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In 2023, Let’s Put Down Our Phones and Really Start Discussing Politics

Category:Advice
Mylien Duong, PhD|January 11, 2023

This new year, let’s all make a resolution to put down our devices, turn to each other, and have honest discussions about the political issues that impact our lives.

Politics inundate our lives — and there's no escape. So it seems odd that most of us are only comfortable “discussing” politics through screens. Like many of you, my inbox and social media newsfeeds are overflowing with daily headlines about the political state of our country. The news keeps me abreast of the comings and goings of the most controversial politicians and what’s happening in our gridlocked legislature. And occasionally, I come across a voracious online debate about abortion, inflation, or another hot-button topic of the season.

Juxtapose that with what happens off-screen, and we have two contrasting scenes. At a recent birthday party for an old friend, one guest mentioned “side effects” and “booster” in the same sentence, causing the room to fall silent before someone awkwardly changed the topic to something less political. My husband and I didn’t even discuss the 2022 midterm elections (I just assumed how he would vote). We all protect information about our political views, stamping our opinions and values as confidential, except when the opportunity to debate with strangers arises online.

The preponderance of political talk online and the corresponding lack of discussion about significant issues in real-life settings have unfortunate side effects. Social media tends to spotlight the most extreme voices, and all engagement gets rewarded, whether sympathy or outrage. It makes us imagine a dark line between Republican and Democrat, Liberal and Conservative, but the sharp lines we draw rarely depict accurate portraits. When asked, Americans (across both parties) estimate that 32% of Democrats are LGBTQ; this figure is actually 6%. Likewise, people think that 38% of Republicans earn over $250,000 annually; the truth is that it's 2%.

We’re more alike than we think. The “prototypical” Republicans and Democrats we envision are the extremes of each party rather than the average. When plotted on a spectrum, people's political beliefs (from progressive/left to conservative/right) don't fall into two distinct groups at each end. The image is more of a bell curve, with most people clustered in the middle. These individuals in the middle have been dubbed “the exhausted majority” – they’re flexible in their views, seek common ground, and are tired of partisan politics. They are two-thirds of the American population, but it can feel like they don't exist because they avoid the social media arena of political chaos, where the fighting can seem more arduous than it's worth.

We would all do well (me included) to stop relying on clickbait headlines, social media discourse, and campaign emails to be our only source of political engagement. This new year, let’s all make a resolution to put down our devices, turn to each other, and have honest discussions about the political issues that impact our lives. Let's pivot how we engage in politics to be more about the policies and less about parties. I wager we’d all learn a couple of things from this exercise and find many things we can agree on, even if we don't settle on the best solutions.

You'd be well justified if you read that last sentence with skepticism. You probably have more experiences of political conversations gone wrong than those that manifested a kumbaya moment. What does a positive political exchange even look like? These conversations can get heated when we step outside of our like-minded circles because they tap into our fundamental values about right versus wrong. But therein lies the secret to successful discussions. Take the opportunity to reflect on how your life experiences and assumptions about the world have led you to adopt your positions. Then get curious about other people and how they came to believe what they do.

There are free, research-backed online resources, like the CDI Conversation Simulator, that can aid in understanding the root of our ideological differences so we can improve how we participate in political conversations. The Conversation Simulator interactively teaches three science-backed strategies for navigating difficult conversations and lets you practice them within the tool. Additionally, there are opportunities to use constructive dialogue in low-stakes settings by joining facilitated community discussions designed to connect people across differences. In polite company, we’ve been taught not to talk about politics and religion, so it makes sense that we might need a little guidance and practice.

It all sounds like a lot of work, I admit. But it’s the only way I know for us to collectively take control of our political narrative and stop ceding to the alarmist clickbait we see on our screens.

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