. One area of life in which this is found is religion. A person who has “experienced God” is not going to be moved by an agnostic’s or an atheist’s logical arguments.
Sharing may not change opinions, but can be very important and valuable for good interpersonal relations. It can help people respect each other. A few years back I read an article about a man who was on a crusade to abolish the manufacture and sale of lawn darts. My first thought was that that’s what’s wrong with this country, too many rules and regulations. I was against the idea. However it turned out that this man was on his crusade because his daughter had been killed by careless use of lawn darts. That knowledge does not change my mind about whether or not lawn darts should be outlawed, but if that man were a neighbor or acquaintance of mine, knowing of his experience and motivation would be important.
I believe much can be gained from learning of the other person’s experience that shape his thinking. We can be much more tolerant of the other guy’s political beliefs if we are aware of how they were formed.
I can come up with several experiences that shaped my thinking, and which I think illustrate what I am talking about here. Here is one example. When I was a young math teacher in a prison school in the early 1970’s I discovered that we had a set of video equipment. I presume it was a camera, a VCR, and perhaps some related items. This was back when such technology was new and exciting. I could imagine some good uses to which it could be put in our school. However I never saw the equipment. Our principal would not let it out of the box. He thought it would be too much trouble. He didn’t want to be bothered. Then why did we have it? Well, as I understand it, we got a grant. Some entity, governmental or private, I suppose was giving money away in the interest of improving education. And new technology has always had a lot of promise in improving education. I suppose somebody in our system thought such equipment would be beneficial to our school, and so applied for a grant to purchase it. And indeed we got it. But what was the point in getting the grant and getting the equipment if we weren’t allowed to use it?
I was slightly frustrated by this experience, but at the time I let it pass. I did not immediately draw a set of conclusions from it. However it stayed in my mind. I thought about it off and on. The waste and hypocrisy made quite an impression on me. Just because an idea sounds good doesn’t mean that it will work out good. Over the years this experience reinforced a host of conclusions, values, and expectations in my life. It is just one of many, many experiences that shaped my political thinking, of course. But when someone describes a governmental program aimed at putting more educational technology in the schools this example comes to mind. And when someone mentions any of a host of programs that remind me of this, it again comes to mind. Anyone trying to argue for such programs with me would have to deal with that experience, put it in a perspective such that what I saw and learned could be interpreted in such a way as to at least be consistent with the other guy’s position.
Here is another experience that has shaped my thinking. In the early seventies it was just a fact of life that banks closed about two in the afternoon. If you needed to get cash or to make a deposit at four or five in the afternoon you were just out of luck. A fellow teacher who taught business courses explained to me why banks keep banker’s hours - they have to close up early in the afternoon in order to do their bookkeeping, he explained. This seemed convincing to me. But just a few years later banker’s hours seemed to have disappeared. I think what happened is that some bank, or chain of banks probably, decided to compete more aggressively, and other banks had to follow. Within just a few years, as I recall, you could expect to do banking at five or even six-o-clock in the afternoon. What I had been led to believe was impossible, due to the nature of the business, was very possible with the right motivation. This made an impression on me. No wonder communism worked so poorly. Again this experience doesn’t prove anything, and my interpretation of the facts might be quite different than someone else’s’ interpretation of the same facts. But it shaped my thinking. Now if someone tells me that long lines at the Department of Motor Vehicles are inevitable - it’s the nature of the business - I am skeptical. If the person who tells me that is willing to listen to my experience and interpretation of banking hours, then we have something to talk about.
I have had experiences within the past decade with job hunting. We have laws against age discrimination in hiring. A perceptive person discussing this subject with me might notice that I turn sour and sarcastic. I don’t remember all my experiences. To dredge them out of memory would be painful. But they are very real, and have led me to the conclusion that any law against age discrimination does much more harm than good. An employer cannot be honest with me and say, “We want someone younger”. Instead any employer must play a careful game. An applicant can never get straight information. As a result of these experiences, (and perhaps other things) I hold certain political views. I think that anyone who believes that age discrimination laws are beneficial to older workers is gullible. Anyone who wants to convince me differently would have to take the time to listen to my experiences and give them an interpretation different than my own.
A person who is old enough to remember the depression will have a different perspective on many things that one who has not had that experience. A person who waited for hours in gas lines in the 1973 oil crunch will have a different perspective on some things than I, who only read about gas lines in the paper, would have. A person who served as a soldier in Viet Nam will have quite a different perspective on some things than a person, such as myself, who only read about Viet Nam in the paper, would have.
