What Teaching Argument Taught Me About Talking Politics

Although I fancy myself an amateur city planner with dreams of working in the professional back-up dancer field, I actually spend ten months of each year teaching writing for a living. In my fourteen years in the classroom, I’ve presented hundreds of lessons on principles of argument. Good old Aristotle, dear Carl Rogers, and wise Stephen Toulmin are my traveling companions each semester, and each semester, I pop in a mix tape of their greatest persuasion hits, some of which you may even recall: logos, pathos, ethos, claim, reason, grounds, warrant, backing, empathic listening, remember?

Students may not recognize the notes at first, but I hope some of them are humming along to “Genuine argument requires reasonable participants” by the end of the term. We have fun in class (and I must note that my definition of fun does not always line up with my students, obviously; one young man told me last year that he felt duped by the way I described Toulmin’s audience-based reason protocol as “fascinating,” since it bored him stiff) by brainstorming the many ways people seek to persuade. Oh, students know those tricks by heart! Bribery, threats, guilt, false promises, sex appeal, reward, celebrity endorsements, and so on. They get it, too, that argument, an attempt to persuade through reason, exists on a different, higher plane than those other baser, more common, more-effective-in-the-short-term strategies.

During an election year, there are no shortage of examples of political persuasion, some more reasonable than others. While I don’t envy the prominent politician’s impossible task of pleasing all audiences all the time, I definitely do not recommend my students follow that example in their own attempts at argument. In the real non-Super PAC, robo-ad world we live in, an ability to compromise, to synthesize, to empathize goes a long way toward changing minds, or at least opening ears. And here’s the real truth about argument, persuasion, changing minds, talking politics, et al: people already believe what they believe. And they see what they believe. And they look for what they believe. Even the undecided voters. Even me. Especially me. We make decisions, all of us, from that deep, personal, and even at times mysterious to us place that Toulmin called the warrant: a worldview stew with our culture, sexual orientation, gender, work experience, religious beliefs, family of origin, education, age, geography, race, and language … and more (!) as ingredients.

Our only hope to connect to people who do not share our unique view of the world (which is mostly everyone, give or take a whole bunch of people, if you’re un/lucky enough to live in a place with lots of people just like you) is to build on common ground. To articulate shareable assumptions. To build bridges from warrant to warrant. To suss out similarities of value and priority. To identify shared goals. To find something to agree on!

In light of this talk I talk (“be reasonable, y’all, not fanatical!”), I thought it might be useful – and perhaps difficult – to walk the walk of common ground genesis with regards to the election this week, and I thought it would be interesting, at least to me, to retrace some of the steps of my own political development.

I came of voting age in the same college town where I now teach college writing. It was 1992. I was wearing Doc Martens and boy, was I stressed out by all of it. My Minnesota upbringing had in many ways left me woefully underprepared for the culture of the South that I now found myself living in. For starters, the racism was abundant. I was shocked, shocked, I tell you!, at the language people used. We didn’t say such things in Minnesota, I kept announcing primly, which annoyed everyone. “It’s because you’re all the same up there,” said one friend, which was not true and not not true either. My high school class was pretty homogenous, as white as, um, uh, well, uh, as a gallon of homogenized milk.

Texas was different, and in between those differences, sharper and more intense than any I had seen before up close, arose hearty weeds of contention. This new place made it hard to me to find my footing, and in my young idealism, I believed that I needed to vote for the candidate who shared my belief in the sanctity of life. And so yes, I cast my first presidential election vote for George H. W. Bush. Four years later, I again felt compelled to vote for the pro-life candidate, though I was starting to notice that my candidate selection process was lacking in nuance. Helped by my personal disappointment in Clinton’s conduct as a husband, Bob Dole got my vote.

But four years later, my thinking had changed. I decided that I had given two votes for the traditional pro-life position, but in light of my own shifting definitions of what it meant to be pro-life and my total lack of faith in the promised compassionate conservatism my governor was offering at the national level (though admittedly, I didn’t dislike him in Austin, not at all, even though I had voted for his opponent Ann Richards) and a clear recognition that I was, in fact, a liberal, I threw my lot in with the wooden, internet-inventing Gore. (Wink!)

The 2000 election was the first time I felt like I was voting my own views. My then husband cast his vote for Nader, something I had to whisper to a friend at church, I was so sure people would scream when they found out, and the two of us stayed up in the wee hours of that November night, partly because we had a new baby, and also because the election return story had just become a whole lotta craz-ee! When he woke me up the next morning and broke the no-news-news, I cried. By the time 2004 election rolled around, I was ready to take back my country, having already lost too much sleep the previous election. I can even admit, as I did then, that I actually liked Kerry. I liked his WASP-y ness, his professorial air, his snoozy demeanor. I found his bookish rambling quite appealing, even though I can see how his whole New England legacy vibe didn’t translate as well in other less autumnal regions.

