I’m standing at a booth during our local gardener’s market, and I decide to walk over to the Democratic party’s booth and meet some of the people. One of them is a lady running for some local seat in my district and we start up a nice conversation. In the back of my mind though, I keep thinking that no matter how much I like this lady, we live in a majority conservative state. So I decide to ask her a question. We are on the subject of health care.
“How could you appeal to conservatives?” I ask.
“Uh, well, I don’t mind paying higher taxes if it means more people receive health care,” she says.
Flash back to a few months before and I’m watching a video of one of my federal representatives who is Republican. He’s at a town hall meeting answering a question about a certain house bill that he didn’t support. Before answering the question, he persistently asks who sponsored the bill. When his question is finally answered and the answer includes a Democratic representative, his response is simple.
“Oh, I couldn’t support that. The guy’s an idiot.”
Urgh, this is our problem. We don’t try to relate to different viewpoints. We label and quickly disregard each other. It’s tempting to think that as long as our side wins, it’s fine. Or maybe we think the other side really is full of unreasonable idiots and that it’s a waste of time to even try to reason with each other.
Let’s go back to the first conversation. The democratic candidate “tries” to relate to the conservative voter by saying she doesn’t mind paying more in taxes. From her reply it’s clear that in her mind conservatives don’t like paying taxes. Her way of answering that concern is to say, if I may expound, that it’s worth paying more taxes in order to give everyone healthcare.
Let me try.
“I believe we should expand health care, not just for the poorest among us, but for everyone. To do that we need to consider carefully the best way. We need to find how to lower overall costs and make the system sustainable. It’s the smart thing to do, otherwise we end up overburdening taxpayers with unnecessary costs. Conservatives are really good at budgeting and making things more efficient — which is why I need your support. If we could all get together and use our collective skills, I think we could find a system that is affordable and sustainable.
Vote for me!”
Even if I don’t win over the voter, I at least demonstrate that I understand more of the concerns. Inefficiency, waste, and overburdening the system are some of the reasons why conservatives don’t like high taxes. By considering these elements I let them know I understand. I can still support expanding health care, while including conservative viewpoints that really should be included anyway. I doubt this democratic candidate wants to see money wasted.
Let’s take on the second example. This one is really disappointing.
One of my own representatives setting the example that it’s okay to label members of a different political viewpoint? I suspect his mother taught him better. My six-year-old struggles not calling people idiot when there’s a disagreement. An elected congressman? We can easily do better. I’ll give two examples for this one.
Attempt one – the simple diplomatic answer.
“Who sponsored the bill? (Honestly, I have no idea what bill you’re talking about since I have to review hundreds a month.) Oh, that congressman. Yeah, I know him. Well, I usually find that what he supports directly opposes what the majority of my constituents support. It’s hard to get behind that when I feel the responsibility to represent as many of you as possible. So, yeah, I didn’t support that because I’m trying my best to do my job.”
The person might come back and say that the bill was for a good cause and the conversation would continue, but at least it would be more respectful. A novice politician could have managed that.
Attempt two – stretching a little further out of the box.
“Hmm… Who sponsored the bill? Oh, yeah, that congressman. Well, I have to admit, I usually don’t even look at the bills he sponsors, but maybe I should. I often think about the majority of my constituents, but you’re my constituent too. Is there anything in particular you liked about the bill that I should have considered? Maybe it’s worth revisiting during the next session. Thanks for bringing that to my attention.”
It doesn’t have to be much, but it needs to be more. We can’t simply disregard each other or roll our eyes as we anticipate the political argument. We need to get past the labels, some of which can get a lot worse than “idiot”.
It’s worth our time.
I must admit, Emily, I found your revisions of the candidates’ answers very well done ! Very approachable and lending to dialogue rather than shutting conversations down.
How did you learn that ?
How can you teach others that skill ?
I fear most of us take conversation short cuts. We don’t want to think of that many words to say ! But I firmly believe if we all could learn to answer questions with respect and thoughtfulness we would all be happier people. We would feel valued. Though disagreements would still arise, we would handle those disagreements in a better way….in the way our mommas would have wanted to teach us !
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I learned some of it from YOU! It helps to have practice talking with people you care about, but disagree with. That makes us keep at it, thinking harder and trying harder to phrase it nicely and be respectful. Too often we simply disagree with people we don’t care about, which doesn’t give us much practice for being nice. “Conversation short cuts” is a good way of putting it. Easier to take shortcuts when you don’t care.