Polite Company

Remember the old saying to the effect that one shouldn’t discuss religion or politics in polite company? Last night, I think I observed a slightly different version, to wit: people with wildly different political orientations can be perfectly pleasant to each other if they avoid discussing specific policies.

I realize this isn’t exactly practical as a prescription for civic argumentation, but hey–it’s a start.

Last night, an undergraduate class at SPEA–under the direction of Professor John Clark–presented a community discussion on the topic “Distrust in Government.” The students did all the work–conceived the program, invited the participants, found the venue and promoted the event. They did a great job, and despite the really awful weather, the Lilly Auditorium at IUPUI’s library was approximately two-thirds full.

The first panel was particularly interesting: it included a representative of the local Tea Party, a long-time chair of the Indiana Libertarian party, and a member (she declined to be identified as a “representative”) of the Indiana Occupy Wall Street movement. All three were pleasant, civil to the others, and in agreement that government is broken. The Tea Party representative began by assuring the audience that “we’re nicer than people think.” He quoted the Founding Fathers and portions of the Constitution (much as Biblical literalists quote the Bible, without dwelling on questions about how those texts should apply in a complex contemporary society), and urged the students to become involved. Hard to argue with that.

The Libertarian was easily the best speaker and clearly the most nuanced thinker of the three. He was funny and he was also realistic about the prospects that face third parties.

The woman from OWS seemed bright, but exhibited what has widely been seen as a central weakness of the movement–when an audience member asked her what it is that the OWS movement is trying to achieve, she responded that different members want different things, and she explicitly rejected the idea of what she termed “hierarchy” and what some of us might call organization.

What all of the panelists expressed, in one way or another, was frustration–with politics, with the role of money in politics, with the fecklessness or overreaching of government, or both.

It was an entirely civil discussion, because it focused upon a theme all three could endorse–we need to fix our government so that we can trust it again. Had the question been “how should we fix it?” my guess is that the civility would have been harder to sustain. But it was a start.

Kudos to Dr. Clark and his students. We need more venues for such discussions–even for more heated ones.


  1. That’s a lesson I learned while drinking in Denver with one of my best friends (best man at my wedding, in fact) who is a staunch conservative. We were about three bars past having “way too many,” and got into a knock down, drag out screaming fight about politics. But, it was all “my team/your team” b.s.

    When we spoke of (and still speak of) specific problems and specific approaches to fixing them; we didn’t necessarily agree, but we have a lot of common ground and can’t see getting too worked up about the differences we do have.

    So, the lesson I learned is that, if you are going to talk politics with someone you want to keep as a friend, a) keep the drinking in moderation; and b) focus on specifics rather than generalities.

  2. Thanks Prof K
    This reminds me of a story I heard years ago from Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda on the “Carson” Tonight Show..
    They were living together early in their careers in NYC as I recall.
    They too got in a HEATED argument over politics and proceeded to beat the stuffing out of each other.
    They agreed then and there that they would NEVER do that again and remained friends for life
    Very different people but they quit beating each other
    I have a few friends like that too. I love them to pieces and disagree with their
    conclusions. With some I can have constructive conversation. I wish I could say that for all my friends. We really NEED to be able to converse with the other side.
    Where is Ralph Nader now that we want to take Money out of Washington?

  3. Thank you for participating in the event! John has really been a wonderful person to get to know this semester. As much of an interest as I have always had in civic engagement it has been nice working with a diverse group of people who have vastly different philosophies on politics to find common ground. Now if we could only get congress to do the same thing!!

    I’m hoping to help John with Provocate once the semester is over help impliment some features that would make it even easier for Indy residents to learn about, and participate in, civic activities and events around town. (I just learned a few weeks ago that he had helped with the American Values Alliance website!)

    The event last night was a good experience in networking and event plannning for a lot of the students who hadn’t had experience speaking or putting together an event. I get the feeling that even after the semester ends I’ll continue to see some of them around town at events which is extremely encouraging.

    I’d like to see more debate style events in the future where we can discuss specific policies and get divergent sides to drop their party-line rhetoric, admit that what’s pragmatic isn’t always popular, and discuss evidence based policy reform. (Yes, I do tend to dream big…) I’m thinking it sounds like a good winter project once I’m done with the semester.

  4. My question is this… Do you question inviting a certain George to engage in conversation- as he is a known troublemaker?

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