Tips for talking to loved ones about democracy

Ernst is a veteran and advocate of democracy related reforms as a member of Veterans for All Voters, recently renamed from Veterans for Political Innovation.

With Thanksgiving sneaking up, most of us look forward to good food and company, but secretly dread the side squabbles about politics and other hot topics. Maybe it starts with a goofy uncle throwing a zinger about the economy, or a know-it-all teenager parroting something they saw online. Before long, people are focused less on gratitude and more on an unwanted political debate where nobody learns anything or changes their mind. Ugh.

If you find yourself in this circumstance, maybe there’s an opportunity to steer things towards a constructive moment. This might be the right time to plant the idea that there actually are some reforms aiming to strengthen our republic’s democratic processes, and thus the things that frustrate them. But the truth is, the vast majority of our neighbors, friends and relatives are still quite unfamiliar with concepts like open primaries or ranked choice voting, or how they connect to the bigger picture of effective governance. If advocates of measures like RCV and open primaries are to ever see these ideas scaled broadly then there’s a lot of small talk that needs to happen over dinner or a drink. One conversation at a time.

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But how do you get started? The problem is – well, what’s the problem? Here are three likely scenarios that may pop up at Thanksgiving or other gatherings with friends and family.

Scenario 1: Someone doesn’t like the state of politics or “the other side” but they think they’ve got it all figured out already. How do you hear them out, and challenge them? There’s a lot to unpack.

Scenario 2: Someone doesn’t like the state of politics but doesn’t really have their thoughts ironed out yet, they just know it’s all terrible. How do you help them and steer them?

Scenario 3: Two people get right at it and their spirited political “debate” is going nowhere good in a hurry. How do you help them both to step back and focus on root causes, not just the symptoms they’re angry about?

Two Ways To Help Reframe The Conversation

Each conversation will always be unique, but here are two suggestions to help you break the ice, illuminate root causes, and open the door for constructive conversation about healthy democracy reforms like RCV and open primaries.

The Five Whys: There’s a simple exercise to help drill down to root causes while preventing a conversation from going down endless rabbit holes. It’s called “The Five Levels of Why,” and it’s as simple as asking the question “why?” five times. Ask them “Why is it that they’re so energized about politician X, policy Y, or hot issue Z?” Let them respond, and then simply ask yet again, “Why is that party or politician able (or not) to do that?” or something along those lines. Let them respond as long as they want. Then ask again, “Why can’t our processes enable / stop that?” You get the point. Somewhere around “Why” #3 or #4 you’ll start to wrestle with how our elected officials are elected, incentivized, and held accountable. Bingo, this is your chance to hypothetically pose if there’s a better way. From there, see where the conversation goes. Even if you don’t convince them of any solution outright, you’re at least helping to connect the dots for them that our flawed democratic processes are the main culprit in why some political problems seem to only be getting worse.

A Riddle To Find Common Ground

If the conversation is just taking a free-flow or is clearly on the wrong track and you’d like to just cut to the chase, then pose a question to bring a new focus. Here are a few tough questions to intrigue people’s investigative curiosity:

1) “Despite enormous disapproval of a probable Trump-Biden rematch, why does it seem unstoppable?”

Key points to bring up:

  • Spoiler effect is rampant. Over 70% of voters want “anyone else,” but will they vote for anyone else? Unlikely. That’s a spoiler effect in action. Primaries, and especially closed primaries, are another root problem.
  • Nowhere does our Constitution enshrine a two-party system. One way to open up beyond the duopoly is to permit people to vote their conscience on third parties and independents. The question is “how?” – cue Ranked Choice Voting.

2) “Uncle Joe, Thanksgiving sure used to be way less intense. Why is it that our nation is slowly getting more and more divided over the past four or more decades?”

Key points to bring up:

  • We can’t blame any one or two administrations… 50+ year trends are systemic. What systems and processes are key?
  • Only 8-10% of voters typically vote in primaries. Why? Closed primaries and too many “safe” gerrymandered districts incentivize rage politics. The angriest candidates generally win. This is “being primaried.”
  • Media and social media are key, but they are often only the messenger and neither the message itself nor the originator. How are politicians and the media both incentivized to take and amplify extreme positions?

Regardless of these two suggestions or if you go a different way, if they can walk away thinking the problem isn’t “the other side” but instead “both of the sides,” or “the whole system,” then you’ve made progress to be proud of. You’ve at least opened the door for them to think about how the duopoly is so entrenched and the need to get after that without forcing ideas down their throat when they’re not quite ready to see how they fit. When you see them again, you’ll have a starting point to work from.

It doesn’t matter if you’re not an expert on all the reforms, or if you’re a volunteer in one of the many organizations out there. The important thing is to be willing to engage those around us. If we all do our part to educate those who are unfamiliar and engage opponents who are likely persuadable, then fixing our system becomes a ‘when’, not ‘if’. Good luck, and we at Veterans For All Voters hope you enjoy your Thanksgiving to the fullest.

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