How to Win Friends and Talk Politics in 2020 (Without Losing Your Mind)

James Fallows: Start with Schools and Children’s Future — “I Am Your Friend”

Phil Remke and I talk politics– even though we usually disagree.

Phil, the former mayor of Moundsville, WV, and star of the movie Moundsville, is a boisterous small-town supporter of President Trump. I’m a journalist from Brussels whose main political conviction is that societies should aggressively uphold standards of truth and never tolerate lying.  

Americans are more divided than ever, according to the latest Pew survey, which makes it more important than ever for them to be able to talk about difficult topics with people they disagree with.

But how exactly do you do that?

The only reason Phil and I can discuss thorny issues without blood boiling is that we started off by talking about something else. When I began visiting Moundsville, a bastion of Trump support, and interviewing people, Phil invited me to his house, introduced me to his wife, Loretta, and told me stories about his late son Christopher, who had cerebral palsy. Phil and Loretta took care of Christopher lovingly for years, without getting much explicit communication or feedback from him in return. Their stories, and hospitality, were touching and gracious. I told him about growing up in Europe and playing baseball. Then I brought up Trump.

I thought of my political conversations with Phil when I read John C. Danforth and Fr. Matt Malone’s recent essay in the Wall Street Journal, “A First Step Toward Loving Our Enemies”. Danforth is a former senator from Missouri and an Episcopal priest. Malone is a Catholic priest and a Jesuit who edits America, a magazine I sometimes write for. They call on Americans to take responsibility for how viscerally divided the nation has become:

Everybody bears responsibility for polarization. This might seem like unwelcome news, but it’s the opposite. As long as the cause of the problem is someone else, then nothing can be done. But those who acknowledge how they contribute to the problem also can begin to imagine how they can create a better culture. In this world Americans would see each other as neighbors and treat each other as friends, even and especially when they disagree deeply.

They recommend that Americans first forge better relationships with people before talking politics:

Imagine if Americans began to exchange the peace with their political opponents. In a secular setting they could simply say, “I am your friend.”

This would transform the tone of politics. Treating opponents as friends would be more than a nicety. By showing that we are disposed to listen as well as speak, it would make possible real dialogue.

You don’t have to be a cleric to recommend this approach. James Fallows, the Atlantic journalist whose book with his wife Deborah, Our Towns, reports on how Americans are rebuilding their country, says something similar. (Our Towns is also a movie coming out soon on HBO.)

When meeting strangers, Fallows tells me, it’s best to establish rapport by first asking about the local instead of the national, like “their future or their children’s future in a certain area or industry, how they deal with their neighbors, how the schools run.”

In an email, he explains:  

The range of possible views about national politics is surprisingly limited. People are for Trump — or against him — for a set of finite, and very well represented, reasons.  You virtually never learn anything new, interesting, or insightful about people or communities by asking where they stand on that familiar spectrum.

Fallows adds that reporting on politics in the months approaching an election is useful, but says that, as a rule, immediately jumping face-first into a conversation about Democrats and Republicans

short-circuits the many areas of possible discussion, potential two-way instruction and persuasion, and likely agreement, and jumps to a realm that (in this era) is the least tractable to discussion, persuasion, compromise, and so on.  You *start* with the greatest source of potential division, which makes it very difficult to work your way back to the many areas of possible agreement and cooperation.

Once you’ve established that cooperation, it becomes increasingly feasible to have nuanced conversations about specific questions of politics, like the economy or health care, or even guns or abortion.

Last night, Phil Remke and I texted about one of this year’s hot-button political topics, anti-racism protests, which I support and which he, like President Trump, feels have spun out of control.

Phil: I spoke to a lady that is in charge of nurses at one of the hospitals, and she was disgusted because some of the nurses went out to protest, just left, but still got paid. How wrong is that.

John: They were exercising their first amendment rights, no? And they probably don’t make much money.

Phil: Still not right, what if a small business employee walks out, for a protest, sorry they would not be working for me any longer.

John: Yeah I’d ask for permission.

Phil: They are there to work, protest on their own time. I am old school, NOT this new generation.

John: You didn’t march in the 60s? What about 1776? The Boston Tea Party??

Phil: Are you baiting me? NOT going to work. And no I didn’t march in the 60s. How old do you think I am?

John: Haha. Yes, I’m baiting you a bit. People skipping work is a violation of a labor contract, yes but that doesn’t discredit protesting—that’s democracy baby.

Phil: Friendly protests I don’t mind, but not what is going on now, I do have problems with that.

John: Very small minority—99% of people protesting are law-abiding & motivated by genuine concern for their fellow Americans.

Phil: I personally don’t have a problem with that. Everyone has their own views we all should be civil, it is why we have a democracy. Let’s not forget we are all God’s children and we should respect each other. My finger is tired, it is also old, going to go now. Night.

John W. Miller


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