Everyone has many experiences. Some experiences are inconsequential. Others have a lasting influence. A few people can identify some of the experiences that shape their political thinking, and describe and explain them so that others have a better appreciation of their perspective.
Sharing can be invaluable, but it certainly can be abused. Some people will drone on endlessly about their lives, if allowed to, without advancing the conversation in any way. The listener may not have any interest in the experiences being related by another. Many people are not able to identify many experiences that molding their thinking. And even if they do, they would use such experiences only as a club against their opposition, not as a way to help others understand their perspective. And from much experience they may believe that opponents would be interested only in discounting or distorting such experiences. This, obviously, is not what I have in mind by “sharing”. Sharing can be valuable only under certain conditions, when both people in a conversation are out of the campaign mode and are genuinely interested in learning about the other’s perspectives. However on those rare occasions where people really want to understand each other’s position, and provide an accepting atmosphere for such sharing, the results can be most gratifying.
And I think it is important to add that for many people their political thinking is not really shaped by either their learning or their experiences. Many people blindly accept the political perspectives of their family, or friends, or significant others, or of ideologies that represent rebellion against family or friends or significant others. Many political views, in my opinion, are more in the nature of prejudice than of careful thought. “You have to be carefully taught” we like to say when talking of prejudice. I disagree. Prejudice normally is easily caught, not carefully taught. When a person’s political thoughts are no deeper than fervently held prejudices, there is little possibility of getting them out of the campaign mode.
What I have called the "campaign mode” is primarily a combination of the first two modes of discourse that I described - debate and persuasion. It doesn’t include thoughtful sharing. And it may include a lot of pure pigheaded prejudice. When I describe a person as being in the campaign mode, I usually am talking about a substantial amount of passion. This passion motivates some attempts to debate, and it motivates some attempts to persuade, but also it motivates vigorous attempts to rationalize, to distort, and to attack. From a practical standpoint, political campaigning has the goal of getting votes, but undisciplined passion may lead one to prefer the goal into getting even. Getting votes ought to be a matter of persuasion, not of making points in a formal debate, and certainly not of attacking one’s opponents. An aggressive salesman may win every debating point yet lose the sale. A person in the campaign mode may win or lose points from a debate perspective, but will score nothing in actual persuasion or understanding.
With these general ideas in mind I will present a number of rules, or ideas, that I think are useful in talking politics.
1. Stick to questions that actually have answers.
"Is baseball or football the better sport?" Is this a question that can be debated? Obviously it is a matter of opinion. It has no final answer. Who has the better ideas, Democrats or Republicans? If you want to debate, if you want to “make points”, this might be a good question. If you are so full of antagonistic energy that you want to butt heads with someone in a similar mood, go to it. But don’t expect anyone to concede points. Unless you enjoy butting heads, why bother with it?
Unanswerable question sometimes can be very productive for internal debates. Some people do give very serious thought to very basic questions. Some people do come reluctantly to the conclusion that their party has left them, or that they have left their party, or that they have changed their priorities or their thinking. But save these arguments for the most worthy of opponents - yourself.
2. Avoid loaded labels where possible.
If a bill is before congress, it does not need to be labeled as either a right wing or a left wing bill. It does not have to be discussed as either a right wing or a left wing bill. However this can be hard to do. The press is probably going to label it, and a lot of people are going to have a knee jerk reaction to that labeling. There are plenty of people to which “conservative” and “conservative extremist” are synonymous. And there are plenty of people to which “liberal” and “whacko liberal” are synonymous. But we don’t have to join the knee jerk crowd. Suppose there is a bill before congress that would redefine or some obscure accounting provisions of a currently existing highway appropriations bill. Would that be a liberal bill or a conservative bill? Or does it matter? Would the mass media manage to label it as one or the other?
I don’t think it is true to say that the mass media will polarize every bill that comes before congress. There was a bill modifying bankruptcy provisions that was recently passed into law. I don’t remember it ever being labeled as right wing or left wing. And sometimes a bill gets the advantage of having joint sponsorship by both a liberal and a conservative congressman. This makes it harder for the press to give it one label or the other. A bill that avoids being labeled by the press has a much better chance of being considered on its merits than a bill not so blessed. But I think there is a tendency in the mass media to give broad labels to any proposed bill, whether justified or not. Journalism has a vested interest in making things interesting. Interpreting events in terms of opposing teams adds interest. And journalism has a vested interest in making things understandable, which can mean simplifying them, which can easily slip over to over-simplifying them. So many proposals that don’t have to be labeled as right wing of left wing are so labeled anyway.
But even when a bill has an obvious label, it doesn’t mean that label has to be brought into every political discussion. If it can be discussed without the labels then it has a better chance of being discussed on its merits. To call a proposal a “liberal proposal” invites conservatives to oppose it. To call a proposal a “conservative proposal” invites liberals to oppose it. If we want to actually discuss the merits of the bill, it’s better not to label it either way.
I do not mean to put all the blame on the media for labeling every bill or idea. Many people will do it by themselves. In the past year there was a proposal to partially privatize social security. I don’t think anyone waited for the media to label it one way or the other. It was enough that George Bush proposed it. Liberals vigorously opposed it. I interpreted that as mostly a knee jerk reaction. If we define a liberal as one who embraces change quickly, and a conservative as one who generally opposes change, then roles were suddenly reversed. Liberals became rock ribbed conservatives for that issue.
3. Try to be realistic about motives. Give credit for good motives whenever you possibly can.
Motives can be hard to assess, and motives are always complex. So if you only want to distort and rationalize, motives are always easy targets. "They just want to help their rich friends." is a phrase I have heard very often. I may have used it myself. The phrase "The only reason . . . ." is often very appealing. But it is not only undiplomatic, it is almost invariably false. Motives are always complex. They are never as pure as the driven snow.
Motives often cannot be easily disproved. During the Viet Nam war there were plenty of people who insisted we were in Viet Nam for oil. It was an easy charge to make, at that time. I think it is safe to say that it has been disproved by now. So far as I know Viet Nam is not, and never was, a supplier of oil for the world. But in the early seventies many people apparently did believe that Viet Nam had untapped oil wealth, and America wanted it. I did not believe it at the time, but I could not disprove it.
I was surprised when the Willie Horten ads were viewed as having a racial angle. These ads, as I recall, charged that Willie Horten was a dangerous convict who committed some serious crime after being let out of jail under some program supported by Michael Dukakis. That particular program was not supported by people who thought it was too lenient and compromised public safety. The point of the ad was that Dukakis was soft on crime. Democrats were quick to insist that “the only reason” for showing these ads was racial. Willie Horten, it turns out, was black. To me the important thing was whether or not the basic facts presented were true. I always figured the basic facts must have been true, because the Democrats didn’t seem to try to refute them. It was easier to argue motives, as motives cannot be easily disproved.
Motives are intimately tied up with means and ends. But means and ends are often not clear in the minds of people. Practically any “end” we have in mind can be interpreted as only a means to a greater end. Raising the minimum wage may seem like an end in itself. But it is a means towards the greater end of helping people. If one starts out with the perspective that any interference with free markets, including the market for labor, is bound to be counterproductive in the long run, then the greater end of helping people is not served by raising the minimum wage.
It has been said (I don’t know where) that Democrats want to “usher in the new millennium”, while Republicans simply want to “keep the peace”. I think there is a lot of truth to this, and it reflects differing views of society and the capabilities of government. If one believes that government can do great things, then one who wants to do good would advocate that government do many things. If one believes that government cannot do so many great things, then more modest aims are in the best interests of society. “Keeping the peace”, may not sound too exciting. It is a modest goal. But if one believes that it is within the capability of government, and that it does help people, then it is a worthy goal.
What are the motives of politicians? I would argue that power always motivates people. Anyone who runs for president wants power. This is as true for Ronald Reagan as for Bill Clinton. I think being realistic about motives requires admitting this. But this does not mean that the desire for power is all consuming or the only motivation of any particular person. It is also true that everyone wants money. This is true for every salesman I talk to when I’m in the market for something. But I find that most salesmen are decent people that I can do business with. They are not subject to an all-consuming desire for money, and most politicians are not subject to an all-consuming desire for power. Both salesmen and politicians know that their desire for power and money must be kept within certain bounds. Successful salesmen and politicians manage to do this over a long term.
There are other motives of politicians, some good and some not so good. Almost everyone, and certainly this includes politicians, wants to do good, in at least some form, for at least some people. I think being realistic about motivations includes recognizing this. But doing good is not easy. There are unforeseen difficulties, unintended consequences, and many differing perspectives of what is good and what is not, and endless confusion of means and ends. In every election I vote in a way that I believe will make the world a better place. My wife usually votes the opposite way for the very same reason. To argue that the opposition has only bad motives doesn’t make much sense to me.
