How to Survive an Election Year

18 March 2016

Although I generally avoid starting political discussions on the Internet, participating in them is altogether unavoidable in an election year. The winner-take-all stakes in U.S. elections (called a single-member plurality system) enflames passions. So, here’s your guide to surviving an election year, and hopefully becoming a better person for it.

The thesis of this topic is eloquently captured by Eleanor Roosevelt, who said that

Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people. – Eleanor Roosevelt

It smarts, doesn’t it? That feeling of “oh no, I’ve been small minded!” I know that feeling well, 314, for I’ve been small-minded, too. Just wait a moment, it will pass. Now we can go about turning you into a great mind. Contrary to prevailing perception, you don’t even need to be smart to possess a great mind.

Firstly, we’ll explore small mindedness and how to identify it. As wonderful as our former First Lady’s quote is, we’ll skip average-mindedness, heading straight to the meat of the matter, which is how to have a great mind.

Before we begin, however, do not despair if you find yourself of a small mind. Retraining how you think and communicate is one of the harder things to do. Just pick yourself back up and keep at it. After all, sands do not shift overnight, but they do shift.

Small minds discuss people

Whether that’s Barak Obama, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump, above all, resist the urge to talk about people. Sure, Ted’s face looks weird, Donald Trump’s hair is strange, and Bernie Sander’s is one electrocution away from a lead role in Back to the Future, but that’s all irrelevant.

You’ve seen this in spades if you have a Facebook account and any friends on it. People warning you to not vote for Trump, people pleading with you to vote for Sanders. After that post you have learned but one thing: the preferences of the person speaking.

Perhaps most of all, resist the base urge to decry supporters of opposing candidates. For example, to the honest Trump supporter, the statement “I can’t believe how stupid someone must be to vote for Trump” can only elicit the response of “Well, I don’t care two cents what you think, but now that you’ve called me a fool, I’ll follow that campaign to the bitter end or to the White House.” A similar reaction will be elicited from the honest Sanders supporter when called an America-hating communist. Neither are true. Name calling only cements people’s thinking, which is probably the opposite of what you’re trying to do.

Great minds discuss ideas

Ideas breed understanding, and a great mind understands much. A great mind is also prepared to change. The communication of ideas usually accompanies some form of graph or chart. Science is the philosophy of seeking to explain information, and you should apply it liberally (however, the liberal application of scientific thinking will by no means make you a political liberal, as there are many intelligent, scientifically-minded conservatives as well).

The scientific process in political discourse goes something like this:

  1. Identify claims. This is where you can get in trouble, as what some believe as axiomatic can be regarded by yet others as patently false. If there’s contention, it’s a claim. But don’t worry, we will next determine truth.
  2. Determine the truth of those claims. Go to trusted sources! For most Facebook debates Snopes and similar sites are plenty enough to debunk the ridiculous (Snopes-bombing people on Facebook is one of my more favorite pass-times). For the rest, seek out independent researchers. Become an expert at vetting sources of information - it’s not hard, just follow the sponsorships and funding. Reputable and honest research will always disclose the sources of their information, or how they gathered what original data they are presenting. Not everything that comes out of partisan think-tanks is false, so don’t discount information, either. And, as always, carefully read for partisan “spin” in any article. Pay attention to statistics doctoring (y-axis scaling, and so on), and what information they aren’t sharing.
  3. Determine how the person you’re communicating with values those truths. A great example of this is the divisiveness on the topic of abortion. Pro-choice people place incredible value on the rights of the woman, whereas pro-life people place that value on the life of the unborn child. Neither are empirically wrong, but in making public policy and in public discourse we need to discover the values of others then change your mind, or agree to disagree.
  4. Change your mind, or agree to disagree. Key phrases include “I see what you mean, but…” and “I hadn’t thought of it that way.” The discussion is now over.

If you follow that basic pattern (skipping the middle steps if you already trust the information you’re both talking about), you’ll have excellent conversations, especially with people who hold differing opinions.

Another great conversation pattern is the Socratic method. Recall from before, that anguished Facebook post, “I can’t believe how stupid someone must be to vote for Trump.” Dale Carnegie wrote in How to Win Friends and Influence People that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” While your friends are not really flies (at least, I hope not), the principle holds. How much more productive a conversation would start with a question? “Maybe I don’t understand Trump’s platform enough. What makes you want to vote for him?”

From there you can have a wonderful conversation in which you can discuss policy ideas and discover the values that prompt people to support them. Or perhaps you’re talking to a dullard who has no idea? At worst nothing changes, at best he or she will go back and, on their own time, seek to understand more of what they support - perhaps finding it not all to their liking after all, and reversing position.

Don’t worry about winning others to your way of thinking. Changing your mind takes time, as it is first your ego that must be slain. This is a process that most of us prefer to do privately. If it’s going to happen, it will probably take place when you aren’t there. Should it happen, don’t try and rub it in. Humility is in short supply these days, it’s not wise to tax it further.

Public discourse is a collaborative process, and at all points you must retain respect for whomever you’re talking with. If you take the time to apply even but a few of these steps in your dialogue with your fellows, you’ll have a far more productive, stimulating, and enjoyable election season, whether it’s the 2016 U.S. Presidential race or the Lake Woebegone Mayoral race in 2072.