Of course, one way to make sure you never sound like an idiot when discussing politics (or have to suffer someone else who does) is to just avoid discussing politics in polite company. That said, sometimes a spirited discussion on current events is fun and informative, and sometimes you have the opportunity to talk to someone with an opinion or background you'd like to benefit from. In this post, we'll show you how to approach those political conversations from an informed, civil angle, without a conversation with someone you may disagree with devolving into a mouth-frothing mess like you'd see on Sunday Morning talk shows.
Go Back to Civics Class
As someone who enjoys following politics but doesn't always enjoy talking about it, I'm frequently surprised when I hear very smart people conflate issues with people or the power they hold. People are very quick to blame spending/taxes on the president du jour, even though Congress holds the power of the purse (and the House is the only chamber that can introduce bills that have to do with the budget). The President can draft and propose the national budget to Congress, but cannot change taxes and spending by himself (once funds have been allocated that is—the President can direct federal agencies to not spend as much money as they have.) Angry about cell phone unlocking? In that case, your target should be the Library of Congress. While White House petitions help raise awareness, you're barking up the wrong tree (as you can tell since that the official response to the petition essentially says "Yes, we agree, but we can't do anything about it").
Unfortunately, all of these nuances are far too lengthy for a talk show interview, so it gets condensed, often inappropriately, into a tiny snippet that's often used to shove the responsibility for an issue onto a political rival or specific party. The only way to see through this kind of political fog is with education. Think back to your Civics or Social Studies classes, and try to regain an understanding of what the basic branches of government are, what they're responsible for, the powers they hold, and the checks and balances among them. For those of us in the United States, this fun little exercise and video from BrainPop is aimed at kids, but is informative for citizens of all ages.
The next time you hear about some crazy law that is "working its way through Congress," stop and look up the bill at THOMAS, the Library of Congress' legislative information database, or at OpenCongress.org. See if the bill has cosponsors, or has even made it out of committee. Many of those "crazy bills" never have a chance at becoming law, and everyone knows it. There's an old saying in Washington: "The House does as the House does, and the Senate is the crucible of lawmaking." It doesn't matter which party is in control of which chamber: bills fly around the House like confetti just because there are more people (435 people!), opinions, and agendas in that chamber, but the slow, churning negotiations required to get anything done in the smaller, more public-facing Senate make sure things happen slowly and deliberately (in most cases.)
It can be frustrating to look at political leaders on any level and wonder why nothing seems to get done, but its important to understand why those bodies were designed and structured the way they are before you get so angry you want them destroyed.
Study Sources that Offer Multiple Viewpoints (Even If It Doesn't Change Your Opinion)
Once you have a grasp on the governmental bodies and the powers and authority they hold, you're already a more qualified speaker on political issues than most pundits (and in many cases, the people who hold those offices.) The next step is the most challenging one, and the one we've mentioned again and again, specifically in regard to science. Confirmation bias is our own natural tendency to seek out and prioritize sources of information that back up our own opinions and preconceived notions, while marginalizing information and evidence that may contradict our long-held opinions and positions. Image by Francis Carnaúba.
Since politics are often so personally and emotionally charged, it's natural to seek out people you agree with. It's for that very reason you need to be able to check your bias at the door and be open to (or actively seek out) information that may contradict your position. Sometimes being able to see the complete picture—including the flaws in your own position—are the key to strengthening it.
You don't have to change your opinion just because there's a flaw in your argument, you just have to be willing to acknowledge it. Remember, polite political conversation doesn't have to model those Sunday morning talk shows I mentioned earlier. Reserve the right to change your mind. You have the right to have multiple opinions and multiple stances that may not always fit with a political label or party.
Take Your Emotions Out of the Equation and Stick to Facts
Confirmation bias is a tough beast to slay, and many people would argue that you can never tamp it down completely. If you can make yourself open to new information, you've already come a long way from putting your fingers in your ears every time you're confronted with someone with a different opinion than yours. When you're talking to people about politics, make the conversation as fact-based as possible. That's not to say you can't be passionate about your opinions, but fervor is what leads to heated arguments, while facts and information are the components of a calm and reasoned discussion. Here are some sources to help you:
- FactCheck.org, a non-partisan project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center, is always a great resource to get down to the numbers and data behind a political statement or position, whether it's election season or not. Any time you hear a politician say something questionable, or trot out a study or some statistics to support their position, head here to get the whole picture.
- Politifact is another great site that keeps track of the public statements that political officials make every day, and grade them on the objective data available, or the actual quotes or statements being referenced. If you prefer to take your fact-checking on the go, Politifact's iOS, Android, and Blackberry apps are free and ready to sway a polite conversation right then and there.
- Super Pac for iPhone is a mobile app that's most useful during election season when you're being inundated with television ads. The app listens to the ad and will tell you more about who paid for it, who sponsored it, who approved it, and who paid for it. The app also shows you the claims made in the ad, and whether there's any truth to them.
OpenCongress.org is a non-partisan web service designed to give you more access to what's going on in the halls of government. Current bills in either house, their status, voting results, and the voting records of public officials are all available, along with issues in front of government and the full text of bills and laws. If someone brings up an official's voting record, or wants to talk about a controversial bill in front of Congress like SOPA or PIPA, OpenCongress.org can give you the tools to see who supports it, who opposes it, and how to read the bill and contact your elected officials to let them know how you stand as their consituent. OpenGovernment.org is like OpenCongress.org, but for local, state, and regional governments. it offers many of the same tools available at OpenCongress. OpenSecrets.org is another non-partisan resource to track the actions and positions of your public officials, and offers a wealth of information on how money plays a role in public policy.
