How To Talk Politics When You’re Not Political
Arguing over politics is one of the oldest past times in America. The republic is young, and when it was founded there were few sports or other recreations that everyone could follow and enjoy. The various campaigns for elected office were the only spectator events to be seen throughout the country. The sight of ordinary citizens making speeches and slogans and taking down opponents in an effort to win public office is a tradition that has continued uninterrupted for over two hundred and thirty years.
Indeed, the particular American way of democratic politics has become so ingrained in the fabric of the nation that most people take it for granted. Touting the merits of one candidate while belittling the standing of his opponent is an activity that American voters have practiced as sport since the late eighteenth century.
The one thing that has changed since that time is what you might call the politicization of politics. This sounds strange, but hear me out.
Over the past couple of decades politics in America has become increasingly organized according to closed ideological groups: if you are a conservative, then you will make judgments about society based on a rigid set of assumptions; if you are a liberal, you will do the same thing based on different assumptions that are just as rigid. In other words, there are now large segments of the American public that are thoroughly politicized. Every fact, statement, event, and idea is, for them, interpreted through a set ideological lens. The roots of this phenomenon go all the way back to the 1870s, which is a history too long and complicated to recount. It must suffice to say that the 1980s onward has seen it grow into a force that now determines how a great many people align themselves politically.
With the 2016 campaign season swinging into full gear, the true believers are coming out. And if you are someone who votes but is not especially political, you may find it difficult to talk politics with a person who is in one or the other of the ideological camps.
It is nevertheless possible to do so—without having a knock-down, drag-out contest with your friends. The first thing you should arm yourself against is propaganda. You will notice that your ideological friends seem to be very well-informed about the candidate they support and those they oppose. Don’t allow yourself to be influenced by this. The blogosphere, as you no doubt know, is filled with sites dedicated to spreading lies and misinformation. Anyone who is able to spit out round after round of minutiae about a candidate probably spends hours every day gathering the latest gossip from websites that support their views, and is more interested in pushing their agenda than in having open and sociable conversation.
Truth be told, it is much too early for anyone to start going into the personal and professional histories of the candidates running for office. The first primaries are still months away, and the best thing to do at the moment is to listen carefully to what each of them has to say. Common sense is enough to tell you what sounds feasible and what doesn’t.
If the subject of politics comes up, you will get an earful from your ideological friend. Your best course of action is to nod your head and smile. Why? Because it is the fastest way to get him to empty his spleen about Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or Ben Carson or Bernie Sanders, so that he can shut up about it.
The harder challenge will come when you are invited or encouraged to give your own views. If you are someone who doesn’t like getting entangled in political debates, you must take care when speaking with a highly politicized person. If your views clash with theirs, they will come up with all manner of convoluted reasoning and extravagant explanations to prove why opinions such as yours must inevitably bring about tyranny in America.
To avoid this kind of moral self-aggrandizement you should speak generally about the issues. Talk about some of the concrete circumstances surrounding stagnant wages, increasing debt, the immigration system, and other frustrations that most Americans seem to have. Perhaps you and your friend can agree on the problems even if you are unable to find common ground on the solutions.
Finally, try to watch the debates—in both parties. I know they can be a bit mind-numbing, but they are, for better or worse, what tends to drive headlines. Watching the debates will allow you to inject comparisons of style and substance into the discussion you have with your friend. This can broaden the conversation a bit, making the mood lighter and more amenable to your way of talking about politics.
As we get closer and closer to the first casting of ballots, you will inevitably get sucked into talking politics. However, this need not entail getting drawn into either ideological camp. Following the tips above will help you keep your independence and your sanity.
About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.