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The proper way to discuss politics

| Wednesday, January 29, 2020

As we all know, Notre Dame will be hosting the first presidential debate in September. This is a fascinating opportunity for the University, as the campus partakes in what will be a contentious, significant 2020 election. No matter your political leanings or level of interest in politics, everyone should be excited. Last week, Father Jenkins released an email with further details about the debate. One particular part of his message was that as the debate nears, students should “do our best to embody our characteristic Notre Dame hospitality, and to show ourselves to be engaged, thoughtful and civil.” 

According to a June 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center, the vast majority of Americans have found political debate to be more negative, less respectful and fact-based and overall worse. This is not hard to believe. Over the years, divisive politics and partisanship has led to a polarized nation. Parties frequently vilify each other and the chance for bipartisanship is always diminishing. This degradation of discourse is not exclusive to government officials. Social media is wrought with bitter arguments, name-calling and an utter disregard for the wellbeing of the person behind the screen. 

Overall, the quality of discourse has gone downhill. Yet, discourse is a vital part of our nation’s democratic principles. Our democratic republic relies on an informed citizenry that openly engages in dialogue about important issues in a civilized, productive way. Free speech, one of the hallmarks of the Constitution, is dependent on the free exchange of ideas that are tested and adopted for the betterment of the nation. A country with poor discourse will elect weak politicians who pass bad policies. Discourse must improve for the sake of our nation. Yet, this path is unclear. How should we conduct political discourse? How do we bridge the partisan divide towards productive dialogue? I propose three elements necessary for any productive discussion about politics. 

First, we must reorient the way we view political discussions. Political conversations are often viewed as an “I’m right and you’re wrong” complex, wherein each party attempts to persuade the other to join their side. This understanding is largely flawed and influenced by our current political sphere. Presidential debates, name-calling in the media and fights between opposing parties would suggest that politics is only about winning. However, this is a misinterpretation of political discussion. In these conversations, “winning” is actually finding a solution that best benefits our nation or achieves our ideals. Nevertheless, there is obviously a debate element. One should have conviction in his beliefs and advocate for them, seeking to persuade others. However, political discussion has a second element, and that is dialogue. Dialogue is about understanding the different views on an issue and finding common ground. Political discussions should contain both aspects. People should argue for their beliefs, as it provides the foundation from which we navigate politics and adopt policies. However, for an effective policy, we should be informed of all sides of an issue. Ultimately, this assists in finding the best solution. 

Now, some may argue that debate and dialogue are irreparable opposites. An opinion from the New York Times vilifies debate as having a “close-minded, partisan and self-interested nature,” while dialogue benefits our democracy. This is a gross misinterpretation of the value of debate. Debate incentivizes one to question the rationale behind their beliefs and learn how to articulate those beliefs. It is a cornerstone of any effective discussion. It goes together with dialogue, providing the drive towards the common ground we seek. Through this, we can combat the polarization that has corroded our nation’s politics for decades. If we focus on understanding one another and appreciating the other side, that will only benefit the nation. In this way, debate and dialogue are the key elements of any political discussion.

Second, civility is greater than barbarism. One only must look at the comments of any political article to see the horrible indecency individuals have towards those with whom they disagree. Perhaps this is because they are hiding behind a screen, but the sentiment remains that our current discourse is disrespectful and unkind. We regularly see politicians vilify one another, whether it is President Trump’s nicknames for his political opponents or Representative Nadler calling the president a “dictator.” We cannot reduce our intelligence and critical thinking to simple name-calling and buffoonery. Political discourse should be characterized by an atmosphere of civility and goodwill. One should not automatically assume that those he disagrees with are evil or uninformed. In fact, adopting this aggressive tone may decrease citizen engagement. An August 2019 poll from the Pew Research Center found that while 53% of those with high levels of comfort with conflict talk about politics often, only 30% with a low level do the same. Aggression will only silence more voices. However, if we adopt kindness, civility and mutual respect, this invites greater participation that ultimately benefits the nation. This breaks down the walls and divisions politicians usually rely on to stir crowds, paving the way for an informed citizenry committed to a stronger nation.

Third, educate yourself. Read articles, participate in discussions and research the topics you are passionate about. Any political discussion is weak if it lacks substance and information to analyze. It is the obligation of any citizen to become informed, as that assists in understanding the issues of our nation and how to approach them. This specifically involves viewing the source material. Do not rely on political commentary or summaries of important speeches or policies. Listen to the politicians speak and read the bills. That way, one avoids the bias any commentary inherently has. Through education, one livens political discourse and brings about positive change. 

As we get closer to the 2020 election, politics will only intrude more in your personal life. This should not strike fear or anxiety. If we adopt the right mindset and strategies, political discourse can become a beneficial tool for any individual and the overall wellbeing of the nation. However, this requires a commitment from the nation’s citizens to follow this strategy.

Blake Ziegler is a freshman at Notre Dame from New Orleans, Louisiana, with double majors in political science and philosophy. He hopes his writing encourages others to take an interest in politics and government. For inquiries, he can be reached at [email protected] or @NewsWithZig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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