Political debates. How do you handle them?

This is totally self-indulgent. I would like to get some alternate points of view, though.

Background: I’m politically liberal, my whole family are liberals, I grew up in the most liberal part of the US, and I attend what is generally considered to be a liberal university in one of the most liberal towns in the Midwest. (Although it’s still the most conservative place I’ve ever lived in the US.) So I have my viewpoints and I’ve never had them challenged particularly. I didn’t do it intentionally, but virtually all of my friends have ideologies very similar to mine.

Anyway. I strongly believe in reasoned and civil political debate, but I have a couple of conservative friends on my Facebook with whom I strongly disagree on a plethora of issues and I’m having a difficult time actually engaging in reasoned and civil political debate. (The biggest problem I have is actually getting in arguments not with my friend, but with my friend’s friends, whom I don’t know. This post was inspired by one of these people telling me I should listen to Glenn Beck, which kind of put me at a loss for words.) The situation is exacerbated a little by the fact that I’m a grad student in public policy and I…well, I do feel like I know a lot more about political issues than most people. But I don’t like pulling that trump card, I don’t want to come off like a condescending jerk.

TLDR; I need to figure out a strategy on how to civilly discuss political issues with people I disagree with. How do you do it?

If the person will not engage in polite political discourse, I drop them. I’m not one of those people who believes you don’t talk about certain topics like religion and politics. I like talking and arguing about these things. If a person can’t do that in a mature, civil way, I feel I have enough information about that person to drop them from my social life.

I have serious disagreements with my BIL and some old friends, and I need to keep it in Email form. I tend to get a little worked up (and so do they). It’s gotten downright ugly at times, and I think an in-person debate just might result in bloodshed. :wink:

I stick with the facts. I spend half my time disproving ridiculous emails. Kill 'em with facts. They don’t CARE about the facts, so you’ll probably have to do all the leg work, but that’s about all you can do.

Political debate is mostly just entertainment for people who enjoy arguing. You’re never going to change anyone’s mind, so if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it.

And you’re right not to try to argue from your credentials. The obvious comeback would be “you’re a grad student in public policy and you’ve never had your political opinions challenged before?” You’d be condescended to in return with a response about how “school is different from the real world, kid.”

FTR, I’m 31. I’m not a kid. I returned to school after eight years in the “real world”. I’m not some ivory tower type, and I’m doing a two year professional masters degree, not a PhD. Right now (well, not literally RIGHT NOW, at the moment I’m sitting on a patio at a cafe) I’m doing an internship with an NGO in India, so it’s not like I just sit around in a classroom all the time reading boring ass political science papers.

Thanks for your input, people. I feel like maybe I should avoid these arguments altogether, but…I…can’t…seem…to…stop.

I use a couple of guidelines and techiques that I think work pretty well.

The first rule is that the person you are talking to often has a large emotional investment in their position and is often not reasonable, so you likely won’t change their mind. But, you may reach the other people who are following the conversation- and they are your true target audience.

So, don’t make any personal attacks and rarely ask for or offer personal anecdotes or experience unless they are exceptionally relevant both to you and many others. For example, I worked for an OBGYN, had an astronomically expensive baby, lost my job at my post partum check up and went uninsured for the next 8 years. I don’t bring this up unless there is a very good reason to do so because some people will try to use your personal information to attack you (as in ‘you obviously didn’t wan’t to work or pay for insurance’). Keeping the conversation impersonal takes alot of the heat our of the discussion and prevents hard feelings.

Next, ask a lot of questions, but somewhat neutrally. The person may ask “What do you think of Obamacare?” which gives a lot of clues as to where he’s been getting his news and what his position will be. Ignore buzz-words (like ‘Obamacare’). They are simply included to inflame the emotions. I might say “I’m not familiar with the ‘Obamacare’ plan, but do agree that a wealthy, industrious country like ours should have some method of providing health insurance to all its citizens. The method we are using right now is expensive and inefficient.”

My most recent conversations were with a guy who thougth taxes, medicare, medicaid, social security and all government social type programs were unconstitutional. His two arguements were ‘all things unconstitutional’ and ‘lazy people taking advantage’ and was getting dangerously close to racist. I asked him why no politicians ran on those platforms and he gave up on the conversation. Just asking him simple questions made him look like a nut, so you don’t need to make anyone angry.