Everyone, to one extent or another, is a slave to his or her culture. This enters into motivation because our culture greatly determines how we see things. I think it is a truism in sociology and anthropology that alien cultures should not be judged too quickly. What at first seems like a bad trait in a culture may later, with more information, be seen as sensible and beneficial in context. I think this truism is widely embraced among enlightened people, as I think it should be. Unfortunately we often apply it only to truly alien cultures. It is easy to apply to a primitive culture half a world away, but it may not even occur to us to try to apply it to the culture at the opposition’s party headquarters. I think we should.
4. Concede that practically nothing is conclusive proof of anything.
“Proof” in the popular mind often means a fact. In some situations a single fact may be key to a proof, but a proof is always a chain of reasoning. In mathematics the premises with which one begins and the steps of reasoning are held to well defined standards. But in everyday life that is not at all the case. Few people can identify with any clarity either their premises, or their steps in reasoning. They much prefer to recite the single “fact” which they consider the sum total of their proof.
If a law maker votes against a bill that would increase the minimum wage some people would claim that one fact as “proof” that he or she is insensitive. But what is the chain of reasoning involved? What premises are involved? If the premises are only that any minimum wage bill is good, and the higher the minimum wage the better, then adding the fact that Congressman X voted against a minimum wage bill does indeed constitute a proof that he is a bad guy. But these premises are not universally accepted.
And the complexity of lawmaking militates against a single fact constituting a proof. To say that "He voted against the crime bill, therefore he's soft on crime" may seem conclusive, but I think it can be very misleading. I don't claim to understand much about lawmaking, but I think it is generally true that it is very complex. Any given bill that finally becomes law has gone through very many different forms, and has been voted on many different times. A congressman's vote on any particular version of a particular bill at a particular time is not a reliable indication of his support of the goals of the bill in question. A congressman may vote for a bill he opposes, if he knows it will fail, but sees some advantage in having his positive vote on the record. Or he may vote against a bill he favors for similar reasons. Or he may vote for or against a bill because of another version of the bill may be in the works. Or he may vote for or against a bill to facilitate a greater good. Yes, votes do count, but citing a vote without giving some context is never an adequate argument.
5. If you stump your opponent it doesn't mean you've convinced him.
"I challenge you to name one single time when . . . . . ." is a common tactic in political discussion. Underlying it is the assumption that if you can't name a “single time” then you have to concede the point. That is not the case. It is very common to be convinced on a rational basis over a long term of a certain position, yet not be able to defend that position by citing chapter and verse, or even a single instance that supports your position. Perhaps even more importantly, varying interpretations by different people lend credence to their differing claims. For example I could state that the Soviet Union was aggressively expansionist from 1945 to about 1985, and was thereby a credible threat to all other nations of the world, and therefore required a resolute response on the part of America. An opponent could claim that it was not really expansionist, that rather it felt threatened by the West and its defensiveness at times appeared aggressive. My opponent could challenge me to name a single instance in which Russia acted aggressively that was not prompted by perceived threats from the West. I would mention Czechoslovakia in 1968. My opponent would interpret that as prompted by NATO arms rattling. I would name Hungary in 1956. My opponent respond similarly. Soon I would run out of examples that I have on the top of my head. I could concede partially, admitting that of course Russia didn't like everything the West did. If I concede too much my opponent will decide he won the debate. But of course it doesn't mean he convinced me of anything. So long as it is a debate there will be little persuasion.
Our opinions are formed by many influences. Most of these influences can not be remembered and cited. Everyday I read the newspaper, and what I read influences me. Everyday I forget much of what I read. I cannot cite articles or examples, but the influence remains.
Related to this is the idea of “accomplishment” in politics. “What did Reagan accomplish as president?” my opponent may ask. I could react in several ways. I could try to name some specifics, but I probably won’t get very far. It was a long time ago, and I have forgotten many details. And anything I do remember will likely be interpreted quite differently by my opponent. Or I could take a counteroffense. I could demand in turn to know what Jimmy Carter accomplished in office. Again any specific examples brought up would be subject to varying interpretations. So both I and my opponent could claim victory. We would both feel that only the pigheadedness of the other prevents the obviously deserved concession of defeat.
