‘We Don’t Talk About Politics’
We have a problem: we don’t talk about politics. This has harmed us for decades and continues to harm us. Whether or not you engage in discussions of current events you are taking part in a dialogue and making a choice. While we think we’re not talking about politics, politics are talking to us. Do you listen, and do you respond?
If you choose not to decide you still have made a choice!
For much of the previous generation we’ve broke bread and discussed life over the dinner table and sometimes only on special occasions. Now it’s daily and sometimes hourly on social media. For many of us politics and current events can be difficult to navigate and often controlled or off limits, either by mandate or a mutually agreed cold war. Whatever it takes to keep the family or friendships together and get along, often for survival. Acceding to Normalcy Bias, keeping the peace, etc. Sometimes politics may be allowed on a smaller scale, as long as the yelling and hollering doesn’t get too loud.
For an educated populace responsible for a representative democracy this is an insidious dynamic that erodes our ability to govern ourselves via an effective administrative state. Our desire to get along and not be uncomfortable is stronger than our desire to discuss uncomfortable subjects. It’s also a dynamic that is exploited to further disengage us from the political process. We’re being played.
The concept of political narratives or frames has been studied at length. We are bombarded by them in politics, by businesses, and of course by people. Frames can work together to form a more cohesive narrative. Frames can also support other frames indirectly not obviously connected to the original. For this piece I organized them in a fashion of least subversive to most overt in 3 distinct groups.
This list is not exhaustive but there are enough of the various frames to hone in on a key point: these media frames are ever present, continually pushed, evolving. This has been going on for decades and never stops. With the advent of social media, advanced analytic engines, and corporations such as Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, the onslaught of political frames are incessant and ever present. Whether or not you’re talking with Uncle Cletus about Colin Kaepernick dropping the knee, you and Uncle Cletus are constantly being talked to about politics and current events. But it’s not just these corporations or political entities trying to manipulate you: it’s your own friends and family too. At times, knowingly, but many times not. This is because these various frames, these packets of information, are wrapped in packaging that at times may be overt or more subvert. Like a virus packaged with various DNA strands of information. Also like a virus, frames can evolve, or mutate.
Not all of these frames are harmful. Much of it is benign, inconsequential, even entertaining. Of course there are many toxic narratives that are outright rejected by many of us because they are obviously toxic: QAnon, InfoWars conspiracies, Pizzagate. There are many levels of toxicity moving toward the more benign within the political spectrum. It’s these less benign frames that do the most damage to our society and political system. It’s because they are benign and seemingly harmless that they propagate, are transmitted between us, in many cases on a vaguely political or apolitical level. Using the virus analogy, we reject the Ebola level ‘Hard’ frames (most of us do anyway). But the common cold or flu level ‘Mainstream’ frames? We catch them and pass them along. Even those of us who never talk politics or don’t engage with Uncle Cletus.
Many of the 90 million eligible voters that don’t actually vote take part in the conversation and dialogue that affects voting. We talk about and pass these frames along. Most of these frames were created by those who made the Soft or Hard frames but most apolitical people will not pass them along because of the obvious political packaging. They know this: the Soft and Hard frames are for the poltical people and those in the Cult, the True Believers. The Mainstream frames are not overtly aligned with an ideology or political party: they are passed along and accepted on a much larger scale because those of us apathetic or rejecting party politics are more likely to pass them along. This is the problem. These frames are benign on a small scale but immensely damaging on a large scale over a long period of time. The reason they cause damage is because they erode trust in our political system, amplify cynicism, encourage us not to give a shit because it doesn’t matter anyway or ‘it’s just politics.’
Politicians doing bad stuff? Term limits. Of course, we don’t put term limits on doctors or lawyers and definitely not in my profession. Why term limits? Pure laziness and cynicism. Term limits mean we have to actually pay attention and vote every cycle. The worst Mainstream frame is Both Sides. The epitome of cynicism and intellectual laziness, they both suck so what’s the difference. The answer? Don’t vote? You’ve been played.
Who benefits from these frames? The people or orgs who want to maintain power theoretically by low voter turnout and disengagement. The people who denigrate government and public service, who spread conspiracy theories, who criticize public servants not in an objective fashion but with nothing but bad faith narratives and toxic frames, incessantly, for decades. The goal is not to build, to evolve, but to destroy. To make America ‘great’ again.
Where does this leave Uncle Cletus and the political discussion cold war enjoyed over many Thanksgivings because ‘We Don’t Talk Politics?’ It’s clear that, whether you like it or not, you and Cletus are in the game. You may not talk politics but politics is talking to you, and Cletus, all the time. You vote, does Cletus? What about Cousin Larry, who nobody ever hears from and never votes? With no outside influence or media interaction by not voting or participating he has made a choice. That choice is to not participate. That helps the bad guys: Larry doesn’t vote, Cletus votes for the bad guys, you vote for the good guys. This helps those trying to bring down and destroy the system, it does not help the good guys.
You’re in the game whether you like it or not. Does this mean you make war with Uncle Cletus? Not at all. It does mean you have to do something. With Cletus, with Larry. With anybody and everybody, really. One of Saul Alinksy’s Rules for Radicals: don’t be a drag. Building things is much harder than destroying them. It’s a long game. You should advocate, challenge, stand firm, learn, grow, and push others to do the same. You may need to shake things up and have uncomfortable conversations, even make threats: ‘Oh, Cletus, you say racial slurs about our last president, or are misogynist? Unacceptable. I’ll not stand for it nor put up with it.’ This may mean no more Thanksgiving with Cletus. But that’s his fault, not yours. He shall suffer a consequence for his unacceptable worldviews. At least you tried by talking about politics. Move on to the next person.
Martin Luther King wrote of the frustrations with the white moderate in Letters from a Birmingham Jail:
I MUST make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods
of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of
good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection
I’ve heard the lamentations of black folk more than once that the fight for racial justice is not punching Nazis or white hood wearing KKK, it’s at the dinner table with Uncle Cletus when he cracks racist jokes or rants about that Kenyan (deleted) and nobody says anything, or at worst, eyes roll and he gets told to shut up. There is no consequences for him. This is where the fight for justice needs to happen.
We are a moment in time where an obvious fascist with a fanatical fanbase of thugs can complete a slow rolling coup of our democracy. Many fought for and many died to build this country, warts and all. It’s being destroyed right before our eyes daily. The battle is not only at the ballot box, but at the dinner table, the Facebook feed, with the members of your family, your friends, and their acquaintances. We have to talk about politics. People’s lives depend on it. If you aren’t talking to them, remember that somebody else is. All the time.