Talking about politics in mixed company

While attending a conference recently, I had the chance to visit with an old friend over supper. We have known each other for more than 35 years. We visited about growing older, the changes in our work, caught up on the lives of our children and shared the joys of being grandparents. Eventually we got around to politics.

My friend is a Republican and I’m….not. We probably disagree about just as many issues as we agree on. We share many experiences and ethical positions. We have both been involved in sustainable agriculture for decades. We disagree mostly over how we get where we need to go, not where we are headed.

My friend bemoaned the fact that he didn’t recognize the GOP any longer, nor did he recognize the Democratic party. We both grieved the loss of moderation in politics. When, my friend complained, did both parties start leaning toward their extremes? What happened to moderate Republicans and where did moderate Democrats go? When did it become political suicide to compromise or to seek the middle ground?

Perhaps we both have selective memory when it comes to the politics of old. In the past, we experienced corrupt party bosses who extracted favors from people whom they elected. The twenty-first century is not the first time in our country’s history when the rich bought elections or those elected. The scale of monetary influence, however, has reached new highs in recent years. Political rhetoric has been vitriolic, mean and full of misinformation in the past. Certainly politics has never been without corruption, vote rigging, and influence peddling.

In the past, however, there were some restraints on how much money could be funneled by corporations into influencing elections. The Supreme Court opened a Pandora’s Box when they ruled in the “Citizen’s United” case that corporations are entitled to the same rights to free speech as are individual citizens. Apparently, free speech is the same thing as injecting money into politics. In the last four years, corporate money spent on elections has skyrocketed. We may believe that we are not like other voters and are not influenced by the negative advertising and media bought with those dollars. One would, however, have to live in a cabin the woods with no telephone, television, radio, internet or newspaper to be totally uninfluenced by the propaganda techniques those dollars can buy.

As I was growing up, our neighbors down the road had a mixed marriage. She was a Republican and he was a Democrat. They cancelled each other’s vote in most elections. They had frequent and heated arguments about politics. It never broke up their marriage. They knew they would not change each other’s opinions and they loved and respected one another. In recent years I have known politics to end lifelong friendships. We avoid discussing politics among friends because we make those discussions personal. Differing opinions are often depicted not as another way of looking at the world but as being evil, stupid, corrupt, dishonest. Liberal and Conservative, depending on whose mouth the words are coming out of, are used as derogatory and insulting descriptives. Both sides slide into the trap of describing the nefarious and corrupt motives of the opposite side, compounded by others’ profound stupidity for not seeing things our way.

Sometimes the charges leveled across the political aisle are deliberately misleading and even outright lies. We believe them because it seems to justify what we want to believe. Other times the information is partly true, but exaggerated. Most of the time, the sound bites and news releases that make up much of what passes as journalism is blatant public relations messages, using the same principles of opinion manipulation as propaganda.

Even though we call ourselves Christians and claim that our position is based on the teachings of the Bible, we skip the commandment to not bear false witness against our neighbor. We miss the admonition to place a positive light on what others say and do. It is false witness to claim our President is the antichrist or that our senators or representatives are corrupt, especially when we only have a facebook post or an email allegation to back it up. It is lazy citizenship and contrary to the Ten Commandments to repeat half truths and wild accusations of evil motives without spending some time to verify facts.

If political views range from very conservative to very liberal, the majority of people probably fall somewhere close to either side of the middle of the curve. In an atmosphere where the extreme on either end are winners with no compromise, the majority of us become losers. The goals we all share…a better life for all, freedom, and the right to a pursuit of happiness…become lost. We become a society of “them” and “us,” divided, alienated, angry. We all lose. We need differing opinions. None of us can see all of the unintended consequences of our proposals. We need each others’ points of view.

My friend and I agreed that money’s influence needs to be restricted in politics. We agreed that determination of congressional and legislative districts needs to be removed from partisan politics and gerrymandering. We agreed that compromise must be held up as a desirable goal and not as a sign of giving in or of being weak. We need to change how we do politics for the best interests of future generations.

We agreed that becoming grandparents changes everything.

Copyright © 2014 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains