Each person’s life is lived in a series of conversations1
In the most basic sense, politics is a set of conversations in which proponents of one position or candidate attempt to secure support from the opponents and/or the undecided. Conversations flow from the public to policy-makers, between policy-makers and from policy-makers to the public. Who is engaged in initiating, framing and carrying out the conversations has significant effect on the policy and personnel of government. At best the conversations lead to consensus; at worst to deadlock where the participants do little more than to agree to disagree. Most often the result is a temporary compromise generating further rounds of conversations.
The conversation analogy for politics is a particularly useful since all of us engage in non-political conversations and will readily recognize the behaviors and strategies which either move or frustrate us. As importantly, the analogy allows us to build on the robust research and logic from sociology, psychology and linguistics that while seldom focusing on politics offer useful insights into political conversations.
The conversational perspective naturally generates the image of the town square or general store cracker barrel with everyone having a say in a rational dialogue. While a comforting image supporting the ideals of direct democracy, it would be naive to see the contemporary political conversation in such terms. Not all conversations involve equal partners nor are based on logical deliberation. Some conversations are virtually dictated from the top. Emotion and illogical content often carry the day. Just because conversations fail our standards for the logical application of facts to a well-defined problem resulting in a reasonable set of actions, does not undermine their basic characteristics as conversations.
Politics deals with those preferences and policy options over which reasonable people can, and should, disagree. Conflicting points of view are part and parcel of the political process. While you may have your own “right” answer, there is seldom a societal “right answer” for how policy should proceed. If a right answer is so apparent that virtually everyone can see and agree to it, it can be handled in a bureaucratic way. The potential of conversation is to narrow the gap between individuals, identify potential compatriots and outlines ways in which a coalition can be created to more the process forward. A “good” decision in politics is one where the participants accept the decision-making process and which can be supported by the larges coalition of supporters. The idea of a coalition is that not everyone involved agrees on the goals or methods, but can accept the decision to act.
Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half the people are right more than half the time. If you believe that members of the public are ultimately fools, and that all politicians degenerate into knaves, you might as well nip off this conversation in the bud, for what follows will sound like the foolish ranting of a naïve Pollyanna. One does not have to believe that all is well with our democratic ideal to believe that it does often work, even if it is in fits and starts. Also by outlining an ideal, we are given a target toward which to aim our attempts at improvement.
Stop for a moment and note down those characteristics you find pleasing in a “good” conversation.
You might have come up with ideas such as:
1. All the participants have a chance to speak.
2. Courtesy and civility reign
3. Participants put as much effort in listening as in talking
4. Participants bring in new and relevant information, not just preferences or vacuous slogans
5. Rationality is more important than emotion
6. Falsehoods are nipped in the bud. Sources are noted.
7. Brevity is important—Don’t “beat a dead horse.”
Consider these criteria, and those you developed and think about the degree to which the contemporary political conversations in America stack up. Think about who is at fault, if the processes are lacking, and don’t forget to include yourself in the potential blame.
What have YOU done this week to improve the political conversation?
Adapted from Stephen Frantzich, The Conversations of Democracy, Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming
 Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, New York Ballantine Books, p. 13.