Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Political discussions hard to have these days

by John Halverson

September 06, 2012

I remember a steamy night in Florida.

That sounds like the start of a romance novel, but it was actually a recollection of a great political debate.

A co-worker and I were there for a seminar. We walked back to the hotel one night from a restaurant, a little tipsy, arguing politics all the way.

He was on one side of the political discussion; I was on the other.

We disagreed on almost everything, but it was a blast. We needled each other. We threw out facts the other person didn't know and stretched a few facts here and there.

And when we were proven wrong or at least presented with facts that challenged us, we sheepishly changed the subject.

We wouldn't pummel the other person until they admitted they were totally wrong. The idea wasn't to force the other person into submission; we respected each other too much to do that.

For most of my life, I've relished such political discussions. Arguing about politics has been one of my favorite sports especially if it's followed by a friendly beer afterward.

But no more.

That's because it's increasingly difficult to talk about political differences.

The cliché that religion and politics are off limits has never been more true.

The problem: We're all so sure we're right.

And we tend to follow leaders who are similarly self assured. So we watch Fox or NSNBC to add fuel to our fires. There's rarely an attempt to see both sides of the story.

It's almost like the dark ages, when people were burned at the stake for suggesting that the sun was at the center of the universe. If someone disagrees with us, we demonize them.

All this is taking place at a time when we might all benefit by a little lack of self-assurance.

The world is a lot more complicated than the extremes have painted it. It always has been.

For instance, I can line up economists on both sides of the political spectrum. They're all educated; they're all smart. They just arrive at different conclusions. To suggest there's only one smart way to move ahead or that we've found the holy grail of economic computations is a pretty arrogant conceit.

We like self-assurance. We like our political heroes to be outspoken and self confident. That way we can feel more secure in our own beliefs.

We like consistency. We have a hard time believing that someone can be against abortion for instance, and still be a Democrat, or believe abortion is a woman's choice and be a Republican.

But a really strong person can also change his or her mind, take a stand different than their friends and not demonize those who disagree.

Doubters should note that Ronald Reagan was a Democrat at one time, but changed his mind. And Nazi General Ervin Rommel and the Confederate General Robert E. Lee were admired by their enemies because they were respected for who they were, not demonized because they were on a different side.

There's also a somewhat humorous aspect to this atmosphere. We often assume that the people we hang out with must agree with us because, well, we're hanging out together.

It's always a bit awkward when you're talking to someone you're on friendly terms with and discover that they disagree with you politically. We just assume that someone we like must be as "smart as we are."

Such realizations tend to be real conversation stoppers instead of conversation openers which is what they could be.

I was at a restaurant the other day and heard a man raise his voice to a woman sitting across from him.

He was taking a side on a political discussion and made no secret that he thought the woman was a moron for thinking otherwise.

It was as though he had received tablets from Mt. Sinai that morning and anyone disagreeing with him was either the devil or stupid.

Maybe they had a beer afterwards, and the line "it was a steamy night" had another meaning for them.

But from what I could tell, it was another example that the sport of political sparring is not a game worth playing anymore.

I still flash back to my days as a high school debater. It was a nerdy pursuit but instructive. That's because we switched sides every week and had to learn the arguments on both side of the story and argue them convincingly and with passion.

Maybe that's what we all should do.

Maybe both sides should have to present the other person's perspective before resorting to hardball.

Then the game might be fun again.