The 2016 election showed us that engaging in discussions about political divisions on social media, or in person, can be intimidating, combative, even toxic. But here's why we have to try.
We’re still more than six months away from the first presidential primary, but the impending face-off between Donald Trump and his yet-to-be-chosen Democratic challenger seems to be the dominant topic of conversation at dinner tables, bars, water coolers, and most of all, on social media. This election may be the most consequential one of our lives, with core values hanging in the balance—on both sides. But conversations around politics, which have never been more personal, almost invariably turn awkward at best, and downright combative at worst. After the 2016 election, people dropped friends who voted differently than they did (or didn’t vote at all), families were shattered, and the social divides that define us—race, class, and gender chief among them—only deepened. Is it even possible for us to get along?
If we follow the lead of professional politicians, the answer is murky. After two spirited televised debates featuring 20 of the Democratic contenders, it was readily apparent that while some of the candidates are old pals, others were unable to communicate with one another constructively or clearly explain how their policy ideas differ from their opponents’. Some exchanges were outright hostile—and that was between people who are supposedly on the same side. If the pros can’t talk about their differences, is there hope for the rest of us?
With so much time remaining until we head to the primary voting booths, it’s important for us, as voters, to take stock of the conversations we’re having. Are we focusing on the most pressing contests and issues? Are we trying to persuade, or are we simply trying to argue? And perhaps most importantly, Is there even a point in engaging with someone whose political beliefs contradict your own?
“I wish our political culture, and society more generally, valued humility, uncertainty, and curiosity as we approach these conversations instead of rewarding the loudest voices and fully baked opinions,” says Karthik Ganapathy, co-founder of MVMT Communications, a progressive political consulting agency.
Ganapathy is no stranger to the high stakes of presidential politics, having served as New Hampshire Communications Director for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign. He’s watched over the years as people try to connect via politics, and has noticed a common pitfall.
“We often think that getting the right facts in front of people will change their minds, but the way people arrive at political beliefs is much more complicated and interesting than that,” he said. Instead of focusing on the latest polls or fundraising numbers, from Ganapathy’s view, politics is about connecting through people’s emotions, aspirations, anxieties, and fear. It’s worth asking a person how a candidate makes them feel, versus if they think they’re electable. The answer could lead to a revealing conversation, for better or worse.
But it can also be said that, at this point in the cycle, passion can often overwhelm us, and make for unproductive conversations. “It’s very, very early. I could get pregnant, have a baby, and be eating solid foods by the primary,” joked political consultant Heather Barmore. “That’s a very long time to be like, ‘I hate this person, I’m not going to support this person.’”
Barmore, who currently serves as an advisor to NARAL Pro-Choice America and Vote Run Lead, an organization that helps train women to run for office, was sure to note that she hasn’t picked a candidate yet in the Democratic presidential primary. Instead, she’s narrowed down the crowded field to a Top 5. Asking someone who they’d place in their own Top 5 could be a useful tactic for engaging someone in a less pointed way.
While working as Director of Digital Communications for the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Barmore witnessed firsthand the toxicity of party infighting and cautions against going too hard in your sparring with fellow Democrats. “People are very, very passionate about their issues and their candidates, and that’s what you want. You want passion on your side and on your campaign,” she said. “But you don’t want to see people yelling at each other and intra-party arguing.”
After two Democratic primary debates and still nearly a year until the 2020 convention, the infighting has already begun.
But unless you live in a truly blue bubble, it’s not just Democrats who will try to engage you in a conversation about the presidential election, and it’s important to prepare for the possibility of thoughtfully engaging with a conservative and/or Trump supporter. Teddy Goff, co-founder and partner at Precision Strategies, said if you find yourself facing a potentially contentious political conversation to “keep a smile on your face and find areas of common ground.”
Goff, who served as Digital Director for President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, recommended parsing out early in a conversation whether it’s just meant to be an exchange of ideas, or one meant to change minds—particularly the minds of Trump voters.
