I have been reading, studying, practicing, and blogging about interpersonal political conversation techniques for going on a year now. Talking politics: If we don’t learn how, our American civic discourse will consist of nothing but political messages crafted on Madison Avenue to promote the interests of those who are wealthy enough to purchase them.
After he spoke tonight at the Economic Democracy Conference in Madison, I asked John Nichols a question, based on an assumption that he shared my sense of the value of talking politics with our friends and neighbors.
With that, I knew that Nichols knew what he was talking about. I’ve posted before about the futility of expecting that one conversation will change anyone’s mind about anything.
It just doesn’t happen. So what is the point?
Nichols likened our efforts at person-to-person political conversation to his grandmother’s quilting.
“We have to recognize that each of these conversations is part of a fabric,” he said. When his grandmother starts a quilt, he said, “You know it’s going to be something like eight feet square when she’s done. That’s a daunting task.” Not one of those squares is going to have made a quilt when she puts down her needle each evening.
“But day after day, she brings in little pieces of fabric, thread. And someday—weeks, months after she begins—there is an exquisite quilt.”
That is a great way to think of our political conversations. We’re not going win a convert with every conversation, but we are going to add something of value to the overall dialogue. We’re not going to plant our beliefs in someone else’s mind, but we are going to build relationships with fellow citizens—relationships that are essential to sharing responsibility for self-government.
Some of our political conversations will be small patches in a quilt. Others might be more like seeds. When you walk away from the garden on planting day, it’s just as much of a plain old dirt patch as when you started. No visible difference at all. But a few months later…
Yesterday in a Facebook group about election integrity, we were discussing some good/bad news from Palm Beach County, Florida. The bad news is that a computer miscounted votes, causing election officials to certify the loser as the winner in a city council election. The good news is that the county’s Supervisor of Elections, Susan Bucher, and her team discovered the mistake and corrected the error a few days after the election. Most elections in most counties with computer-counted votes never audit the results and never know whether the machine counted correctly. Bucher and Palm Beach County are the exception, not the rule.
One of my Facebook friends noted that he had been at a meeting with Bucher in May 2011 and had talked with her about voting machines’ unreliability. He wrote that Bucher at that time “objected strongly and took great offense, saying her system was foolproof, and was very condescending and dismissive of my solution as to how the problem could be fixed if election officials wanted to.”
Of course, none of us know for sure, but it’s quite possible my Facebook friend’s chat with the Palm Beach County Supervisor of Elections—as badly as it went at the time—got her thinking, maybe paying a little more attention to information about voting machines’ vulnerabilities. Maybe that conversation helped to pique her curiosity to do more audits than required—and maybe saved democracy in one election in one county.
“Keep working at it, and not just at election time,” was Nichols’ message. We and our fellow citizens are “marinated in political propaganda” from the mass media. However frustrating it might be from day to day, we need to engage in person-to-person politics—political conversation—if we are to defend and save democracy.