Tuesday, April 1, 2008

How to Have a Conversation

Yesterday afternoon I had lunch with a Wesleyan undergrad who's an avid blogger and aspiring economic historian. We ordered some grilled cheeses and burgers, raspberry lime rickeys, and got down to two hours of great conversation.

I quickly realized that in following this election closely for over a year I've never spent so much dedicated time talking about politics. Even better, he was an Obama supporter; it would seem like the perfect setup for a political fist-fight over the lunch tables. Much to my delight, however, the conversation we had brought a level of clarity and perspective to a long-running political battle that I've thus-far not been able to achieve in talking with most of my teachers, friends, or fellow campaign fanatics (let alone I can get from watching cable news!).

In the past few months since Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been the Democratic candidates left standing, the only interactions I've had with Obama supporters as a Clinton backer myself have been tense. Even with those I've come to respect, it seems that discussions turn quickly into confrontations and I am immediately being asked to account for the comments of Geraldine Ferraro or Bill Clinton.

In an argument where I'm attacked over President Clinton's comments or I go on the offensive over Obama's "present" votes or something else, the next step is easy to predict—I hit back hard with the type of response I've seen my candidate's PR people use on TV many times over. What could have been a meaningful conversation becomes little more than a heated, though ultimately unsatisfying mudslinging event.

My two hours yesterday were much different. Instead of slinging attacks across the table and pulling tactics off of the TV, I admitted things I didn't like about the Clinton campaign that I would be too afraid to admit in an argument, and my Obama friend acknowledged some of the weaknesses of the Obama movement as well.

It's unfortunate and hard for many people to realize that when you force your politics down someone's throat, they'll never say something that could potentially weaken their own position. Being more civil, however, you notice that the distinctions between Obama and Clinton, for example, are more nuanced. Furthermore, you're more comfortable admitting that your side isn't perfect.

Though neither of us changed our political affiliations after $28 and two hours of talking, we both agreed that there's no reason for us to be enemies. In fact, we agree almost 100% on the policy matters. But what you experience after completing a meaningful discussion is a sense of having gone through a very natural political distillation process in which the news headlines of quarreling superdelegates, race cards, gender cards, and candidate spouses aren't left out completely, but are given the kind of attention they should be given—a quick mention before moving onto more pressing issues.

If you're lucky too, you can share a great drink at Starbucks and agree that Michael Clayton and The Kingdom were fantastic films.

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