I’m a writer, so in many ways I relish the drama and intrigue of presidential politics. For a non-American living in my adopted home of Connecticut, I’m a total wonk. I can’t vote (yet), but I am deeply invested in many of the decisions that U.S. politicians make on every level. I feel personally affronted by eligible voters who don’t vote, even if they support a candidate I don’t—we can disagree on what we stand for, but you should at least stand for something. With that in mind, I’ve written this little note to myself as a guide on how to negotiate political disagreements in this season of nonstop punditry. These are reminders directed primarily at myself, but I’ve decided to post them here in case they might be helpful to you, too. If they don’t apply to you, then they don’t apply to you, no need to overcomplicate it.
I need to be informed. This goes without saying, but it’s the first rule of rhetoric and debate—I must always substantiate my argument with research. Not just because it makes for a more productive discussion, but because if I feel that strongly about a particular topic, shouldn’t I know why? And if I’m not able to reason out and articulate a particular stance, shouldn’t that be an opportunity to reconsider it? It’s important for me to not be afraid or ashamed of not knowing something, or of being wrong. Every mistake is an opportunity to learn.
Another thing I have to keep in mind that we’re (mostly) on the same side. This is especially true for supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, whose policy positions are so similar their debates sometimes sound like a liberal echo chamber. I disagree with Bernie on some issues, and I disagree with Hillary on some issues, but I agree with both of them on most issues, so it’s important for me not to let the disagreements overshadow that. I can’t think of a politician with whom I agree 100%. Even my beloved President Obama came into office in 2008 explicitly not supporting marriage equality, which was a key issue for me. Yes, I prefer Hillary, but if one of my friends prefers Bernie, all that means to me is we’re on the same side.
But guess what—I have a fair share of Republican friends, too. I’m not sure if any of them plans to vote for Trump (and I think I prefer not to know), but I have to remember that being Republican does not in itself disqualify someone from being treated with respect. Anybody I consider a friend is a decent, considerate individual. Again, we may differ on some policy positions, but overall I find that we share the same values of kindness, earnestness, and thoughtfulness. While I enjoy a good, healthy debate, I must never allow politics to poison friendship.
With this in mind, I must always try to avoid demeaning anybody because of his or her political beliefs. I believe in what I believe, but that gives me no right to condescend to someone who believes differently. Sure, I have data and links to New York Times articles to substantiate my stance, but so does everyone else. I must use political conversations as an opportunity to exchange meaningful ideas, not to yell at people.
On a similar note, I must try not to assume that people who hold different opinions are somehow displaying some measure of animus towards me. In other words, I must be conscious of being overly sensitive. If people say I’m wrong about an issue, they’re not necessarily being condescending—they’re defending what they believe is right. I must try to afford them the same space and understanding I’d want for myself.
It’s not always about winning. It’s so easy for me to get caught up in a particular discussion, to be so desperate to make another person see my point-of-view, that I run the risk of losing sight of what the overall point even is. Am I right about capital punishment? Are you right about gun control? Who cares? The bigger issues to focus on are improving the criminal justice system and minimizing senseless gun deaths. How we get there is not as relevant as whether we get there.
Finally, I must be true to myself. In an age of bite-size media clips, it’s tempting to define myself according to established stances on particular issues—pro-choice, anti-gun, pro-this, anti-that. These labels can sometimes be helpful in thinking through and understanding different arguments, but they often create over-simplified binaries that don’t quite explore the depth of how I feel and what I believe. I must avoid falling for the easy way out just because it’s easy. It’s a good guide for politics, of course, but it’s perhaps even more important for me to remember as a writer.