Letter From the Chair

by Noam Livnat

And so, just like that, the election season is behind us. There is much to marvel at with the American way of choosing our leaders: how personal the process is, how vibrant the circus becomes, or the marvels of the now ubiquitous and permanent absentee status. There’s nothing quite like the American process anywhere, but there’s something else that’s very different: Americans don’t talk politics.

It’s kind of odd, really. By and large, Americans are good conversationalists: they are up-beat, well spoken and polite, and can talk about almost anything. Anything but politics, that is. This is in marked contrast to many places around the world where discussing or, as likely, arguing, shouting, or bickering over politics often appears to be a national pastime. It’s not uncommon to overhear heated political arguments in smoky European cafés or political jabs exchanged over backgammon boards in the Middle East. My childhood memories are infused with endless political discussion – arguments, really – around the dinner table at holidays with various family members wagging fingers every which way.

While not talking politics certainly helps keeping everything on an even keel, away from emotional discussions, it also robs us of some valuable things in life. First, if done properly, there’s the sheer joy of going at it with somebody who views the world differently. It’s exhausting, but at least you’re always a winner: if you can make the other person see things your way, you’re clearly a Churchill-class orator. If not, your sophisticated, well-founded opinion is obviously beyond the grasp of the boorish opposition. After a heated political debate with a Frenchman in a small town in Laos, for instance, I realized that I was not a Churchill-caliber debater. Second, hearing the other side is illuminating. The friends, colleagues, and neighbors we appreciate appear smart and sane in all other respects, right? It’s not a huge leap of faith to assume that there’s some logic behind their potentially different political opinions, logic that could be informative and, in the very least, explain why they act the way they do.

The Great Sorting – the process in which Americans separate themselves physically along political lines by drifting into politically homogeneous neighborhoods, cities, and counties – is currently a fashionable discussion topic. That separation and the lack of contact it breeds with the “other side” have been shown to breed extremism on both sides of the political spectrum. Political conversations, it turns out, can help bring us closer together. Who would have thought that arguing with your neighbors would be a good thing?

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