And include a lot of good quality, factual (but not emotional) links. I like to use the PBS Frontline’s “Sick Around the World” factsheet that discusses how 5 other Democratic Capitalist countries provide health insurance to their citizens. None of these countries are Canada or Cuba (two bugaboos here in the US) or are socialist or communist. The factsheet link also leads to the video and the “Sick Around the US” video and fact sheet, again for your true target audience who really are interested and don’t know where to get factual information. The person you are actually speaking to will often promise to look at your links but not actually do it, or refuse to look at your links, so just give up and move on to the next topic.

I have no problem talking politics when the time is right. My brother has a political science degree and is conservative. My sister is going to school for a poly sci degree and is liberal. My other brother and I sit in the middle… we have lots of political conversations, always keeping in mind that we’re family and love each other.

Where I won’t talk politics is at work. I don’t want to cause any tension or drama at work… there’s enough of that already. Also, I don’t want to disagree with a customer and piss them off. They’re always right, you know? So I don’t talk politics at work.

Now those are some true words of wisdom. You’re kidding yourself if you think anyone is actually going to change their mind. People have reasons for believing what they believe that go far beyond any logic or statistics.
Facebook is for telling people what you did today or something cute your cat/dog/baby/whatever did. I ignore the political statements on facebook from my friends that I don’t agree with and don’t bother to talk about my political views on there. Everyone’s happier that way.

In general I do it either when I think they’ll be civil or when they’ve managed to piss me off already. For example, I had this boss who’d go on “holier than thou” rants on the team: first, our religious belilefs and practices are really none of her business, but second, she should find out what they are before climbing on a horse and finding it a pony. We never engaged her head-on, as we knew it wouldn’t do any good. But we did find ways to let her know:

  • that the “living in sin” coworker was “married at the old style” among other reasons because the company they worked for considered married women “uninterested in promotions, challenges or work away from home” (the boss admitted that these policies were, indeed, in place, and that she would never have considered a married woman for an international position)
  • that both “living in sin” and myself went to Mass more often than Ms Holier Than Thou
  • and knew our theology better
    through other conversations.
    I do have changed several people’s minds re gay marriage.

I don’t engage in conversations about politics to the extent that I can avoid it. I realize that probably puts me outside the intended response group for this poll, but there it is nonetheless.

For myself, I probably get too detached. Spend some time as a librarian, and you quickly learn to smile politely while people rant about irrational things. You can say pretty much anything to me, and I’ll smile politely and disengage. I see little point in discussing politics online (esp. on facebook!), unless it’s very civil indeed. Then my husband gets a little too involved, so he makes up for my disengagement.
One thing though–why not spend a little time watching Glenn Beck? No one said you have to agree with him, but it’s good to know where people are coming from. He’s more than half comedian (a very guy kind of comedy, not my sort) and his point frequently gets lost in over-the-top antics. If, as you say, you haven’t had nearly enough exposure to any sort of conservative thought, you might as well give it a go; at least you’ll be able to say you have done it and can give a first-hand commentary. But more importantly, be sure to read some proper conservative writing, I mean like the classics of conservative thought, the real books that underpin the philosophy. No, Newt Gingrich does not belong to that category.

I also very much agree with TomTildrum.

I try very hard now not to argue with people who won’t be respectful and listen to my point of view. It’s not that I expect them to agree with me, but I do expect for civilized discourse that they to try to see where I and my arguments are coming from, to try to put themselves in my place, and to try to tamp down on kneejerk “But that’s stupid; no rational human being would actually think that way!” reactions. (Occasionally saying, “Look, this is one of those things where I just am never going to understand that point of view” is fine, as long as it’s clearly articulated.)

In return, I try to do the same. It can be kind of difficult (especially if one is not used to hearing these opposing points of view!), and it’s definitely not worth doing unless the other person is doing the same-- which does not happen very often at all. When it happens, it can be very enriching (and has actually, contrary to what I said above about agreeing with TomTildrum, occasionally changed how I think about something). It’s also much easier to do with friends than with friends-of-friends or casual acquaintances, because at least with the friend you have the “Well, I’ve known C for ten years now, and she’s never struck me as incredibly loony, so maybe I should try to understand why she thinks that way…” vibe going.

