Talk Politics

America is a system based on the premise that no one person has the right answer to every issue, and that the best answers will only come from deliberation. Yet we discourage political discussion. We teach students the importance of volunteering at a soup kitchen or cleaning up a park, but never teach them to think about or discuss the conditions that lead to soup kitchens and parks to begin with.

The CEO of the Junior State of America recently quoted a student praising JSA for teaching how to become a “better citizen” and “better member of your community.” JSA teaches young people how to “listen carefully, speak thoughtfully and lead diplomatically.” They aren’t the first – in ancient Greece Protagoras claimed to teach people to act and speak in the best interest of the state, which is to say “the art of politics.” Robust political debate is central to democracy, and argument should be about reason, not ranting or posturing. Unfortunately programs that teach this are too few and far between.

Americans are increasingly frustrated that Congress cannot seem to get anything done, while we simultaneously fail to teach people to work together to solve complex problems. In the absence of an understanding of how to craft and evaluate arguments, we shout. People stake out positions and typically reason backward from those stakes to reasons, which are generally taken to be unassailable.

Public political discussion tends to come in two flavors:

“We’re right and they’re nuts/evil/stupid!”

and

“They’re nuts/evil/stupid and we’re right!”

There is a fair amount of research that finds people who agree with each other tend to get more extreme in their views when they only talk to each other, and people whose positions are criticized tend to become more committed to those positions. If you doubt this, try to engage in a political discussion on social media.

That such is the case is not surprising. Students are increasingly sheltered from uncomfortable discussions and controversial speakers or presentations, students are woefully ignorant of the basics of the working of democracy, and there are increasing calls to limit political speech on college campuses. Worse than being ignored, political discussion is often actively discouraged, often by political shouting.

As someone who has spent more than two decades working in and around Congress, and who deeply believes in our democracy (I’m something of an evangelist for “civil religion”), and as someone who has taught at the university level for nearly as long, I implore you to talk about politics and get others to as well. Question your own premises, follow the logic and see if it holds, read the data with an eye to doubt rather than affirmation. Ask others to do the same with an eye to finding the best answer rather than with the goal of demonstrating you’re right (or at least that the other person is wrong). Listen as much as you talk, and if appropriate update your position based on what you hear.

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