During the course of that election in particular, I learned what it feels like to support a candidate that no one else in a tri-county region seems to be supporting. My Kerry sign was the only one for blocks and blocks… and maybe miles. Surrounded by what seemed an impenetrable fortress of Re-elect Bush signs, I felt keenly the sting of a solitary opinion. I know for certain that living in one of the most conservative counties in the U.S. of A. has pulled me to the left, so I understand how some of my conservative friends who live in more liberal areas might feel when they look around their neighborhoods in a kind of political sign memory game and are unable to make a match with the yard sign in their own front lawn. I get, too, how many conservative friends just one want answer, just one! and it’s to this question: how are we supposed to pay for all of the *this*?!??!

As a Mormon who knows, loves, and worships with lots of Mormons who love Mitt Romney (a recent news article pegged the number of liberal Mormons at around a slim 17%), I know what it feels like to be a bystander at a parade listening to everyone else ooh and aah at the fine velvet cloth and the sable trimmings on His Majesty’s royal robes while it’s clear as a doctor’s laser to me that the emperor is stark naked! Hero worship happens on both sides, for sure, and Obama critics, especially those who live in blue states, probably find it tiresome to witness the adulation of what seems to them a very mediocre commander in chief. Those kinds of parades are surreal, aren’t they? I get that. Believe me, I get that. Makes a woman want to take a sharp pin and pop some balloons!

And I understand the seething frustration that accompanies the fear of what an incompetent-in-my-view incumbent might do with another four years in the Oval Office (see Election, 2004, also filed under Rage, Insane). I wanted Bush out in 2004. I wanted it so bad, I could barely taste food for several weeks after the election. I was angry at my neighbors, angry at ward friends, angry at the nation for not voting out someone I thought had made a hash of it. I get what that frustration feels like. It’s distressing. It eats up one’s equanimity, or at least it ate mine for some time. We care because we care! We get mad about candidates because we value what the election means, right?

In 2006, still angry, I had the chance to listen to Barack Obama speak at the Texas Capitol. His speech, filled with the compelling, steady rhetoric of hope that later worked so well on the campaign trail went a long way toward healing my animosity. I saw how Americans vote in pendulum swings. I observed that people hadn’t completely given way to cynicism. And I allowed myself to let go of some of mine. I have willfully refused to grab onto more during this election season, mostly because I know what it does to me. I have definitely felt angry about certain issues. (And yes, I have allowed myself to rant at least three times to my dad.) I have been baffled by other election issues and the responses to them. The debates rankled me, so I stopped watching. The internet memes sometimes pressed a button, so I learned to breathe deeper. And I managed to hold onto that equanimity.

I’ve also held onto that hunch that a campaign, no matter how long and painfully expensive it is, probably isn’t going to change the bedrock, gut level place most of us vote from. So even though I want to yell and scream how important it is that my son, a type 1 diabetic, have protections against pre-existing condition insurance clauses so that someday HE CAN GET A JOB, I don’t. Even though I want to shout out that marriage shouldn’t be the business of the federal government and that claims that Biblical marriage needs to be protected don’t work with me, mostly because I HAVE READ THE OLD TESTAMENT, I don’t. And even though I think that corporations have a nasty, weird, almost sci-fi way of somehow relieving people of all stripes of their need to or ability to act as independent agents with consciences, I wouldn’t spit at the Supreme Court justices were they to walk into my living room.

Because that kind of anger just isn’t persuasive.

Don’t get me wrong about anger though … Anger is important. Anger is completely justified in many situations. I’m not suggesting a kind of plastic congeniality that we wear like masks day in, day out. I think advocates and activists do necessary, noble work. People need to care. People need to wake up to the way that corporate interests, err, “people” on both sides have co-opted the election process. And then those of us people with human bodies need to adjust our settings to better see what’s really at stake, as many of my blue AND red friends have. I would gently suggest that people need to stop making women’s bodies political landscapes period. Period. At all. Ever. Starting now. But we need conservatives and liberals in this country. We do, absolutely. We need checks and balances, now more than ever. We need a diversity of opinion. We need somebody to balance the checkbook. We do not need political echo chambers. We need to care more, not less, but without caricature.

But people also need to see that in our advocacy and our activism, an ability to also create common ground, in addition to the troop rallying, is needed, to see that the neighbor with a Ron Paul bumper sticker on his truck and the storeowner with a Romney-Ryan sign in his window and the college student at the bus stop wearing an Obama t-shirt all want plenty of the same things – to be healthy, prosperous, safe, free, and happy.