The recent post by Guy Stickney got me thinking about why it’s so hard for politicians to discuss things openly and honestly—and why we have a hard time doing it, too.
Politics never used to pique my interest—maybe because my parents endured World War II, and I experienced those tragic, tumultuous days of the Vietnam War. The nightly news described harrowing situations and heartbreaking circumstances across the world, and I wanted to avoid all memory of those events.
So what happened to turn me into a political junky? Probably money. When the inflation of the ’70s hit, I realized that the government spent a huge amount of money on more services, more support, more improvements, more facilities, and more luxuries. More, more, more. Where did the money come from? What kind of legacy were we leaving to our grandchildren? What kind of lessons were we teaching them?
And yet whenever conversations turned to politics, it became impossible to discuss. We used to be able to have level-headed discussions about differences of opinion, but now family discussions about political matters would turn into door-slamming shouting matches. I love my family and never want to antagonize those relationships. So, I buried my opinions to avoid creating divisions in the family. Even casual conversations at the grocery store can turn prickly when politics comes up.
Why can’t we discuss politics with each other anymore? Why can’t we talk about important issues without arguments and derogatory comments? We see the protests in our streets, the riots, even the rise in murders. How can we fix this if we cannot talk openly about it? When just to mention certain facts is to open yourself to being called bigoted, backwards, or worse?
On a personal level, I certainly know my own attitude and demeanor are important, and I know I cannot control how others respond to me when they disagree. I can work on that. But our politicians could do a better job holding up their end of the bargain, too. When they inflame the passions that divide us, it might lead to a boost in the polls, but it leaves us feeling more and more frustrated with our friends, our neighbors, and even our own family members.
So, with that in mind, here are several ways that our elected leaders might help ease the painful discussions. So, a few words to whichever Mr. or Ms. Politician may be reading:
- Please be truthful. Nothing gives my opponent more ammunition than when they catch me repeating a lie. The truth, the whole, unedited truth, is what I need to speak with integrity. It’s helpful to have information I can easily access and cite. But when you give me unfactual “facts,” I am humiliated. I have no ground to stand on. Please tell it to me straight.
- Be clear in your communications. Don’t try to hide your stances in weasel words. I need explanations on difficult issues so that I can understand the policies, bills, and statements that you support. If you have a good reason for not passing a piece of legislation that sounds good, sharing that in a clear manner empowers me to speak intelligently. Oftentimes, the most important part of understanding why you oppose a seemingly popular piece of legislation is the unintended consequences.
- Share your vision. Please tell me what your vision is for our state or country—no platitudes. We must express a positive vision succinctly, so that all citizens can relate and understand how it benefits them. It’s not enough just to recite buzzwords: tell us what you think government is for, what it can do, and when it should get out of the way.
- Act with compassion. It’s okay to pat yourself on the back and tell us about the good things you are doing for us every once in a while. I want to share your acts of compassion in conversations with others who never hear about them. Focusing only on how much you want to fight the other side makes it difficult to defend ideals in good faith.
If you tell me the truth and share information, I’ll have a strong foundation to make my case—your case, our case. I’m willing to speak up for truth and constructive ideas with my family and friends, and you can help me do so fearlessly, honestly, and compassionately.
I’m not saying these steps will end polarization as we know it. But it will equip those of us who want to engage passionately and respectfully to do so. And it may make our politics a little more appealing and productive.
Edgerton Essays feature the perspectives of working-class Americans on the challenges facing their communities and families and the debates central to the nation’s politics. If you or someone you know might be interested in contributing to the series, click here for more information.