- Follow The Money tracks the influence of money in politics, and is a handy resource to help you find out which lobbies are really supporting which politicians, which politicans avoid such money, and how money and influence peddling play a role in political decisions on the national, state, and even local levels. Before you go off complaining about lobbyists this and PACs that, Follow The Money will help you make sure you're drawing lines between the right companies and the right politicians. Similarly, Influence Explorer, MapLight, and the Sunlight Foundation can show you how influential individuals, companies, and lawmakers are all connected, and give you a rundown of bills currently in the news (including how the public debate has shifted the flow of money to and from politicians and causes.) Some of what you read may be surprising, but it's all part of intelligent discourse and being a more informed citizen.
- MyCongress for iPhone, Congress for Android, and Congress for Windows Phone are all great tools to use to see what your legislative officials are doing right now. The apps use your device's GPS to tell you who your officials are, how long they've served, how they're voting, and more. You can use any of the three apps to look at current events and controversies, bills in the news, and get a good idea of current events before you talk to anyone about them.
Don't just fact check the things you hear from other people, either: Make sure to run your own long-held "facts" through the wringer as well. There may be more to the story than you know, or maybe you're holding up half of the statistics in a multi-sided study or report. You may be supporting a politician who's taking money from a cause you fiercely disagree with, or who has co-sponsored an awful bill. You'll never know until you do your own homework. Get closer to the source, and avoid taking information that's spoonfed to you without thinking critically about it—especially before you plan to use that information in your own political conversations.
Finally, make sure the statements you make and hear are as truthful as possible. Keep an eye out for logical or rational BS, and avoid engaging on topics where you don't have authoritative information to back up your opinion. Most importantly, don't let a difference of opinion rile you up. The fastest way to head down the slippery slope from "honest conversation" to "gibbering nutjobbery" is to let your emotions take control and start issuing ad hominem attacks left and right. If you've spent any time on the internet, you know what I'm talking about.
Separate People and Parties from Their Policies
It's okay to separate someone's policies from the person, and a person from their party (assuming they deserve the distinction.) Sit me down in a room, and I can talk to you about politicians that I respect but who have policies I strongly disagree with. Much of the discourse around political issues, especially online, comes down to "X is bad and Y is good," when its extremely difficult to find a politician or party you'll agree with completely. Photo by Hillary.
Be willing to take even politicians you vote for to task openly when you disagree with them, and support them when you do. Similarly, be willing to separate a politician's policies from their personality or persona. Policies are things that can transcend offices, people, and even parties. If you can strive to avoid the cult of personality or the allure of a political party and focus instead on the issues that matter to you, you'll be a more well rounded citizen, a more informed voter, and a more level-headed conversationalist.
Disengage When You're At An Impasse
Finally, if you're at an impasse, don't be afraid to disagree and disengage. We mentioned that our brains are addicted to being right, but much of our goal here is to shut down that need to "win" a conversation. Remember, there's a big difference between discussing and arguing, and staying on the civil side of that line is key to maintaining your composure and having informative, intelligent discussions with people. Of course, you'll run into people for whom that distinction is lost, so knowing when to walk away and cool off is critical. Part of not sounding like an idiot is knowing when you're not getting anywhere, stopping yourself before you lose it, and knowing when to stop talking to someone who's either antagonizing you on purpose or just wants to push your buttons. Photo by mast3r.
I think most of you would prefer to be judged on more than your political leanings, so give other people the same benefit. If your politics are personal to the point where you have no desire to associate or speak with people who disagree, your best bet is to avoid talking about politics whenever possible. You never know when you may be confronted with a coworker, friend, or family member you'll never be able to talk to again. If you're able to keep the conversation dispassionate, fact-based, and focused on the information you know rather than the opinions you hold, you'll be able to associate with people who disagree without just hating them all the time.
Or, Just Don't Talk About Politics
We mentioned earlier that sometimes the best way to avoid sounding like an idiot is to keep your mouth shut, and there's nothing wrong with that. Keeping your political discussions close to pocket and only with people who you know are safe space and open to civil conversation with you is a good way to openly talk about the things that matter to you in a safe environment. Photo by Duard van der Westhuizen.
The problem with such safe environments is that if you're never challenged on your opinions or presented with new facts, your opinions will never grow and mature, and you'll never learn things you may not already know. You'll fall victim to your own confirmation bias, and you'll only seek out news sources and people that agree with you, and wind up with such a narrow point of view that you'll never be able to think critically about or see the complete picture of an important issue.
Alternatively, you don't have to talk to people about politics to get a well-rounded view: you can do all the research you like in the privacy of your own home, from your own web browser. You could also start your own blog, or join a community on a political blog or website that you enjoy reading to exchange ideas, share your opinions, and be challenged on them by others. Just don't be a troll, remember to contribute as much as you take, and pick your battles wisely. Once you do, you'll benefit from the great conversations you have, dismiss the bad ones, and most importantly, always come off knowledgeable, intelligent, and like you know what you're talking about.