As I expected, the last post in which I revealed my feelings about President Bush sparked off a comments-section round of sparring between myself and my friend Cheno. That action continued on the phone this morning and was mostly good-natured, as political discussions go. We've known each other a long time and we both value our friendship enough not to take a difference of opinion too far. Nevertheless, there seemed to be a fair amount of tension between us, and I'm pretty sure it wasn't just me feeling it. We defused it – or attempted to, anyway – by making jokes, largely at each other's expense, and in the end we never really discussed why we feel the way we feel about the president or the issues that surround him. And that has me wondering: why is it so difficult to talk politics with even our close friends?
Think about it. Assuming that you're the sort that's going to speak aloud your opinions in any setting – and I know there are people who just plain don't talk about them, ever – don't you find that you mostly only do it around people who you know share your beliefs? Don't you feel like you've made a huge goof if you grumble about a particular politician and then realize that someone in the room supports that person? We flinch when that happens because we've all been trained to think that any kind of political discussion with people opposed to us is going to turn into a fight, and so we tend to avoid even raising the subject, except by accident. That makes sense – only a small minority of people really enjoys fighting, and the potential loss of friends makes the risk higher than the benefits. (Reference my hand-wringing over whether to mention The Book on Bush here on my personal blog, which is, by definition, a place for me to air my own opinions. I was inhibited because it is also a public forum that I know my friends read, friends that I know have differing opinions from mine, and so I was hesitant to speak up despite the strength of my feelings on this matter.)
But must it always turn into a fight? What is it about politics that so inflames people that they can't discuss, coolly and calmly, the issues that affect all of us, regardless of which side of a hypothetical line we might happen to fall upon? I'm not just asking a rhetorical question here. I really don't know the answer, and I'd really like to have one. Mike Chenoweth is one of my oldest and closest friends. We've been there for each other during almost all of life's challenges and transitions, and he and I have discussed everything imaginable, from the most trivial (movies, toy collecting) to the most important (love, death, the meaning of life). We've even discussed, to a more limited degree, our thoughts on religion. But when it comes to politics, we may as well be total strangers. And quite frankly, that freaks me out. It's like there's this Place That We Dare Not Go, an edge-of-the-map, Here-There-Be-Monsters wilderness deep inside of us, where our friendship becomes meaningless. But how can that be, if we have so much in common and have known each other so long?
My one theory about this question is that our political views are intimately bound up with our sense of self in a way that most other opinions (such as taste in movies, for example) aren't, and so any threat to our politics is perceived as an attack on our very identities, on our very deepest selves. So many things influence our political viewpoints: our values, our hopes and fears, our notion of what the world is like and what it should be like, and, perhaps more than anything, our unique life experiences. Aren't those things the very same factors that define who we are as people?
I suspect our fundamental emotional make-up might be involved, too. For example, I don't believe that I'm very good at competition – the curse of being an only child, I suppose – so I tend to resist the Darwinian viewpoint, held by many on the right, that people should be on their own to succeed or fail based on how well they fight. I tend to want the world to be more fair than that (recognizing, of course, that "fairness" is not easily defined and does not naturally exist in the world), irregardless of how logical the survival-of-the-fittest argument may or may not be. I am also quite sensitive to criticism and so tend to dislike any person, politician or otherwise, who appears to be too much of a bully. However, I know that other people perceive what I call "bullying" behavior as strength, confidence, or moral certitude. These kinds of emotional reactions are a visceral, irrational, perhaps even unconscious influence on how we cast our votes, and I suspect that most people don't like to believe that their emotions have so much to do with something as important as our politics. Nevertheless, I do think that most people, if they were honest, would admit that they vote in large part for the person they connect with emotionally, and that the actual issues and policies are a secondary concern.
In addition to the politics-as-identity issue, I think the current state of discourse in America contributes to the sense that debate-equals-personal combat because so much of the debate is personal. Rancorous feelings in politics are nothing new – I recall that a debate over slavery in the 1850s led to one congressman beating another nearly to death on the floor of the Senate, and detractors of Lincoln and F.D.R. had nicknames for them that make "Dubya" and "Slick Willie" sound like terms of affection. Nevertheless, it seems that the discussion no longer focuses so much on where the politicians stand or what they do as it does on "character," or more specifically on convincing the voters that one's opponent has poor character. Remember that Bush 43's first campaign was largely built around the notion that he was a better man than Bill Clinton. Not that his policies or ideas were better but that he himself was a better man. (I would say that he's not better at all, he is simply tempted by a different set of weaknesses.) By the same token, no one thinks as much about the things Clinton actually did while he was in office as who he did while in office, which is exactly what his opponents wanted. (Without opening up a whole other can of worms, I would like to say that I believe there was a witch hunt against Bill Clinton – I'm not saying that he didn't do wrong, only that he had enemies that dug and dug and dug until they found something they could exploit – and that this hunt was only the largest manifestation of the toxins that have poisoned public discourse in this country.) Why didn't his opponents take on the man's issues instead of trying to destroy the man himself? Your guess is as good as mine, but the years-long crusade to discredit Clinton accomplished nothing except to make people less prone to rational debate than to mudslinging. The average guy hears the talking heads hashing over the blue dress and that stupid "meaning of 'is' is" line and figures that this is what you're supposed to talk about and how you're supposed to talk about it. Over the last fifteen years (maybe longer), discourse has come to be about insults, hurt feelings, animosity, and distrust, and so of course no one wants to debate the issues.
In the end, I guess it's pretty pointless to debate the issues anyway. The odds of changing anyone's mind are pretty slim, so why bother? As Cheno pointed out, most political books are aimed at those who have already made up their minds and never really address both sides of an issue (although I still maintain that The Book on Bush comes closer to being a fair-handed portrayal than most). People tend to read the websites and columnists that reinforce their own views rather than accepting the challenge of reading the other side's stuff. I'm ashamed to say it, but I'm as guilty as anyone of having a closed mind. (Look at how I turned down Mike's challenge to read Hannity. I had good reason – I've heard Hannity's radio show; he oozes contempt for anyone who doesn't agree with him, and I frankly don't need the abuse – but I still refused to look at the other side, just as Mike will never pick up the book I recommended.) And I find that unutterably sad. It's not supposed to be like this. Intelligent human beings should be able to sit down and say, "this is what I believe and why," and then have a gentle give-and-take that leads to a new, rational understanding of the issue and a consensus on how to solve it. I guess I'm a dreamer, eh?