There is another perspective that allows both my and my opponent a much better outcome of an exchange like this. Instead of defining accomplishment so rigorously, simply define accomplishment as working hard for one’s beliefs. Reagan’s accomplishment is that he worked hard for what he believed in. Carter’s accomplishment is that he worked hard for what he believed in. Freshman Congressman Joe Blow’s accomplishment is that he worked hard for what he believed in. Much of government is a tug-of-war. You pull on the rope as hard as you can, and if your side ends up in the mudhole it doesn’t mean you accomplished nothing. You prevented the opposition from having a too-easy victory.
There are some genuine accomplishments in politics and government. Surely it will always be said of Thomas Jefferson that the purchase of Louisiana is an accomplishment. The purchase of Alaska was an accomplishment. The Marshall Plan was an accomplishment. But accomplishments of that order take generations to be recognized as such. Is social security a similar accomplishment? I’m not sure. Was the New Deal an accomplishment? I’m even less sure of that.
To my mind it should not be a goal of political discussion to stump your opponent. Any victories of that sort will be rhetorical and momentary. It is much more productive to have as your goal in a political discussion to learn something more of the other person’s perspective. You may find the other person’s perspective is shallow, little more than ignorant prejudice. If that is the case you certainly won’t convince him of anything. But it is also possible that the other person’s perspective is based on something you hadn’t thought about before. He might actually have ideas of value. You might have common ground, and that can be well worthwhile to explore.
6. Admit, at least to yourself, that you have gut level reactions that favor or oppose certain groups or ideologies, and that some of these gut level responses are more in the nature of prejudice than logic.
This is very difficult. But perhaps it shouldn’t be that hard. Knee-jerk reactions are very easy to see in one’s political opponents. So should not one admit the possibility that knee-jerk reactions may exist in oneself? And once the possibility is admitted, then doesn’t it make sense to actively explore that possibility?
I am an individualist, and politically independent. All my life I have registered to vote as unaffiliated. It is a point of pride with me. I will not give my loyalty wholesale and indiscriminately to either major party. To do so, in my view, is somehow intellectually wrong. One should think hard about issues and decide each issue carefully, rationally, and fairly. I pride myself on approaching each election with an open mind. When I say about some particular issue that I haven't made up my mind it is the simple truth. Yet I also recognize in myself a knee-jerk response in favor of Republicans. It may be perfectly true that I haven't made up my mind about an election, but another truth is that the Republican candidate starts with a strong advantage, and the Democratic candidate starts with a strong disadvantage. I can honestly say, in many cases, that I haven't totally made up my mind, but more complete honesty would compel me to admit that I am leaning very heavily for the Republican candidate. It is a gut level reaction, and I recognize that. I have voted for Democrats in the past, and I have every intention of voting for more Democrats in the future, but I have voted for a lot more Republicans.
I don't feel I am being totally inconsistent. Sure, I may instantly side with conservatives and Republicans on a new issue, but there is some basis for that. Long ago I realized that I very much believe in limited government. I believe we suffer in many ways when government tries to do too much. Every new law has winners and losers. Sometimes the winners are very visible and the losers are invisible, lost in the general public. Other times the winners are relatively invisible but the losers are very visible. My experiences over many years of pondering who wins and who loses convinces me that society in general is the winner when we have stability, when we use government to set some basic rules and then leave things alone. I am convinced that in general Republicans also hold to this view to a greater degree than Democrats.
I am very much a libertarian. This is more important to me than the labels conservative or liberal. I think I have always had libertarian tendencies, but it is only in the last couple of decades that I thought much about such things, or used the label “libertarian”. In the seventies it seemed the Republicans were definitely more libertarian leaning than the Democrats. However since that time I’ve decided it’s much more complex. Both parties have a libertarian streak, and both parties have an authoritarian streak. Both parties will use libertarian arguments or sentiments on particular issues, and authoritarian arguments or sentiments on other issues. But neither party has embraced the value of libertarian ideas in general. I admit to a certain knee jerk Republican reaction, but I have realized in the past few years that if the Democrats would latch on to libertarianism in a principled way, and not just as a campaign tactic of the moment, I could change.
I also recognize that loyalty is very important to politicians. A Democratic candidate may appeal to me very much in some important ways, but I recognize that if he is elected he owes loyalty to the Democratic party. You can't vote for a Democrat without giving at least some support for the party that sponsors and supports him or her.
Gut level responses should not be considered "wrong" or immoral. I think we all have them to one degree or another, and in many areas other than just politics. What is important is to recognize them, both in ourselves and others, and to handle them. We don't have to be a slave to them.
7. Strive for a single standard.
“Innocent until proven guilty” is a sentiment valued in our culture. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” is also a part of our culture, though this sentiment is not so valued. These two sentiments are opposite in their effects. Idealistically we would like to believe we always favor the former sentiment over the latter. That is not always the case. Whenever there is a bit of scandal brewing both sentiments are expressed, one by supporters of the subject of the scandal and the other by the opponents. Then with the passage of just a few years supporters and opponents may change sides. The other party gains power, and try as they might to stay clean, they don’t totally succeed. Now the group that previously said “Where there’s smoke there’s fire” starts chanting “Innocent until proven guilty”. Doesn’t that make them all hypocrites?
I don’t know if hypocrisy is the right word, but there are blatant double standards in the knee jerk crowd. It is not easy to always apply a single standard, but it is a goal to which we can aspire. The way to aspire to it is with imagination. Before heaping scorn on the opposition when they demonstrate some stupidity, imagine what your reaction would be if it were your party instead. And if it’s your guy who is caught in a scandal, don’t be so quick to defend. Imagine what you reaction would be if the tables were turned, as surely sooner or later they will be. Sometimes someone on our side does wrong. It hurts, but it’s a part of life. Striving for a single defensible standard won’t get you far in many political discussions, discussions where prejudice and obstinacy are dominant. But for the occasional (very occasional) discussions where a genuine meeting of minds is desired on both sides, striving for a single standard is very helpful.
8. Recognize that “sound bites” must be used by all candidates and do not reflect one way or another on them.
If you believe in poetry, it seems to me, you must believe in sound bites.
In the 2004 election there was some discussion of “nuanced” thinking, with the implication being that one candidate was more adept at it than the other. A little reflection leads me to believe that nuanced thinking is the rule, not the exception. Politicians generally are intelligent people, or they don’t get very far. They do think about issues. There are trade offs to be made. That is the nature of living. There are always trade offs. A politician must consider many trade offs, just as a business person must, or any professional, or just any person. And then there are strategies. Getting elected always means pulling together diverse groups, making coalitions out of different constituencies. This requires nuanced thinking, lots of it. Some segment of the population appreciates being aware of these trade offs, strategies, goals, and lines of reasoning. Thus there is a market for the radio and television shows that take the time to dig beneath the surface. But for the mass market things must be simplified a bit. We don’t have time to listen to a lot of nuance, and many people are not interested in nuance. The candidate that can encapsulate ideas and values into a memorable phrase has a great advantage. If you like the memorable phrase it is evidence of virtue and statesmanship. If you don’t like the memorable phrase it is a sound bite.
Sound bites succeed when they communicate. Communication is hard. Some of us are much better at it than others. Some of the historical sound bites that come to my mind are:
Give me liberty or give me death.
Praise the lord and pass the ammunition.
Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.
A chicken in every pot.
The new deal.
You are no Jack Kennedy.
Blood, sweat, toil and tears.
Mr. President, bring home our troops now.
The last one I made up. I expected to hear it in 2004, but didn’t. I eventually realized why. John Kerry did not advocate bringing the troops home now. But it did seem to me a phrase that would energize his base. But I can well imagine that such energizing of the base could cost him support among the population in general.
Effective campaigning, I presume, is an art and a science. Some are better at it than others. It is very possible to have a person who would be very good in office, but never makes it there because of poor campaigning. This is unfortunate, but it is a part of all life, not just politics. A cynical view might be that it is a defect of democracy. I am not that cynical. My view is that for all the shortcomings and frustrations of our political system, in the final analysis our campaigns are long enough, the public is educated enough, and the press is insistent enough, that by election day we have a pretty good idea who and what we are voting for. It is also my view is that for all the limitations of the sound bite, it is still true that mastering the sound bite is essential to running a good campaign. But that is just to say that good communication is important, as it always has been. Sound bites are neither good or bad. They are good when applied to good ends and bad when applied to bad ends.
Perhaps I have made it appear very difficult to have a meaningful political discussion with someone of an opposite persuasion. That, indeed, is the way it appears to me. That rule to never attempt it is probably the best in many situations . But for those rare occasions when we are tempted to break that rule, I hope I have been of some help.