“I’m of the belief that we, the Democrats, are going to peel off somewhere between zero or a tiny percent of people who currently support Trump,” he said. “So the conversation is not worth having if it’s an attempt to persuade.” However, that doesn’t mean you automatically shut down it down, especially if Democrats want to truly be the party of inclusiveness. “We do need to be a party that welcomes converts from Trump land,” Goff said. “People live and learn, and we need to show we’re welcoming of people who want to make amends.”
In this situation, Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist and professional pollster, said employing a bit of data and statistics could be very useful. “But you need to be able to make them accessible.”
“My trick is to drop everything that isn’t needed for the person to understand what you are trying to convey, and to stick with the most important points,” says Bitecofer, assistant director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University, said.
For example, while you may check various media outlets for political updates every day, there’s a strong chance the person you’re speaking with does not. While you might be able to rattle off all the names of the 25 Democrats running and explain their subtle policy differences, this person may not. And that’s okay. Arrogance will not serve you well in this scenario. So instead of saying, “Can you believe Warren is passing Sanders in the polls?” you might try, “I really like Senator Elizabeth Warren as a candidate, and I think she has a good shot at winning the nomination based on how she’s continued to rise in the polls.” If the person is interested in seeing more of the data, be ready to share a source—even if they’re a Trump supporter who just wants to size up the competition.
There is, however, the possibility that you find yourself in a conversation with a hardcore Trump supporter—one who expresses misogynist, racist, and/or xenophobic views—and you don’t feel comfortable engaging. In that case, it’s more than okay to excuse yourself.
“I don’t engage with them,” Barmore said. “I don’t want to be told to go back to where I came from—which is Albany, NY,” a reference to Trump’s recent tweets telling four women of color in Congress to “go back” to their ancestral countries.
The temptation to engage with Trump voters—in person, on social-media threads—is tempting: the high of publicly dunking on your high school classmates can sometimes be too good to pass up. But the best advice: Don’t take the bait, and save your energy for people who can move the needle.
“My focus is on millennials: I’m talking to them. I’m talking to folks who have not voted. I’m talking to first-time voters,” said Aniesia Williams, a marketing and branding expert who in 2016 worked on Black voter outreach with Ready for Hillary, a political-action committee that helped launch Clinton’s presidential bid.
But Williams won’t speak to just anyone: particularly her co-workers and close friends and family. “Everyone and Jesus has an opinion on something. They don’t need another opinion from me. They have the whole country telling them what to do.” That’s why she’s refraining from engaging too deeply or selecting a candidate this early.
And if conversations about the presidential election prove to be too contentious, it could be useful to refocus on state and local elections. State legislatures are the bedrock of democracy; they’re where laws get made, and where Supreme Court cases are born. Reminding friends, family, and strangers to tune in to what’s happening in their local elections can help take the stress off picking a presidential candidate, and also goes a long way towards helping them understand the importance of voting.
But just how effective are person-to-person conversations about politics? For political obsessives it can often seem like living, breathing and constantly talking about politics is essential to the republic. The calculus is that if you’re doing it, there’s a good chance others are, too, and together you can protect democracy from fascism. But is it really worth the effort?
Ganapathy says it’s unlikely to be enough.
“It’s on our political leaders to give people a reason to vote—to inspire and motivate people to show up and vote,” he said, referencing voters’ increased disillusionment with elected officials, and the feeling that the government doesn’t work for them. “[Political leaders] need to shake people out of their distrust of government.”
Ultimately, though, it’s not up to one person to protect democracy and beat Trump next year: A healthy discourse is key to achieving that goal even if it means talking to people who don’t share it. And one of the best benefits of engaging in respectful debate is that it helps you work out how you really feel about the most pressing issues of the day, like gun violence prevention, abortion rights, voter suppression, health care, immigration, and so on. Just as the candidates are out on the trail and talking through their positions, you, too, as a voter, have the power to shape the conversation. At this pivotal moment, it’s not enough to just say, “Go Vote!” It’s incumbent upon us all to keep our politicians in check, keep one another in check, and to make healthy dialogue habitual to ensure that democracy does not die in darkness.
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