Also… the problem with facts, of course, is that the world is so complex that it’s hard to ever put the facts in full context. This can lead to weirdnesses like both sides in an argument using the same examples (coughCanada), or dueling statistics/studies (probably none of which, if one actually went to the primary sources of the studies, actually support either side particularly). I mean, facts are clearly better than not having facts, but let’s just say that my far-libertarian genius ex-boyfriend could, I’m pretty sure, knock most liberals out of the water with facts/studies/data/statistics/logic, but this wouldn’t necessarily convince them, right? (He didn’t convince me to keep dating him!)

Same here. I get a lot of strawmen and “everybody knows” facts from some people that I debate with and the only thing I can do is provide evidence to the contrary. Last week I had one of these debates in which someone said “I don’t believe that”, I said “I can send you a link”, he said “Do it.” I did it …no reply.

I work with him and we get along just fine outside of this stuff. In fact, he asked for help on a project this week and I told him I’d only help him out if he admitted that Universal Healthcare is the greatest thing since sliced bread.

He refused so…I helped him anyway. Lucky for him I was joking!

A lifetime of listening to Clinton Derangement Syndrome sufferers, Bush Derangement Syndrome sufferers, birthers, bigots, misogynists, misandrists, conspiracy theorists, creationists, and loons of every stripe has convinced me that the likelihood of reasoned political debate with randomly selected members of the population is too low to make the attempt worthwhile. Something about politics brings out humanity’s Inner Loon.

You have to learn how to pick your battles. There are some issues you are not going to win. So don’t discuss those. If the person is gonna say there are 31 days in June and is prepared to argue the point, that is a lost caused.

Pick your battles. :slight_smile:

“while it may be a good idea…” HA HA HAA Own the arguement. My general advise on winning political debates is to find the “bottom”. Find “an improvement” on the opposition’s idea that, if, followed through, will refute and self-destroy the opposition’s original idea.

I disagree. You will not, of course, convince someone that your long-held opinions are right and their long-held opinions are wrong. But I have sometimes managed, over weeks and months, to get friends with whom I disagreed to (1) consider news sources other than their favorite and/ or (2) think about the logical implications of their passionately-held beliefs.

As mentioned above, one should (1) embrace facts (even the unfavorable ones), (2) ask questions, also (3) don’t stick your hand in the crazy. Handy technique: master this phrase- “Hmm.” It means, alternately “I’m not certain your underlying assumption is correct,” “Can we return to that straw issue later?” and/ or “That’s the most racist thing I’ve heard all day,” without getting sidetracked.

My feeling is that since you do this for a living you should avoid doing it for recreation (except maybe on the Dope). Just like if you were in medical school you would be dodging questions about people’s health conditions, you should dodge most questions from friends about politics. You will have your opportunities to influence people’s opinions on policy through your professional role–take them! Take the opportunity to get to know friends of friends as people, with common interests in sports, family, travel, whatever. Facebook works much better for that than it does for political discourse.

That’s not a trump card; it is an argument from authority and, in political discussions, nearly always a mistake.

You mention that you have little experience with political viewpoints other than your own. This is not uncommon, regardless of political affinity. And I rather doubt that anyone in your grad school is going to be a committed and articulate conservative.

Therefore one of the big challenges is going to be dealing with viewpoints that don’t at all share your presuppositions. I am not talking about the crazies - you can’t have a rational discussion with them. (If you decide that there are no non-crazies with a non-liberal viewpoint, then you won’t be able to have any rational discussions at all.)

I am talking about viewpoints that you haven’t heard defended before. I don’t know what your hot buttons are, but I mean things like “Reagan was a good President” or “Newt Gingrich has interesting ideas about health care reform” or “Obama has broken many of the promises he made before he was elected” or things like that. If you can engage those points of view, then you have a shot at rational discussion.

The thing to avoid is the “everybody knows” argument, which is common to those who never interact with anyone who holds differing beliefs. Pauline Kael famously remarked that she didn’t understand how Nixon could have won any elections, because nobody she knew voted for him. No doubt she was telling the truth - inside her bubble, everyone she interacted with either wouldn’t vote for a Republican if their lives depended on it, or at least knew enough to keep quiet about it.


I always assumed Kael was making an ironic joke, something akin to self-mockery. Surely no one is really that solipsistic.