Thanksgiving Politics and the Imperative of Self-Reflection

Photo credit: Green Bay Press Gazette

I am dreading Thanksgiving and not because I hate pumpkin pie. The mid-term election results are in. Half my family is smug. The other half is preparing to serve sarcasm and disgust. The comingling of these emotions around the table will ignite a fall firestorm.

My family is not unique. Political dialogue is broken. From dinner tables around the country to Capitol Hill, more Americans see their fellow citizens not as partners in the project of self-governance but as enemies in warring tribes.

Many experts blame (anti) social media. Users engage in virtue-signaling and e-fight with strangers in the comments section. Fanatics incite followers to destroy the lives of people with whom they disagree. In Florida recently, one Facebook argument caused a shooting incident in real life.

Other experts cite the news media. Some television personalities share an interest in deepening divisions. They draw more views through stoking outrage than through analysis. Networks are incentivized to blur the line between fact and opinion. Lazy scholarship and emotive narratives are rewarded. Logic and reason are not.  

Still other experts indict America’s broken institutions. Gerrymandering empowers ideologues. Hardline platitudes masquerade as viable policy platforms. When those platforms fail to deliver, leaders galvanize voters by attacking the dysfunctional system. This line of attack manipulates voters into believing that governance is feasible without the minority party, reinforcing the ideologues.

These issues make for scorched-earth politics. It is understandable that Americans retreat to friendly media. The world outside the echo chamber is rife with threats, abuse, and hyperventilating pundits. Alternative sources do not feel safe.

Nevertheless, we must take responsibility for our role in the dysfunction. The truth is that we citizens are the common denominator in the social media algorithms, media strategies, and political tactics. We create the demand signals. If we want to revitalize our political dialogue, we need to revitalize ourselves.

This conclusion led me to found the Burke-Paine Society. Inspired by the example of opposing thinkers in the Founding Era coming together for constructive dialogue, I hosted Republican and Democrat friends for drinks and conversation. We experienced the power of in-person conversation to foster empathy and mutual understanding.

The Burke-Paine Society is named after Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. These 18th century Englishmen were rival thinkers who influenced the Founding Fathers. Although Burke and Paine represented two opposite political camps, they carried on a productive dialogue. They sustained the discussion even as they had a serious falling out over the French Revolution. Disagreement did not devolve to petulance. Rather, the creative tension of their disagreements helped clarify critical questions still relevant in politics today.

The power of in-person conversation is not as obvious as it sounds. Many Americans simply do not seek out cross-partisan dialogue. That may be because hearing competing ideas causes discomfort. It may be because we are scared. It may also be because we lost the skills to discuss sensitive issues with those with whom we don’t agree.

Some Americans are beginning to awaken to the need to relearn these basic civics skills. The Burke-Paine Society’s first event in April drew about a dozen friends. Today, BPS is establishing cross-partisan discussion groups in six states and the District. We call these cross-partisan discussion groups “salons,” after the Founding Era tradition of small, informal gatherings in friendly settings.

Holding cross-partisan salons is our way around the filters that stifle dialogue. When people talk face-to-face, there is no social media filter to reward drive-by sarcasm or enable anonymous abuse. There is no news filter to shoehorn everything into canned narratives. There is no politician filter to shift blame for her failures.

Our goal isn’t to find centrist compromises. Salons aren’t “safe spaces” where members are protected from ideas. Rather, our goal is to forge cross-partisan ties and remake political culture to meet the demands of 21st century life. To be successful, salon participants adhere to strict ground rules that require respectful dialogue.

Some Americans might feel cynical about the Burke-Paine Society’s mission. Skeptics should remember that these problems have been brewing for a generation. A clever hashtag or a meme or a quick fix won’t change anything. However, we’re only just beginning to take notice of the crisis. Our response has just begun.

We have a long way to go, but I hope that bringing the Burke-Paine Society’s values to political discourse will allow Americans to rediscover the brilliance of our political system. The values of inclusiveness, empathy, intellectual curiosity, and humility might make a few Thanksgiving heroes, and, most importantly, inspire a political renaissance.