This was one of Mike Huckabee’s campaign themes during his campaign for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately. It seems that because political differences are often related to things that we hold very dear and important (even more so over the last few decades), it can be difficult for some to not be offended or take it personally when someone has a different opinion about politics than we do.
When I was in high school and college, I’ll admit that I was guilty of that very thing. I had my political preferences and, in my view, everyone who disagreed with me was simply wrong. When pressed to defend my political viewpoints, I often resorted to echoing bumper-sticker soundbites that I picked up from cable news pundits and other political talking heads on the TV.
Pursuing a graduate degree in political science for several years changed my outlook. I took several courses in political theory, public opinion, and public policy that exposed me to a variety of philosophies and arguments on all sides of the political spectrum. In contrast to my earlier beliefs, I learned that those I disagreed with often base their views on a fairly sophisticated set of political arguments and ideologies which were often not all that different than my own. I learned that we simply come at it from different perspectives in terms of how we best think the government ought (or ought not) to pursue those values and goals in the public sphere.
I further learned to appreciate that while there are some issues that fall into the “right/wrong” category, they’re more rare than I had originally assumed. Most of politics, in my opinion, is a matter of preference. While I might prefer Cheerios over Corn Flakes, I don’t think that Corn Flakes fans are morally wrong for their preference. I came to feel the same principle applies over most differences in the political world.
Unfortunately, most political discourse in the world today, both on the news and in our inter-personal conversations, tends to focus on the bumper-sticker soundbites that I myself was so enthusiastic about when I was younger. This goes for many on both sides of the political spectrum. The more and more I learned about the political world, the more I grew to find this distasteful and somewhat naïve, politically-speaking.
Nowadays when I have a political conversation with someone, they often assume that I will take it personally or be offended if they happen to disagree with me. Thus, they avoid talking about politics in an attempt to preserve a positive personal relationship. They assume that difference of political opinion requires personal animosity and disrespect. This is unfortunate, I think. Personally, I really don’t care all that much if people disagree with me about politics. I know that there are strong philosophical and ideological arguments that favor a variety of policy preferences and viewpoints. As Mike Huckabee put it, I have my particular preferences, but I’m not mad at everybody over it.
Additionally, my training in political psychology research has taught me that most people, most of the time, don’t change their mind as a result of a political conversation. I thus became less interested in talking to people about partisan politics simply because neither one in the conversation is likely to change their mind. The objective for me became to inform and increase understanding, not to persuade and politically proselyte.
What tends to frustrate me nowadays is when people, be they Democrats or Republicans, do the same thing I used to do and justify their beliefs and preferences with the bumper-sticker soundbites and echo cable news pundits. I tend to roll my eyes when I hear a Republican saying something like “Obama’s a socialist” or a Democrat saying “Bush was a fascist.” But then, I also try to temper this with a bit of humility. After all, that was me not so long ago…