Politics are perfectly fine for the dinner table

We’ve all heard it before: don’t bring up politics or religion at the dinner table. Every professional development session I’ve been in mentions how to never talk about politics in your occupational life. Even in my college choir, we’re told to never allow political talk when mingling with audience members after a show. (Lest we not forget avoiding politics at family gatherings either.)

Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright pose for“House of Cards” promotional materials

I sympathize with people’s disdain for politics, or what they perceive the essence of politics to be. Washington politicos seem distant, cold, and unreachable. With popular programs like Scandal and House of Cards, the analogy has been made that politics is nothing more than one big game of power. The most pressing issue of all being the hyper-political polarization caused by the 2016 Presidential Election; American’s opinions seem more divided than ever. It is difficult not to get bogged down by the relatively static and closed-off nature of D.C. politics. With the scandalous release of thousands of emails about the Democratic National Convention, it has become more apparent than ever that our elected officials are part of inner circles that regular citizens may never have a say in. Not only that, but it seems as though a regular citizen’s vote has less weight than ever.

What I don’t understand is the routine avoidance of talking about politics. I would assume that the animosity towards elitist, Washington politics would warrant more discussion, unrest, and change. So the question remains: what is it that we fear so fundamentally that we avoid hearty, political discussions?

There are a variety of reservations people have. The first is the assumption that politics and personal ideologies define a person entirely. People avoid political talk because they assume one’s political opinions wholly define a person’s character. There is some truth to this, as years of social psychological research tend to see connections among personality types and political leanings. Although a person’s psyche is not completely responsible for one’s choice of party, it is suggested that some personality traits are more common among one party over the other. Although there are many touchy topics within politics, assuming that political opinions are the only things that make up a person’s character is fallacious and dangerous to constructive conversation. If anything, understanding one’s deeper, psychological reasons for why they think society should be run a certain way is actually beneficial when sparking those political conversations.

Secondly, people feel like because they don’t have a fully fleshed opinion, that they don’t have a right to speak. This corresponds with another fear: not being knowledgeable enough. One doesn’t need to be a Socratic Scholar to assert an opinion or participate in political conversations. It’s the attitude that one has to be an authority on certain topics in order to speak on them that leads to this apathy for civic discourse. I resonate with these fears, as sometimes I feel hesitant to speak when I’m not fully informed on a topic. I do not advocate doing no research whatsoever, but just because I don’t know every exact anecdote or statistic for a political issue does not mean I should be excluded from having an opinion on it.

There are consequences to these attitudes and fears. These fears to speaking out politically have been ingrained into our notions of what is polite to the point that our democracy, which was built upon civic discourse, is becoming inaccessible. The social standard that politics are impolite further perpetuates the isolationist nature of D.C. happenings. Fearing dissent and debate for the sake of being courteous hurts our democracy.

It may be a cliché, but what if the Founders of our country would have decided to stay complacent and cordial in the face of injustice? They too saw themselves at a turning point in governmental affairs. The 2016 election has repeatedly emphasized themes of discontent with the current order. Both Trump and Sanders supporters have a distaste for establishment politicians and seek some sort of revolutionary change. Actually, we’re not all that different from names like Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton.

Bernie Sanders at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia (Reuters, 2016)

When we think of the Constitutional Convention and our Founding Fathers, we idealize them. We imagine them as these shining, wig-wearing beacons of philosophy whose every utterance followed parliamentary procedure. Well-versed in classical Latin and Western philosophy, the Founding Fathers debated relentlessly and vehemently. As revolutionaries high off of their shocking act of rebellion against the Crown, they saw no need for courtliness in discourse. George Washington, who loathed political parties or factions, even found difficulty in handling the violent discourse that occurred between his Secretary of State (Jefferson) and his Treasury Secretary (Hamilton). Ron Chernow, author of Hamilton, describes Washington, “In Washington’s view, enlightened politicians tried to transcend those interests and uphold the commonweal.” Chernow depicts an early democracy where the leaders in the highest offices constantly took jabs at one another in the most vicious ways. They were profoundly split on key issues, yet did not back away from a debate with one another. Thus it is evident, even from the beginning, that our country is shaped and maintained by fierce discourse.

It might be safe to say that this trend of political avoidance is relatively new. New in the sense that younger generations are more hesitant than ever to participate, voice their opinions, and most importantly vote. It is no secret that the 65 and older crowd tends to dominate voter turnout demographics, whereas the 18–26 range lacks significantly. In fact, national voter turnout rates in 2014 reported the lowest overall turnout since World War II. In my home state of Indiana, only 28%, a little more than a quarter, of the population voted.

Young people are just as disillusioned by Washington antics as the general population. However, with more of their lives still ahead of them, they feel the existential dread of their political actions more tangibly than any generation. But the younger generations are not satisfied by voting alone. “A long-running European survey found that in 2008, 22% of French 15- to 24-year-olds said they believed society’s problems could be fixed only by revolutionary action.” These findings could not be more relevant with the rise of Bernie Sanders and his rhetoric about the revolution he promises for America. Put simply, young people only see a revolution as the solution. But of course, with the bureaucratic nature of the government alongside a sophisticated system of checks and balances, a revolution like we’ve seen in history is difficult to fathom.

However, there’s one power that both young people and Americans have not tapped into: the power of words. The power of serious political discussions. Whether you’re talking with your friends or debating with a classmate, letting your words and idea rebound off one another is the only way our democracy can move forward. When people talk and are willing to debate with one anther, they create an infrastructure for the free flow of expressions and ideas. This is why we have the First Amendment; people needed to be able to talk freely for the sake of improving society. When voices, and I mean many voices, begin to realize that political discussions are okay, then we can all be heard.

Lin Manuel-Miranda as Alexander Hamilton in “Hamilton”

There is hope for the future. The Sanders-led political revolution, although somewhat muddled by the nomination of Hillary Clinton, opened up the floor for impassioned discussions among those in younger age categories. From Twitter to debate podiums, people realized it was okay to diverge from establishment politics and to assert their true opinions. The smash musical hit Hamilton cleverly used history as a vehicle to show the power of political dissent. The story of Alexander Hamilton is a tour de force, gleaming with examples of just how important having political conversations are for the well-being of a country. Bringing the niche, young theatre community face-to-face with political themes that still ring true today, more people than ever are feeling the zeal of politics. From these examples and more we can see that change is occurring. People are realizing that indeed, politics plays a role in our everyday lives and should be discussed by all, not just the D.C. elites.

We must stop avoiding politics like the plague because we do ourselves, and our country, a disfavor. You don’t have to love political topics nor do you have to constantly talk about them. However, shying away from political problems and meaningful discussions for the sake of being polite is a societal attitude that we must work to eliminate. If we continue this trend, future generations will think it’s okay to subvert core problems that hurt our democracy. Washington D.C. will become more distant, unreachable, and less malleable. Conversely, if we work to open up the discussion for all people, regardless if they are a law professor or a student in middle school, then we can usher in change that will eventually shape our future society.

So next Thanksgiving dinner, don’t cause a civil war within your family. However if the opportunity arises, salvage it and open the floor to a lively and civil discussion.